This is the kind of fast day I’m after: to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed, cancel debts.
Fasting is the soul of prayer; mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. . . . So, if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.
—SAINT PETER CHRYSOLOGUS (1380–1450)
KNOWN AS THE “DOCTOR OF HOMILIES”1
WHILE DOING RESEARCH FOR THE FIRST PART of this book, it stunned me to learn that according to the CDC, the rates of depression and divorce appear to be higher in socially conservative and evangelical Protestant areas; namely, such states as Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Oklahoma.2 I found it astonishing that in states where Christian values and culture supposedly predominate, people could be in such a sad condition. Christ is the Prince of Peace, so peace should be a visible part of our walk with Him. And as studies indicate, poverty and higher overall marriage rates do not fully account for this curious fact.3
While social scientists continue to research this and find convincing explanations, one thing is clear to me: such statistics pose a wake-up call to Christians. We must examine how our professed doctrines square with the reality of our day-to-day lives. Such social realities should drive us to our knees as we humble ourselves before God—and admit that we too are affected by this broken world. We don’t have it all together. We struggle just like the rest of the world and endure some of the same heartaches. Life-leaking events happen to us all. Still, I wonder whether more real-life practicing of forgiveness might help to heal our hearts and millions of broken relationships.
Damaging moments need not be fatal to relationships; our hurts and brokenness can be healed. This reality is the only hope for weary travelers to find healing and restorative moments beside the “still waters” the psalmist refers to in Psalm 23:2. Fasting can provide such moments in which God can tend to our wounds, console our hurting hearts, bind up our broken spirits, and relieve our grieving souls of bitterness and sorrow. While many fail to see spiritual fasting as an opportunity for life-restoring moments, that is precisely its purpose. It offers moments to retract ourselves from everyday distractions in order to wait on God and find refreshing in His presence. It is a time to allow the divine hand of grace to reach deep down into our hurting souls and bring lasting healing. This can involve numerous personal offenses, hurts, letdowns, and harsh words that have accumulated over many years.
Fasting is a time when we stay quiet in God’s presence long enough to allow Him to clean up the wellsprings of daily life. Wise Solomon advised: “Keep vigilant watch over your heart; that’s where life starts” (Prov. 4:23). The heart is indeed the wellspring of life. If it becomes muddled with bitterness, anxiety, or despair, then the life that issues from it becomes equally muddled. In fasting we present our hearts—whether angry, joyous, or indifferent—before the God who sees all and knows all.
Key to healing
Fasting provides healing opportunities, but it does not offer healing by itself. We must accept the healing that is offered by the Holy Spirit. In fasting, as we lie beside the “still waters” of grace, we place our hearts in these healing waters. We pray and ask for God’s healing, mercy, and kindness. However, we must also offer that same grace to others. We forgive as God has forgiven us. When we couple fasting with forgiveness, healing forces flow over us. Fasting is a moment to focus on what is important in life, such as family, our spouse, friends, goodwill, love, and goodness. When that focus comes into view, we reflect and ponder on God’s light-dazzling glory. We can see more clearly in the light of His extravagant grace. We view the injuries and injustices of life through the vast prism of His kindness and eternity.
Such a divine view will enable us to be more apt to give the benefit of the doubt to others and, where necessary, to forgive. Fasting provides the time and focus, and prayer provides the divine connection, but we must still act to wash our hearts in the streams of God’s forgiving grace. We have to say yes to more than God’s forgiveness. We must choose to extend that forgiveness to others on life’s journey. Fasting periods offer powerful moments to forgive and be forgiven.
As the prophet Isaiah observed, true fasting includes freeing the oppressed and canceling debts, whether personal, financial, or emotional. Fasting cancels debts. Given the sad state of marriage and personal relationships in so many places where people espouse a belief in Jesus, I must raise the question: Could forgiveness—this canceling of debts—help curb issues such as high divorce rates? Is it possible that most divorces stem from an accumulation of unforgiven, unresolved pain and resentment?
Life is relational, personal, and local. The more intimate a relationship, the greater the tendency to allow pain and resentment to build up. When we feel offended or taken for granted, we may say something about it, but ultimately silently stick it on our “offense shelf ” with many others. Whether we sort them by date, severity, or other criteria, we still store them up.
“They should know better,” we tell ourselves. Yet we hold back because it hurts too deeply to engage our spouses. “How could he, after all that I’ve done for him?” “How could she treat me like that—with no respect?” As legendary poet William Blake observed, “It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.”4 The wounds from a friend are more painful, because we have given something of ourselves in the process. Our hearts are involved, and our expectations are high. We hope for the best and endeavor in spite of ourselves to give the best.
What can be more personal and more intimate than the marriage relationship? In marriage we forsake all others and commit to this one person. We share all—spirit, soul, and body. We open up ourselves. When this significant other hurts us, it hurts deeply. At first we may tell ourselves that he or she “meant well.” So we give our spouses the benefit of the doubt. But then, after a while, we become “wiser.” Close friends may tell us that we are being played for a fool by letting go and moving on. The real danger comes when the enemy of our soul questions the intentions of our loved ones. Pretty soon we will take Satan’s cue and do the same. Offenses that would have been easily overlooked or readily forgiven in the past are now filed away as unresolved. We smile and carry on as though everything is OK.
Even if we express discontent, we do so in such a cautious way that our spouses assume it’s no big deal. Yet we are muddying the waters in our hearts with resentment and a desire for revenge. It builds up until one day we wake up determined to deal with it once and for all. Such is the story of many a divorce, as well as other broken family relationships or friendships.
In Isaiah 58 I see the prophet saying that instead of waiting to serve a divorce paper or get even with another person who has wronged us, we can use a period of fasting to cancel this debt. Forgiveness is never easy, especially when it involves such things as a spouse’s slights or betrayal by a close friend. Yet fasting can help with this challenging process. As we wait on God and refocus on His marvelous grace, we stay still enough—for long enough—in the Potter’s house that He can free us of pain and resentment.
We don’t gloss over the offense or pretend it is not there. We should always be honest and open with God. But when we surrender our hearts, we ask for His fresh touch. Then we wait patiently for His answers. Fasting and prayer are never a quick fix; serious fasting is personal, deeply honest, and painstakingly deliberate. After we surrender, we wait, maybe shed some tears, and keep praying as we seek to lay down our burdens. The fasting that God approves of is the fast that releases the oppressed and cancels the debt. We give up our need for revenge or desire to see misfortune fall on the object of our anger. Once God frees us from the oppression of unforgiveness and vengeful thoughts, we are free to forgive others and cancel their debts—even if they haven’t asked for forgiveness.
Peter got a practical lesson from Jesus on this “believing and forgiving” lifestyle the day he asked the Savior, “‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?’” (Matt. 18:21, NKJV). The Bible doesn’t indicate whether Peter spoke from personal experience. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume he did. If so, it would appear that Peter had been enduring and letting go of an offense from this brother or sister. He may have forgiven six times; now he had to forgive a seventh? I can hear the thought rolling around Peter’s mind: “Seven times; that has to be the limit.” How could anyone reasonably expect him to forgive the same person more than seven times without exacting some revenge? After all, Peter was only human. He must have expected Jesus to validate him. Surely forgiving the same person seven times deserved a celebration. Surely even Jesus would understand if Peter reacted angrily and vengefully against this brother or sister after seven instances of extending grace.
Jesus surprised Peter with His straightforward advice: “‘I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven’” (Matt. 18:22, NKJV). To accumulate 490 offenses from one person has to take two things. First, that person has to spend a significant portion of their time with you (think about a spouse, a child, a parent, or a close friend). Second, it will take a lifetime of accumulating offenses. That can be devastating—if we don’t stop long enough in God’s presence to give it all up and shed the grip of bitterness and resentment. Fasting provides a time of consecration, which allows God to reach down and uproot bitterness from our lives.
Forgiveness in action
Before Peter could get self-righteous or indignant over what Jesus was asking, or before he could protest (“Lord, this is incredibly difficult; do You know how tough that would be?”), Jesus offers a powerful parable about forgiveness. It concerned a wealthy king who was owed the equivalent of several million dollars by one of his servants, a man I’ll call Jerry. When the master demanded repayment, the servant begged for more time. He asked the master to be patient; he intended to pay up despite the enormity of his debt. For some reason the master had compassion on him and decided to forgive this enormous debt. Naturally Jerry responded with joy. He knew that he didn’t deserve this kind of huge favor. Truth be told, he couldn’t pay the debt even with a lifetime of his earnings.
Jerry must have told all the other servants, because everyone knew about his good fortune. However, the next day while going about his business—glad to be alive, and thankful for the break life had delivered—the man encountered another servant whom I will call Tom. He owed Jerry a relative pittance (some biblical scholars say less than twenty dollars). Tom likely stopped to congratulate Jerry and rejoice with him. After the banter that followed, Jerry asked about Tom’s debt to him. Tom felt bad about his inability to pay but promised to do so soon. He asked Jerry for patience and understanding as he worked to repay his loan. “Surely he understands,” Tom thought. “After all, he has just been forgiven a much bigger debt by our master.”
To his surprise, the ungrateful Jerry brought the full wrath of the law to bear on Tom. He took Tom to court, and when he couldn’t pay the debt, Jerry demanded that Tom be imprisoned until he could.
Of course, the next working day Tom didn’t show up for work. Another servant made some inquiries and discovered Tom was in prison, on account of the debt owed to his fellow servant. Furious, the other servants reported these events to the king, who couldn’t believe it. “Jerry did what? After I forgave him millions of dollars in debt?” The master rescinded the debt forgiveness he had offered and threw Jerry in jail until he could repay his multimillion-dollar debt. The obvious conclusion: Jerry will never get out. (You can read the whole story in Matthew 18:21–35.)
You can likely guess the moral of this story: in light of the huge debt of sin and depravity from which God forgave us, the offenses we have endured from our spouses, family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers pale in comparison. God knows we will get hurt in life, sometimes in measures that are exceedingly unjust. And He still expects us to forgive. No, that doesn’t mean they are not devastating, especially when the slights come from loved ones and friends. It doesn’t minimize the pain we feel from these offenses. Still, when we focus on His extravagant grace, His touch of kindness should soften us enough that we extend the same forgiveness to others.
This isn’t easy. After all, a wound from a friend hurts deeper than one from an enemy. When we act on a human level and recoil with anger, we may seek to attack in a mode of vengeance, or seethe with silent bitterness and resentment. Yet, what happens if the person who offended us begs for forgiveness? Or asks for time to change and grow? Or in the case of a financial debt asks us to be patient?
Consider that before God, we have asked for and received His patience and kindness. He knows us more than anyone else, and He still loves us. This should encourage us and bring us healing and hope. Despite our mistakes, He lavishes His forgiveness and love on us. God is still working on us, and we know He isn’t done with us. We are certainly a work in progress. The divine heart gives us the benefit of the doubt, and repeatedly offers a second chance.
Yet in our pain and frustration with other fallible human beings, we can easily forget that God calls us to extend some of that grace to others. In other words, He asks us to give the benefit of the doubt to that brother, sister, friend, or spouse who constantly gets on our nerves. If we react in anger and unforgiveness, and lose sight of God’s mercy, we imprison others in our hearts. Yes, some of their offenses are serious; compared to eternity, though, they are quite frivolous. As the parable in Matthew 18 shows, when we lock people up in our minds, we suffer imprisonment with them. We aren’t free to be who we are—how could we, with that burden within our soul?
Releasing the prison door and letting those who hurt us go free is tough to do, especially when they have not asked for our forgiveness. Still, it is the only way to free ourselves from enslavement to the cord of bitterness. Christian theologian and author Lewis Smedes was right when he said, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”5
Forgiveness is the only way to free our destiny from destruction. It is the only way to recover the grace of God as we journey through life. Perfunctory prayer won’t do it. Just hearing exhortation to forgive on Sunday mornings alone is not enough. Reaching the place of lasting forgiveness does not come except through fasting and prayer. In the place of fasting, we commit to God’s presence and His healing touch intensely enough to allow Him to soften our hearts, remove our self-righteousness, and break our all-too-human pride with His love.
It is likely that many have never thought of fasting this way. Too many of us have learned to think of Christian fasting as a time to go and demand things from God—to force His hand, so to speak. But there is exhilarating power awaiting those who intentionally integrate fasting and forgiveness. A good part of the stress we encounter has to do with relationships, whether at home, work, school, or church. It is true that some types of depressive disorders have something to do with neurochemical imbalance. Yet it is also true that stress is an important factor in depression.
Loss of a loved one leaves us numb and unfeeling. News of a major illness leaves us in pain and afraid. If a spouse walks out on us, we feel rejected and abandoned. All are high-stress events that leave us feeling angry, bitter, and “owed.” These are no trivial events. And the feelings of pain and disappointment are no small matter either. Not only is life not fair, but also God doesn’t seem to be hearing us or “coming through” for us. Granted, there are no simple solutions in times such as those. This life-journey living is complex and sometimes inexplicable. Still, we can make an effort to present ourselves to the One who can heal hearts and renew our strength.
In fasting we make time to wait on God, tell Him how angry or upset we are, and share our deepest thoughts with Him. When that happens, we may forgive even when life is not fair. When we cancel the debts others owe, we free ourselves from inner oppression. This enables us to continue our journey with new grace. An internal miracle takes place through forgiveness, which leads to other, tangible miracles. It will be a wonderful thing to see more men and women separate themselves to intermittent periods of fasting and prayer, committing themselves to ridding their hearts of resentment and bitterness. I pray a new awareness and awakening will come to the Christian community about the true meaning and ramifications of God-ordained fasting, which will culminate in waves of forgiveness—maybe even the next Great Awakening.