Last week marked the beginning of Lent. Many Christians—including a growing number of generally non-liturgical evangelicals—observe the forty-day period preceding Easter as a somber time to fast, repent, and prepare to remember Christ’s death and, ultimately, celebrate his resurrection. Some fast from luxuries like chocolate, coffee, or watching television. Such fasting can be a valuable spiritual discipline, to be sure, but Scripture also warns us that fasting is of little value if we do so while concurrently ignoring God’s call to seek justice and to care for the vulnerable.
God spoke to his people through the prophet Zechariah, questioning the motivation of their traditional fast:
When you fasted and mourned in the fifth and seventh months for the past seventy years, was it really for me that you fasted?…
This is what the LORD Almighty says:
“Administer true justice;
show mercy and compassion to one another.
Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor.
In your hearts do not think evil of each other” (Zechariah 7:5, 9-10).
Because they refused to obey his repeated commands to seek justice and to care for the vulnerable—the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant—God refused to hear their prayers, despite their fasting and religious ceremony (Zechariah 7:11-13). On another occasion, God refused to notice the people’s somber fasting or to respond to their prayers because, as he told them through the prophet Isaiah, “on the day of your fasting you do as you please and exploit all your workers” (Isaiah 58:3).
At its best, the Lenten season is a time of penitence—to repent of our sins, to remember the depths of our sinfulness and the greatness of God’s grace—and to seek greater intimacy with God through prayer and fasting. If that does not seem to be working, though—if God seems distant, despite going through all the religious motions—perhaps we need to seriously search our hearts, to consider if we need to repent of our complicity in broken structures that oppress the poor and the immigrant whom God says are his concern. We might need to inform ourselves about the hidden realities of our economy, which permit us to enjoy cheap produce, well-manicured lawns, and affordable meals out because of the labor of undocumented immigrants who, in most cases, earn very low wages and pay Social Security and Medicare taxes to subsidize elderly American citizens even though they will never be eligible to benefit from these programs. We need to honestly assess whether we’re being faithful to the sort of true fasting to which God calls us:
Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe him,
and not to turn away from your flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7)
If and only if we engage in this true fasting, not just depriving ourselves of food or adorning our foreheads with ashes, but “spending ourselves” on behalf of the poor, the immigrant, the fatherless, and the widow, then Scripture promises that
You will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and He will say:
Here I am…
The LORD will guide you always (Isaiah 58:9, 11).
Whether you observe Lent or not, if you want to know deeper intimacy with God, you might start by looking at how you—and the systems you are a part of, whether you chose to be or not—are impacting the vulnerable.
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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