Hungry for Justice
By David Feddes
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice?” (Isaiah 58:6)
Does God ever hate church? Is God ever disgusted by a worship service? Does God ever dislike an offering? Does God ever plug his ears when people pray and sing? Does God ever shut his eyes when people fast and perform rituals? The answer is yes—a loud, angry yes!
Listen to some of the things God says in the Bible: “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies” (Amos 5:21). “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me… I cannot bear your evil assemblies… Your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen” (Isaiah 1:13-15). “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:4). “Although they fast, I will not listen to their cry… Instead, I will destroy them” (Jeremiah 14:12). “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors… I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands” (Malachi 2:10).
No doubt about it, sometimes God hates religion. Church can anger him so much that he wants to close it down. There are prayers he can’t stand hearing, ceremonies he can’t stand watching, seasons of fasting that make him sick. God hates religion without reality, ritual without relationship, ceremony without sincerity. God hates personal piety without social justice. He hates all religion that is centered on self, without love for God and without love for other people. He hates religion where people try to act like angels during special religious moments but act more like devils the rest of the time.
This article is one in a series of article on fasting. The Bible encourages fasting, and this series has highlighted various situations when it’s fitting to fast. Fasting can be valuable, but we must fast in a way that draws us closer to God and to other people, not in a way that disgusts God and drives us further away from people.
Few things are more disgusting to God or more damaging to people than disregard of justice. God says, “I, the Lord, love justice” (Isaiah 61:8). If we’re not hungry for justice, then we’re not really hungry for God. If we hunger for God, we also hunger for justice, for fairness, for the good of others, for treating them right and defending their rights.
In Zechariah 7 the Bible tells of some people who have been fasting and have a question for God. God answers their question with a question: “Was it really for me that you fasted?” (7:5) God says that their religious activity is too self-centered. They’re thinking more about themselves than about God’s will or the welfare of other people. God tells them, “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.” When these people plug their ears and harden their hearts to God’s call for justice, how does the Lord respond? “When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the LORD Almighty (Zechariah 7:9-13).
Isaiah 58 records a similar conversation of God with people who have been fasting but feel frustrated. They seem eager to know God and want him to be close to them. They have been fasting to get God’s attention and help, but it hasn’t worked. God seems as far away as ever, and they are having more problems than blessings. They complain to God, “Why have we fasted and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?” (Isaiah 58:3). They are fed up with fasting, but God is even more fed up than they are. God answers their complaint with a complaint of his own:
On the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? … Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and … set the oppressed free…? 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 own flesh and blood?
It’s possible to fast with a “look at me” attitude: “Look at me, God. See what I’m doing? Are you impressed? Then hurry up and do what I want!” This “look at me” attitude can also be directed at other people: “Look at me, everybody! I’m religious! I fast and I’m pious and serious. Aren’t you impressed?” The point of fasting is not to impress God or other people. The point is to be drawn closer to God and to other people by learning to love God and others more than we love getting our own way.
If fasting just makes us grumpier, if we bicker and fight more than ever, God is not impressed. If we choose to go hungry for a little while but don’t care about people who are hungry and malnourished through no choice of their own, then our fasting offends God. If we exploit employees by overworking and underpaying them, it’s no wonder God doesn’t send us blessings in response to our fasting. If we ignore the plight of jobless people and refugees, we should not be shocked when God ignores us. If we turn away even from our own flesh and blood, if we leave our family and relatives on their own, if we deprive our children of the time and love they need, if we abandon aged parents to institutions and uninterrupted loneliness, we can’t expect God to be our constant companion. If we’re a curse to others, we can’t expect blessings for ourselves.
Fasting should not aim to change God but to change us. The main goal of fasting is to bring us closer to God and more in tune with Jesus. What does it mean to be in tune with Jesus? One thing it means is to be in tune with his priorities. In Jesus’ first public speech, he declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
If we’re in tune with Jesus, we will want to be good news for poor people, good news for people with disabilities, good news for oppressed and imprisoned people. The main purpose of fasting is to get closer to God, and when that happens, it will create in us a hunger for justice that matches God’s love of justice.
Fasting should move us to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. This may mean standing up for people who don’t have much money or political influence. It may mean standing up for helpless babies who are targeted for abortion, standing up for tiny humans who are subjected to embryo research, working and praying that God will change attitudes and laws so that the smallest may be protected from death.
Fasting must not selfishly seek to change God and bring him in line with our wishes. Fasting must first aim to change us and bring us in line with God’s wishes, and then aim for God to change an unjust world to be more in line with his justice. Fasting must look beyond the personal relationship between us and God and consider our relationship to other people. Instead of just fasting and praying for God to bless us, let’s fast and pray for the poor and oppressed. Fast and pray that God will change their situation and that he will change us who have ignored or perhaps even helped cause their plight.
Ironically, the more my fasting centers on me, the less good it does me. But if I focus less on myself and more on God and on people in need, I will be blessed. When we seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness—his justice—he takes care of everything else (Matthew 6:33). When we hunger for justice and work for the good of those in need, God promises in Isaiah 58,
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of God will be your rear guard. Then you will call; and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say, Here am I…
If you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs… You will be like a well-watered garden (58:8-11).
If you want God’s light all around you, if you want his blessings showering you from above you and bubbling up like a spring within you, then seek for things to be made right, not just for yourself but for others who need justice.
A Secret Weapon
It’s clear that fasting and justice are connected. It’s bad to pursue fasting without any concern for justice. But it’s also a mistake to pursue justice without fasting. To fast without any hunger for justice is to be a hypocritical. But to seek justice without fasting is to be ill-equipped. Fasting can be a secret weapon in the war against injustice.
If you really love justice and want to fight for it, don’t neglect one of your key weapons. Don’t neglect fasting. Church people can form social justice committees, and concerned citizens can form political action committees. We can raise money to help the poor and oppressed, we can march for the right to life of unborn babies, we can try to elect leaders who will uphold justice, and these things are good. But when is the last time you fasted for justice? God ignores phony fasting, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fast. It means we should fast rightly.
When you fast for justice, your own hunger reminds you of the desperate hunger of people in need. You feel just a tiny sample of what they feel, and you care more about them. As you identify with people in need, your physical hunger also expresses your spiritual hunger for God and for his justice to reign. Don’t neglect this secret weapon. As you work and pray for justice, make fasting part of your arsenal against evil.
Some champions of justice describe themselves as “speaking truth to power.” Sometimes that can be a pompous slogan of political activists who like to complain about any policy that doesn’t suit them, but let’s just suppose that it accurately describes what some people are doing. They really are speaking truth to power. That is still not enough. Things will never change simply by speaking truth to power. When power has gone bad, it takes more than truth to change it. It takes power to change power, and fasting is one way to call on the power of Almighty God against unjust powers and policies.
For example, every abortion kills an individual human. This truth is becoming harder and harder to deny. Even most abortion advocates have given up speaking of an unborn baby as “a mass of tissue” or “the contents of the uterus” or “the results of conception.” They have lost the argument about whether abortion destroys a human life. The more ultrasound images we see, the more scientific information we have about heartbeat, brain function, and a baby sucking its thumb in the womb, the harder it becomes to deny that abortion destroys a real baby. Most people now accept this as truth. But facts alone do not change behavior. Many who grant that abortion destroys a human baby still want abortion to be legal. They accept the truth of abortion as baby-killing but still won’t protect the babies. What can explain this except bondage to spiritual forces of evil? If we truly long for justice, we must do more than speak truth to power and prove the nature of the injustice. We must also seek God’s power to defeat the wicked prince of unjust power, Satan himself. We must seek for God to make people in power more just or else to remove them from power altogether.
Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). That is a prayer for justice, for everything to be set right. When we pray for that and work toward that, we also fast for that. Fasting adds urgency to our prayers for justice and adds effectiveness to our efforts on behalf of justice.
Hungry For His Coming
Ultimately, if we truly hunger for justice, we hunger for nothing less that the Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. Only when Jesus comes again will all injustices be judged, all wrongs be righted, all God’s poor be made rich, all the oppressed be liberated, all disabilities be healed, all tears be wiped away, all Satan’s forces be banished to hell, and all the failings that linger even in God’s people be removed and our character be made perfect. That brings us back to where we started this series on fasting: true fasting in all its forms and on all occasions is at its deepest level a hunger for God.
We’ve seen in past articles that fasting is not a scheduled pattern to earn God’s approval but is first of all simply a way to pursue closer fellowship with God and to show our desire for him. Any regular pattern of fasting should have this as its main aim. In addition to fasting for fuller fellowship with the Lord, the Bible shows occasions when it’s fitting to fast for a particular goal: when we’ve sinned and are hungry for God’s mercy and forgiveness; when we’re hooked on old habits and are training for more God-given freedom and self-control; when we face huge challenges and are hungry for God’s help; when we’re unsure of what our next step should be and are hungry for God’s guidance; and when we see the pain and injustice around us and are hungry for God’s justice. All these hungers—for mercy, for freedom, for help, for guidance, and for justice, as well as the hunger for the Lord himself—will be satisfied when Jesus comes again and we see him face to face.
When Jesus walked this earth, his disciples did not fast. When the Lord was asked why his followers didn’t fast the way other religious people fasted, Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast” (Matthew 9:15).
In calling himself “the bridegroom,” Jesus was calling himself the Lord God. The prophet Isaiah had written, “Your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name… As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so your God will rejoice over you” (Isaiah 54:5; 62:5). A bride doesn’t fast on her wedding day when she is with the bridegroom. But if her husband leaves and is away for a long time, she misses him.
When our Lord was on earth, it was time to feast with him, not to fast. But now that he has gone away to heaven, fasting is fitting. When Jesus left, he sent his Holy Spirit to be with us. The Spirit is a tremendous blessing and links us to the Savior, but what Christians experience of the Spirit now is just a down payment, “a deposit” (Ephesians 1:14) on what we will experience when Jesus comes again, and we see him face to face, and God is all in all. Through the Spirit, we taste of Jesus, but we also miss him and long for him. Jesus said that when the bridegroom was taken away, his followers would fast. Do you fast? Do you hunger and pray for him to come again?
Our fasting for Jesus to come again is different from the way Old Testament believers fasted and hungered for God. Jesus compared fasting in the old era to old wine, and fasting in the new era to new wine which would require new wineskins (Matthew 9:16-17). Fasting for Jesus’ coming and perfect justice is different than it used to be. Things have changed. Back then people of faith longed for what they didn’t have; now we long for more of what we do have. We have Jesus, and we want more of him. Back then Jesus had not come; now Jesus has come. We know him as he is, and we want him to come again. Jesus has already revealed God’s grace, has already paid the price for sin and broken Satan’s grip on humanity, has already set in motion the powers of the age to come. Pastor John Piper explains,
What’s new about the fasting is that it rests on all this finished work of the Bridegroom. The yearning that we feel for revival or awakening or deliverance from corruption is not merely longing and aching. The first fruits of what we long for have already come. The down payment of what we yearn for is already paid. The fullness that we are longing for and fasting for has appeared in history and we have beheld his glory. It is not merely future.
We have tasted the powers of the age to come, and our new fasting is not because we are hungry for something we have not tasted, but because the new wine of Christ’s presence is so real and so satisfying. The newness of our fasting is this: its intensity comes not because we have never tasted the wine of Christ’s presence, but because we have tasted it so wonderfully by his Spirit and cannot now be satisfied until the consummation of joy arrives. We must have all he promised. And as much now as possible.
We fast to have as much of Jesus and his justice as he will give us now, and we fast and pray for him to hasten his Second Coming so that we will experience him fully and enjoy a world where God’s will is done perfectly on earth as it is in heaven. “Fasting is a physical expression of heart hunger for the second coming of Jesus” (Piper).
Before Jesus’ first coming, people longed for the promised Savior to come and to set things right. An old widow named Anna, well over eighty years old, was a prophetess and had a special longing for the Messiah. The Bible says that she “worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” at God’s temple in Jerusalem. After Jesus was born, his mother, Mary, and Joseph brought the baby to the temple, and there Anna saw the one she had been fasting and praying for all those years. “She gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37-38).
If Anna was so eager for the coming of a Savior she hardly knew, shouldn’t we be even more eager for him to come again? We know more fully who Jesus is and what he can do. Anna met Jesus only as a baby, but we have seen his glory, the glory of his miracles and teaching, the glory of his death and resurrection, the glory of salvation and the inner working of the Holy Spirit. If we have truly tasted any of this, how can we not hunger for more? The bridegroom has gone away, so let us fast and pray for him to come back, so that the taste we have of him may be a feast, so that the partial knowledge we have of him may become full, and so that our experience of his love may be complete.
Do you fast and pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20)? Or are you content with business as usual? Maybe your life seems to be going fine at the moment. The injustices that hurt others don’t really bother you, and as long as it’s other people that are suffering and not you, you’re not concerned. If that’s your attitude, you are in deadly peril. If you are not longing for Jesus to return, you will not be ready for him when he does return. You will be so afraid of facing him that you will call on the mountains to fall on you and hide you from him. But if you know Jesus and long for his justice, you will pray without ceasing, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [for God to make them right and make all things right], for they will be filled” (Matthew 5:6). Hunger for justice is hunger for Jesus, and that hunger will be fully satisfied only when Jesus returns. When we say the Lord’s Prayer and ask for God’s kingdom to come, we are really praying for the King to come. To those who long for Jesus and his justice, for the King and his kingdom, the Bible promises, “Your eyes will see the king in his beauty and view a land that stretches afar.” Unjust officials, unfair tax gatherers, brutal police and soldiers, and cruel foreign invaders will be only distant memories. The new Jerusalem and all God’s earth will enjoy peace and prosperity, and all will be truly right in the world. “For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; it is he who will save us” (Isaiah 33:17-22).
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.