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Lent: Fast and Farce

The challenge especially for well-fed Christians in Singapore is to reclaim the spiritual discipline of fasting, to set aside time to abstain from food and other indulgences, either as a partial fast, or if health permits, as an absolute fast. This is so that we can focus on prayer, our spiritual wellbeing, our relationship with God and our relationship with our neighbours.

Unlike prayer, Bible study and regular Holy Communion, fasting as a piritual discipline has become a neglected practice. It is time that we now take a pause – especially after the multiple rounds of festive feasting – to restore the place of fasting in our faith journey.

John Wesley, founder of Methodism, practised fasting, and he advised his preachers to follow suit. He fasted at least once a week in his adult life, and when he was younger, fasted twice a week. Today, fasting is a spiritual discipline encouraged particularly during the season of Lent, which this year begins on Wednesday March 5. Yet looking at the Church as a whole, we no longer view this as a desirable spiritual discipline even during the Lenten season leading to our Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection.

The challenge especially for well-fed Christians in Singapore is to reclaim the spiritual discipline of fasting, to set aside time to abstain from food and other indulgences, either as a partial fast, or if health permits, as an absolute fast. This is so that we can focus on prayer, our spiritual wellbeing, our relationship with God and our relationship with our neighbours.

However, what we must not do when fasting is to take a legalistic approach.
Some traditional Jews who practised fasting had argued over whether a person is allowed to swallow his or her own saliva when they fast. We do not want to go in that direction.

More than not taking a legalistic approach to fasting, an important text on fasting from Isaiah 58:1-9 offers correctives to help us avoid fasting as a meaningless gesture and to opt for a fasting that pleases God.

Commendable as the people of Israel were at the time of Isaiah in practising fasting, there was something lacking in their understanding of this spiritual discipline. While they were seeking to be drawn closer to God through fasting, they were at the same time ill-treating their workers (v3b). While they thought they were doing the right thing in fasting, it was clear that their spiritual exercise did not touch their daily lives at all. In fact they were said to be quarrelsome, divisive and arrogant.

Looking at their behaviour, we may say that instead of a fast, which is a desirable spiritual discipline, the whole exercise of the people of Israel turned out to be a farce.

That’s why God declared through Isaiah His displeasure with what the Israelites did.

6Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (NRSV)

Fasting as a spiritual exercise is not an end in itself. No spirituality, no matter how faithfully followed and regularly practised, is of any value unless such an exercise has an impact in forming and transforming our lives.

This formation and transformation must be seen in the way we treat people, especially those who may work for us or under us. It is a transformation, as evidence of the sanctifying grace of God at work in our lives, which should
change us inside-out so that we will have the heart of God to reach out to the vulnerable people in society, the poor and those who are struggling in life.

Fasting is a worthwhile spiritual discipline. So that we do not misuse it, keep in mind that the kind of fast which God is pleased with is not so much whether your fast is a partial fast or an absolute fast, and whether you can swallow your own saliva when you fast. The fast which God is pleased with has a social ethical dimension shown by your practical social outreach and your deep concern for social justice.

 

Picture by lenets and gurkoao, Bigstock.com

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The Rev Dr Daniel Koh Kah Soon is a Methodist minister, a full-time lecturer at Trinity Theological College and currently the Vice-Chairman of Methodist Welfare Services. As a pastor-theologian with an interest in Christian ethics, he is concerned about how we may bring our faith to bear on the social issues and challenges of our time.

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