Is this the kind of fast I have chosen?

A meditation on Isaiah 58

For as long as I have been a Christian  (and for some time before) I have been in churches where people have been ‘hungry for revival’. We still sing songs about it. The more adventurous go around the world looking for it, and the rest of us pray for it to come. We’ve tried everything.

We’ve prayed, praised, interceded, prophesied, been slain, worshiped professionally, rejected our personal sin and we have fasted. We’ve read and written books and sermons, tried to convince ourselves that we were finally righteous enough, repentant enough, theologically correct enough for God to draw near us. We are eager for that.

We want our voices to be heard on high. We want healing, we want righteousness, we want our light to break forth like the very dawn! We want God to be so near, to guide us, to satisfy our needs, to strengthen our frames and find our joy in the Lord. To feast on the inheritance we keep reading about as a promise.


We want it so badly, but what do we do? We worship earnestly, passionately, with abandon. But we worship for ourselves. All I want is for God to show me he loves me, to forgive me, to inhabit me. I want him to make me pure and I want to thank him for removing the stain of my sin. I sing songs about the great things God has done for me and can do for the world and then I walk out of church.

It’s not that i forget God or become ashamed. I don’t. It’s just that I am, we are so focused on that personal relationship with God that the world does not exist. We have become so obsessed with ‘me and God’ that all we can offer, as we leave the church (having worshiped in our beautiful clothes and fashionable shoes, having given money to coffers that will be spent on a new sound system, new carpets, a new kitchen, all for us) is words.


And words are not primarily what a world like ours needs. To be sure it needs them, too. Words of truth, speaking of salvation. For sure. But who the hell will listen to us when we are so clearly out of touch with reality? We sing songs about how God owns all of us, and we lie. Because we spend half our lives at work and the proceeds of that work go…where? To us. Our homes, our food, our clothes, our entertainment budgets. Our savings. And a small percentage to charity. Tithe. We claim to believe in the infallibility of a Bible that tells us that if we fail to feed the hungry, we are failing the Son of God, directly and we think it appropriate to spend ‘our’ money (by accident of birth, education or good parenting) the way we do.

We waste our lives on trivialities and the triviality has infected our church. We are so conformed to the thinking of this world, our minds so unrenewed, that we genuinely think of the luxuries and excesses that surround our daily lifestyles as ‘needs’, and dare to sing and speak of dying to self.


And we pray. We pray earnestly, for God to draw near and make his and our light shine. We feel alone in our failure to keep Him manifest without the effort of self-convincing and soft music.


But read what he says: “Day after day they seek me out. They seem eager to know my ways… yet on the day of your fasting you do as you please and exploit all your workers…” Our society, in the global middle class, is built on the poverty of others. You cannot have as much as we have without it having been taken from someone else, not in the real world. And no amount of fair-trade chocolate can make up for that.

We think “humbling ourselves”, like “bent reeds” is what God wants. But this is what he wants: “to loose the chains of injustice… to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.” Do we really believe, truly believe, that we can do that by singing in our churches? By attending Bible study? By having the thirtieth discussion about the end times or homosexuality or, irony of ironies, revival?

God says something more practical:  “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe him.”

The Devil will tell you you do not have enough. The Devil will encourage you to call a television an essential, a house in a nice suburb a basic of life and to do your accounts with that in mind. That way we can always disobey, in the name of ‘being reasonable’, retaining enough wealth to sit back in our comfy chairs, behind high fences, as the city burns, and talk about ‘being radical for Christ’.

But God tells you to “spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed.” This is the way, he says, for “your night to rise in the darkness and your night become like noonday.” And it is natural to doubt him. Natural to believe that this is too hard, too much, too scary. But if we choose not to believe him then we have to stop lying in our prayers, lying in our songs, lying in our theologies of faith and total surrender.


I am not good at fasting. I am terrified of moving to a lifestyle in which I really am dead to myself and alive to the Christ of Matthew 25. But I read the words of Isaiah 58 and watch films like The End Of Poverty? and I know that there is more to be done than inviting my friends to an Alpha Course, worthy as that is.


What gives me hope is that God seems to be saying that all the things I want, spiritually and emotionally from God, the greater victories and stronger sense of his constant presence,  are right there among the poor and oppressed whom I have been trying to ignore. But words are easy.