During this season of Lent you may have been participating in some of the church’s ancient rhythms and traditions by praying, fasting, or giving up something that you love. Others take something up, such as gratitude journaling or other beneficial spiritual practices. But one other traditional Lenten practice that gets a little less spotlight is the practice of almsgiving, or giving to the needy.
We can easily see the provenance of the tradition of fasting, as it echoes Jesus’ 40-day fast in the wilderness prior to beginning his public ministry. But we tend to view our Lenten fasting and praying and sacrifices only as contributors to our own personal spiritual development — which it does, and that’s a very good thing! — without pausing to consider that Jesus engaged in these practices in order to prepare himself for the mission of God. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. How could we use these practices in our lives as preparatory to missional, gospel-centered living?
In Isaiah 58, the people are crying out to God in frustration, “Why have we fasted, and You have not seen? Why have we humbled ourselves, and You have not noticed?” (3). The people were feeling the way we sometimes feel. We are following all the rules, we are going to church and checking all our boxes, so why are things not going right for us, God? We were expecting different outcomes based on our good behavior!
God has an answer ready:
“Behold, on the day of your fast, you do as you please,
and you oppress all your workers.
You fast with contention and strife
to strike viciously with your fist.
You cannot fast as you do today
and have your voice be heard on high.
Is this the fast I have chosen:
a day for a man to deny himself,
to bow his head like a reed,
and to spread out sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast
and a day acceptable to the LORD?
Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen:
to break the chains of wickedness,
to untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and tear off every yoke?
Isn’t it to share your bread with the hungry,
to bring the poor and homeless into your home,
to clothe the naked when you see him,
and not to turn away
from your own flesh and blood?”
God is very clear in scripture about what he values and prioritizes, and therefore what we should value and prioritize. James tells us: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (1:27), and Paul says, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (Gal. 5:6, NIV). God tells his people that they can deny themselves and make a big public show of their spiritual devotion all they like, but at the end of the day if they’re not helping the marginalized and oppressed people around them, what is the point?
God is not interested in our self-serving religiosity. Should we pray and fast? Of course! Should we seek to become more spiritually mature through studying scripture and discipleship? Absolutely! We are given these instructions throughout scripture as well, and indeed no spiritual journey can be completed without them. But the many writers of the Bible make it clear that all of our study and striving after God is useless if it does not result in recognizable, tangible change in our lives. If we are truly filled with the Holy Spirit, the fruit of the spirit will be increasingly evident in our lives. There’s just no way around it. This is not to say, of course, that any of us will behave perfectly but that we will become more and more Christlike as we press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. If you claim to love Jesus but don’t have any love for his people, others can only wonder at your sincerity.
And God makes us a promise. There is great blessing to be found in living a gospel-centered life that puts value and priority on those in need around us. God goes on in Isaiah 58:
Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will come quickly.
Your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry out, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you remove the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger and malicious talk,
and if you give yourself to the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted soul,
then your light will go forth in the darkness,
and your night will be like noonday.
The LORD will always guide you;
He will satisfy you in a sun-scorched land
and strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins;
you will restore the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of the Breach,
Restorer of the Streets of Dwelling.
These promises directly follow verse 7, where God is defining a fast that is acceptable to him, one that involves breaking the chains of wickedness, setting the oppressed free, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and sharing with the poor and homeless. Then, God says, and only then, will you light break forth like the dawn. The poetic imagery is beautiful, but no more so than the reality of a follower of Christ serving meals at a homeless shelter or engaging with organizations that fight human trafficking and modern day slavery.
Don’t you want to be like a well-watered garden, like a drink of cool, fresh water to those who are thirsty and lost in the wilderness of this world? I do. I want everyone I encounter to feel the refreshment of the Holy Spirit in their lives through me. What might that look like for you? Who are the marginalized and oppressed people in your context? What is one small, tangible need you can meet today? My prayer for us all today and tomorrow and each day moving forward is that we would look for and see ways to participate in God’s ongoing restoration of all creation.