The Lord rebuked ancient Israel for fasting without spiritual motivation. They afflict their souls, he states, but, "in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labors." He continues, "Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness... Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul?" (Isaiah 58:3-4).
Fasting in this way, the Lord tells the Israelites, only engenders discomfort and irritability. The Lord then teaches the Law of the Fast and how we can fast with appropriate intent:
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7).
These popular verses are often read with an emphasis on the power of fasting. Fasting can relieve oppression, lift our burdens and help us break the bonds of addiction and wickedness. Yet, these things don't happen simply because we do not eat or because we've written a check to the bishop for the poor. Fasting is more than that. Unlike the Israelites, who were chastised for working or seeking pleasure while they fasted, the Lord calls for us to follow His example and do His work on our day of fasting. This call echoes through the promised blessings for the faithful.
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy rereward. Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am.
If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity; And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday; And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in (Isaiah 58:8-12, emphasis added).
In other words, the spirit of fasting means that we not only pray for the oppressed but we spend our day helping to lift their burden and striving for their freedom. We should not only donate a fast offering to the poor, but we should find ways to serve and support those in need. In short, we should take the opportunity when we fast to live our baptismal covenant, mourning with those that mourn and comforting those that stand in need of comfort, so that we might be called a repairer of the breach and a restorer of paths to dwell in. When we cannot serve those for whom we are fasting, we can serve others and know the Lord is mindful of our sacrifice.
As with all other gospel principles, the intent of the Law of the Fast is to soften our hearts and bring us closer to our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should be more like Him because we have fasted. When we fast each month, or more often if we so choose, we should be able to genuinely feel the words of the poet stirring in our souls:
On bended knees, with broken hearts,
We come before thee, Lord,
In secret and in open prayer--
Oh, wilt thou speak thy word?
We've shared our bread with those in need,
Relieved the suff'ring poor
The stranger we have welcomed in--
Wilt thou impart thy store?
As witnesses, we gather here
To thank, and to attest
Of mercies and of miracles--
Oh, still our lives so bless!
Feed thou our souls, fill thou our hearts,
And bless our fast, we pray,
That we may feel thy presence here
And feast with thee today.
(John Sears Tanner)