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Isaiah 58

Chapter Fifty-eight:

v. 2:  The NRSV says, “[D]ay after day they seek me and delight to know my ways…,” and “…they delight to draw near to God.”  Out of context, these words could describe people who love God, but in the context of this chapter they clearly describe hypocrites.  The people here do not delight to draw near to God because they love him but because they want things from him and because they want to seem righteous to others.  Note in vs.3-4 how cruelly they treat those who are in their power.  As John says in 1st John 4:20-21, those who love God also love their brothers and sisters.  While the people these hypocrites are abusing may not be their blood relatives, I think the principle still applies.  Note also in v. 5 how they make external shows of “piety” and suffering.  I wonder if Jesus had this passage in mind when he said, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting” (Matthew 6:16).

Of course it is right to want things from God.  In fact, I believe one of the main reasons for fasting is to show God the intensity of our desire for something.  Note, for example, David’s fast in 2nd Samuel 12:16. However, the desire for this thing should never be greater than our love for God.  There is a parallel in the mortal relationships we form with each other; we may want things from those we love, but these things are insignificant compared to the relationships themselves.

There are many reasons to fast.  One, as I said above, is to show God the intensity of our desire for something. Another is to free up more time than we would normally have to devote to prayer.  Another may be to discipline our physical appetites more strictly for a set period of time so that we can govern them more easily when we are not fasting.  I believe another purpose of fasting is to sharpen our focus.  I am not saying that fasting in itself (physiologically) will make our thinking clearer (although many people do believe this, perhaps correctly).  What I am saying is that during the period of a fast, the fasting itself should serve as a constant reminder that we are seeking something from God, and this, in turn, should remind us that he also earnestly wants something from us: our love and obedience.  I know that we should always strive to have this sort of awareness in prayer even when we are not fasting, but I do not think it is possible, in actual practice, to do it.  As crude as it sounds, I believe fasting has the potential to heighten our awareness for a period of time by motivating us not to waste the suffering that we are undergoing during the fast.  The thought that we are suffering for nothing because our hearts are not right might strengthen our normal attempts to be good.  It might make us more introspective, bringing us to a clearer understanding of our sins, and leading us to repentance.  Thus, while I think the admonition in this chapter is for hypocrites who really do not love God and have no sincere desire to be good, I think it also has application for those who do love God and want to please him.

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