Approaching Isaiah 58: Fasting as a Spiritual Practice

Aaron R. aka RicoCharity, christ, doctrine, Jesus, mercy, Mormon, spiritual progression, spirituality 13 Comments

Sometime ago Jana Reiss wrote a column for Sunstone entitled ‘Mormonism as Praxis’[1] in which the writers attempted to explore what Mormonism means in terms of ‘spiritual practices’.  Jana, in a Sunstone podcast with Dan Wotherspoon, has explained that one of her main interests is trying to understand how these spiritual practices can become effective through a Mormon context.  This post is a feeble attempt to think in that same vein.  I wanted to try and understand how fasting is a spiritual practice.

At the out-set I should explain that I am not a Biblical scholar nor am I especially good with languages.  So I would appreciate, and even expect, some dialogue regarding the thoughts that I want to express here.

Isaiah 58 is, for me, the most inspiring text in the scriptures that discusses fasting.  In this post I want to consider some of the ideas it expresses.  Isaiah’s concern is that Israel’s focus in their fast is themselves.  He writes that people complain ‘Wherefore have we fasted… and thou seest not? Wherefore have we afflicted our soul and thou takest no knowledge’ (Isa 58:3)?   They fast ‘to make [their] voice heard on high’ (Isa 58:4).

The Lord in response to this behaviour asks the people to turn the focus of their fast outward.  ‘Is this not 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?’ (Isa 58:6-7).

The sense I get is that this practice should be directed toward others.  To fast is not just to go without food as a sacrifice, but it is to render service or make especial effort to love those whom we struggle to love.  Fasting so that our own voice is heard in Heaven is condemned while serving our fellow men is central to our fast.  In fact, it seems that to give up food is a means by which we can ‘draw out [our] soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul’ (Isa 58:10).  As we voluntarily go without we are to think about or focus our time upon those who go without involuntarily.  To do this expands our compassion and love.  In fact, it seems that in this act we emulate Christ, who voluntarily suffered so that he might perfect his capacity for ‘mercy and empathy’ [2].

Isaiah outlines some of the promised blessings that may come from such a fast (see Isa 58:8-12).  In v.9 he says ‘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’.  I believe the Lord’s answer is not synonymous with having our voice heard on high.  I believe that that answer is ‘Here I am’.  I believe the Lord promises us his presence and comfort and yet, Isaiah reiterates that this will only come if we put off those behaviours which afflict others.  Thus as we give up, or put off, food so are we also to put off those actions which offend or hurt.  The food in one sense becomes a symbol of our sin, which we desire to put off.

In addition the Lord promises us that as we turn our lives outward to those around us, as we learn to expand our capacities for love and service, that our lives will become ‘like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not’ (Isa 58:11).  The poetic allusion to Christ as the Living waters is wonderful and yet what is significant here is not that we come to the Living Waters, but they become placed within us.  In this sense we become like Christ, in that we become fountains of love rather than cups which need filling.  Fasting is one of those spiritual practices that helps us to place the Living Waters in us.

In v. 12 the Lord promises that such people will be those who help prepare Zion.  In speaking of this verse Eugene England has said ‘The Lord has, in these verses, drawn a straight line from fasting for the hungry to becoming a “repairer of the breach”–to preserving peace that will “raise up the foundations of many generations” instead of dooming those generations to nuclear destruction. The Lord is describing, with the extra power of poetic language, a precise and inexorable moral law: mercy begets and multiplies mercy; sacrificial giving will beget and multiply kindness, understanding, patience, brotherhood–even between enemies.’ [3]  In this sense again through Fasting the Lord promises us that we will begin to learn how to heal the wounds which afflict ourselves and others; we will learn how to break down those barriers that restrict us from being at-one with each and with God.

I am inspired by these verse because I would like to be someone who exhibits these characteristics and yet it is clear to me now that only by directing my fast toward others will this be made possible.  I feel that I have too often fasted so that I might receive a particular job, or even so that I might get good marks in my education.  I feel the urge to repent and turn toward God and other people, and to do this through fasting.


1. Jana Reiss, Mormonism as Praxis in Sunstone, 12/1/04 [Salt Lake City UT.: Sunstone Education Foundation, 2004], p. 16-27

2. Neal A. Maxwell, A Choice Seer in Ensign, August 1986.

3. Eugene England, Fasting and Food, Not Weapons: a Mormon Response To Conflict in BYU Studies, vol. 25 [Provo Ut.: BYU Publications, 1985), p. 154.

Comments 13

  1. Rico….I wanted to praise you for hitting the nail on a very important and sacred practice of our spirituality…fasting. Thank you very, very much.
    It moved me in several ways as well as instructing.
    It taught me as well, a most important point.
    It also carried the Holy Spirit within its context.
    Posts can become beautiful when they lead us closer to Christ.
    Posts can be miraculous when they lead us to serve and minister to others, no matter whom.
    I am making new goals to follow your points, most particularly by directing my fast towards others.
    THIS ARTICLE is the why the internet is a blessing.
    Love to All

  2. Thanks for this post. I often feel that I miss out on something because I have medical reasons that prevent me from fasting. This is a good reminder that I can still fill the purpose of the fast by turning my attentions to the suffering of others around me.

  3. Keri #3: I too have had problems on and off during my life fasting the traditional way…the spirit suggested that I simply fast from a favorite food for week or month or whatever the Holy Ghost directs.
    Like maybe, just for one week…only desserts! Or
    chocolate or whatever is your buttom pusher absolute tummy pleaser. Then there is “fasting” or giving up say like TV for a week or month, or movies. Again, what is something that would be a ‘sacrifice’ for YOU!
    Something that too, might increase the reception of the HOly Ghost into your life. Sacrifice some free time, if you are blessed enough to have any for EXTRA prayer, scripture study, or like you like you said..simply turning attention to suffering of others by making extra calls to those alone / sick / mourning, etc. Fasting is partly to cleanse the world away from us, our attachment to it, its influence in our heart. ANYTHING that focusing on Christ / Atonement / others is godly and I know would please Heavenly Father.
    #2….hopefully we would only fast as long as is advised or directetd by the Holy Ghost, never an unhealthy amount of time. But we do have the Gift of the Holy Ghost to help us not to receive ANY illusional fantasy, no matter the “no meal very hungry” status !

  4. My stomach is slightly fuller now that it normally is at this time of the night. So, as a camel preparing a long desert crossing, I may say that this is because tomorrow I will be fasting…for someone else I am pleased to say. I personally chose to let this person know that I was fasting for him. There are two distinct reasons for this. This allows a very meaningful bond to be established between the faster and the afflicted/challenged person. It is also good for that person to know that there is such thing as Brotherhood and that all the Church doesn’t have necessarily to be reduced to the attending of many meetings and the listening of many lessons, etc. But the Church can become alive through its members. I read recently a call from a young Christian soldier from Detroit. He advocates for the Church to transcend its staus of organisation and become an organism, something alive that connects its many different parts.
    I have agreed with myself, many years ago, that fasting for very personal reasons is good, as I deserve and need peace and answers, strength and wisdom, kindness and spirituality. It is also a good opportunity to get in touch with our real self, not the one rushing through days the pace of which is dictated by external events and other peole, but the child of God, walking the Earth aware of its origins and attempting to make it back to the Mother Ship.
    Isaiah 58 is an immense piece of scripture, and each time I read it, it feels like a reawakening. I’m with you Rico, and I hear you.

  5. Post

    Thank you to those who commented.

    #5 – I agree, my friend, that letting someone know we are fasting for them helps to build that bond of fellowship. I can see the benefit of fasting for personal reasons as well, but I sense personally that I have often focussed too much on temporal desires. I feel this is mis-placed.

    #4 – Your comment regarding a time was interesting to me because I remember Jana Reiss, in the same interview mentioned above, noting that she has a mini-sabbath on a wednesday. I believe that putting this times into our lives is an important part of cultivating a spirit of Love.

    #3 – I agree that the spirit of the fast is most important. My feeling is that the going without food is supposed to encourage that attitude instead of being at the center of the process. I sense that I have focussed far more on the food than on the spirit of fasting myself.

  6. #1 says it all for me as well. Interesting thst there have not been morr comments to such a positive and inspiring post. Thank you brother for giving us a worthy point to consider.

  7. Although I have read this post a couple of times, and I love Faithful posts, I rarely comment on them because I don’t feel I have much to add, I agree with the sentiments of this post so much. and since reviewing MH’s comments I will make sure I post comments just so that Faithfully post’s will still be posted here on MM. I love them, this particular post has helped me to really asses my attitude to fasting, I’d never read Isaiah 58 or at least if I had my heart was closed to it’s true inspiration .

    please keep the faithful self exploring post coming

  8. I too really felt the spiritual message of this post. A really insightful piece of writing and one that I will turn to as a reminder of how to approach fasting.

    Thank you

  9. You hit this right on. My bishop recently asked me to read Isaiah 58 in reference to addiction. My intention today as I write this was to fast for the Lord to remove the yoke of addiction from me. I should actually be fasting that the addiction be lifted from others. As I fast for others, the poor and the afflicted, then the Lord will lift my burdens as I keep the commandments.

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