There is an interesting passage in Isaiah, in which God turns the tables on us and reminds us of the truer purpose of fasting. The key verses come in Isaiah 58, but in order to see them in context, let’s first consider the whole passage.
Thus says the Lord GOD: Cry out full-throated and unsparingly, lift up your voice like a trumpet blast; Tell my people their wickedness, and the house of Jacob their sins. They seek me day after day, and desire to know my ways, like a nation that has done what is just and not abandoned the law of their God; They ask me to declare what is due them, pleased to gain access to God. Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?
Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, and drive all your laborers. Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting, striking with wicked claw. Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high! Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes? Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; Your vindication shall go before you, and 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! (Is 58:1-9)
At the heart of this passage is the essential complaint of God’s people: Why do we fast, and you do not see it? Afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it? In other words, why aren’t you listening to us? We’re praying, fasting, and abstaining, but we’re not getting what we ask!
God is not deaf; neither is He blind. He is not unware of what is being asked and sought. The purpose of fasting and other such mortifications is not to get God’s attention; He hears us just fine. Rather, the purpose is to get us to hear and better understand what God seeks of us. Fasting is meant to help us to pay better attention to God. Its goal is to make room for God in our busy lives.
God continues on to teach the ancient Jews and us that there is absolutely no problem with his hearing, but rather with ours. He says to them, in effect (paraphrasing His remarks from above),
Listen, you come to me as if you are just and have carefully followed my ways but it doesn’t seem as if you’ve heard a word I’ve said. There is wickedness, quarrelling, fighting, and selfish ambition among you. There is injustice and neglect of the poor and needy. You claim to be seeking my ways, but I have already told them to you repeatedly. Are you deaf? You know what I have told you. But you do not do it.
True fasting will open the ears of your memory and draw forth obedience from your hearts. I am not deaf, such that fasting will suddenly make me hear you. No, fasting does not make me hear; it helps you to hear.
So listen to what I have been teaching you. May your fasting help you to hear. May it soften your hearts to say ‘yes,’ limber your stiffened necks to obey. Fasting is for you, not for me.
The truest answer to your many prayers is already contained in what I have taught you to do. If you listen and obey it, light shall break forth for you. Your many wounds will be healed and you will experience victories over enemies and over every temptation.
If you would just listen, you would see that the answer to your prayers is already among you. Allow fasting to help you to see and hear and know that I have already answered you. Fasting will unstop your hearts and obedience will release your blessings.
And so it is that God teaches us the truer purpose of fasting. It is not to get God to hear, but to get us to hear, listen, and obey.
Do not fast and abstain in order to be heard and to get God to do your will; do so in order to hear and better do God’s will.
Here is a performance of In Jejunio et fletu (In fasting and tears), written by English composer Thomas Tallis: