“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say,
Here I am. (Isaiah 58:3-9, NRSV)

“What are you going to give up for Lent?” We like to choose our fasts. Something not too onerous. Something that won’t get in the way of life, like, make us actually hungry. Something others will notice. Still, some kind of fast will put us in God’s good graces, right?

According to Isaiah, there is good fasting and there is bad fasting. Acceptable or not. Fasting that is ignored by God or fasting that brings a springing up of healing and a breaking forth of light—a vindication from God and an answer to every cry for help.

Acceptable fasting is not self-seeking. It is not to be seen—it is hidden. It is not to obtain something from God—it is to give. It is not to lose weight—it is to shed sin. It is not a piece of jewelry to adorn the appearance—it is sackcloth and ashes. It is bitter. It is bowed down.

Acceptable fasting does not serve our own desires. Instead, it serves others. The spirit that is bitter and bowed down in itself turns outward. It sees injustice and oppression. It sees poverty and need—and its heart breaks. It serves in whatever way it can. Acceptable fasting is not chosen, it is wrenched from us.

Do you want to choose your own fast this Lent? Don’t do it. Fast the fast that the Lord chooses for you:

  • bow your head like a bulrush
  • repent of your self-seeking in humility
  • seek the good of others:
    • fight against injustice
    • work for freedom for those who are oppressed
    • invite the homeless into your house for a meal
    • relieve the needy

What might it mean for you to spend forty days in repentance and fasting and seeking the good of others? You know your situation. You can sense your call. Rededicate yourself to serving God and serving others.

Yes, abstaining from food can remind you to seek not your own needs but the needs of others. Each time you feel a hunger pang, repent. Find a way to serve someone else’s needs as though they were your own. See if God doesn’t meet your true needs from his own hand. Test him on this.

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of ccel.org and hymnary.org.