I want to continue on the theme of “afflicting the soul” or “self-denial.” The prophet Isaiah expanded the meaning of what it means to afflict the soul when he defines the kind of “fast” that God desires. The text of Isaiah 58:6-7 reads:
Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free And break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry And bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
It is tempting to understand this passage as simply teaching that religious activity in and of itself does not please God. It must be accompanied by actions that reflect the character of God. While this is good and true, it also seems to be broadening the meaning of self-denial.” We usually think of self denial in terms of how it affects my own life. I deny a pleasure and it helps me in my relationship with God. This is true. However, the text seems to also be saying that it is not good enough to be thinking of ourselves when we “afflict the soul.” He is telling us that if we re going to deny ourselves, it should somehow benefit the vulnerable people around us. Perhaps he is saying that fasting has its place, but let us deny ourselves for the sake of others. If we are going to fast, perhaps we could give food to a homeless shelter or a bag of groceries to a needy friend. This is an important idea to explore. If we are going to really make a difference in the community and at the same time find our delight in God we need to be thinking of ways that we can deny ourselves for the benefit of the community.
It is interesting to note that when Yeshua quoted Isaiah 61 when he began his ministry he repeated much of the sentiment of Isaiah 58. He said,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, And recovery of sight to the blind, To set free those who are downtrodden… (Luke 4:17)
As followers of the Messiah of Israel, should we not deny ourselves in the same way as Messiah? Should we not afflict our souls by bringing release to others? This is something that is important to consider as we begin a new year.
According to Isaiah, the result of this kind of “fast” is “And the LORD will continually guide you, And satisfy your desire in scorched places, And give strength to your bones; And you will be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water whose waters do not fail. (Isaiah 58:11)
Is this not what we really desire? May we begin to engage in the spiritual disciplines that will bring forth the glory of God as well as our own satisfaction.