Fast Living: How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty
If you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
—Isaiah 58:10, ESV
IMAGINE A YOUNG COUPLE in the labor and delivery room experiencing the birth of their first child. Hear her groans, see the sweat, and feel the anxious tension. Now place a bag of potato chips in the husband’s hands and picture him munching away as he watches his wife give birth. As if it were on TV. It’s just wrong! Or picture the man standing in the baptismal with his pastor. He’s wearing a white robe and preparing to confess Jesus as Lord of his life as he publically identifies with the death, burial, and resurrection of his Lord in baptism. Then, out from the folds of his robe, he brings forth the bag of chips and starts munching. Never! “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” “Her mother and I.” Munch munch.
These are sacred moments. And in sacred moments, we do not eat. It seems wrong to eat. We don’t think about not eating in the moment—it simply feels unnatural and unthinkable.
Scot McKnight defines fasting as the “natural response of a person to a grievous sacred moment.” McKnight emphasizes that fasting is a natural response. Like not eating during your wedding vows because the moment is too sacred. Like not eating as you look into the casket at a funeral because the moment is too grievous.
McKnight emphasizes that fasting is a response to a very serious situation, not a device to take us from a good level to a better level. Did you get that? Fasting isn’t an instrument to get God to hear our prayers or to help us master a primordial impulse or to accomplish anything. It’s something you do when circumstances are bad enough that you don’t want to eat and it would seem wrong to do so. Or when circumstances are incredible enough that you don’t even think about food.
I am a Kansas State football fan. For decades, K-State had the worst record of any college team. Most losses, fewest wins—the losers. We were routinely trounced by other Big 8 (now Big 12) teams like Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. I will never forget being at the K-State versus Nebraska game on November 14, 1998, when we, the oppressed, ignited our revolution. Nebraska held twenty-nine consecutive victories against K-State, but the stadium Jumbotron boldly declared before the game, “Today one dynasty ends. And another dynasty … is born.” We had not won against Nebraska for twenty-nine years—twenty-nine consecutive losses! So that message stirred a deep desire for vengeance. A growl in the gut. When the game clock hit 0:00 with K-State winning by a score of 40 to 30, the stadium erupted in an adrenalin-fueled roar of triumph. Everyone, myself included, could do nothing but scream, jump, pump our arms in the air, high-fiving and hugging complete strangers as the thousands who could find their way onto the field simply ran in random directions in a continuous yelling swarm. Fans started climbing the goal post, clinging to it like ants, to bring it down (even though it was our own) in order to, what else, drag it around. It was a nearly unstoppable bodily response to a sacred moment.
Our bodies also respond to tragic moments by a natural, nearly unstoppable expression of sorrow. My sister died when I was fifteen. When my dad told me, my mind reeled and I was plunged into emotional turmoil. Throughout that day and for many days afterward, my parents, brothers, and I were doubled over, on our knees, pouring out unstoppable tears. I remember being on my knees, hugging myself, as I swayed with my head low to the floor. If you’ve ever lost a loved one or faced a terrible grief, then you understand what I’m describing. The body responds instinctively, almost uncontrollably, in grievous moments.
Whether it is as profound as the death of a sister or as trivial as winning a football game, when we feel a major experience deep in the gut, the body will be compelled to respond.
McKnight writes, “Sometimes we yearn so much for what we know God wants for this world, and sometimes we become so depressed over what our world is like in light of what God wants for us, that we are compelled to fast.”
We’re living in a grievous sacred moment.
Grievous because over twenty-thousand children continue to die every day from preventable causes. Grievous because we give far less than 1 percent of our personal income to anti-poverty work. Grievous because our nation allocates only 0.17 percent of its budget to help the poor, although the average American thinks we give 20 percent. Grievous because our churches spend 96 percent of their offerings on themselves, to pay for the facilities, staffing, and production costs of our weekly experiences. Of the 4 percent that does go beyond the church walls, only a small fraction goes to anti-poverty work. Meanwhile, the Goliath of extreme poverty is defying the army of God and slaying the innocent in the valley. Twenty-thousand every day. It feels like we are munching potato chips while staring into the casket.
Yet this moment is also sacred. As we’ve shown, extreme poverty has already been cut in half. Preventable child death has been cut in half. We are witnessing a groundswell of new intentions and expectations among God’s people. We have been defeated twenty-nine times in a row, but we are ready to boldly declare that today, in our generation, one dynasty ends and a new one is born.
It is a sacred moment because our generation has the unprecedented and history-making opportunity to eradicate extreme poverty from earth. This is our moment. And if we feel the trembling possibilities of this moment, we won’t even be able to think of munching down the chips.
When we feel in our gut what God feels when hungry children die while those who claim His name spend millions on worship centers, we will physically respond. An instinctive, nearly unstoppable action. A response driven from our alignment with God’s heart. We will be compelled to drill water wells in Africa, fight government corruption, and ensure that children don’t go hungry.
In February 2008, a small group of Christian leaders met in Oxford, England. They were before the Lord in prayer as they considered the seismic shifts in the world and the dramatic possibilities to make it a better place. These leaders had given their lives on behalf of the poor and oppressed and they were seeking God’s guidance for the next generation.
God drew them inexorably to Isaiah 58.
If you haven’t read it recently, then read it again … and again. This chapter in Isaiah captures the heart of the prophet and the heart of God for the poor and oppressed. Isaiah’s words about the “oppressed,” “hungry,” and “poor” speak to us today about people who live in slums, whose economies offer no opportunities, whose police demand bribes, who live under constant threat of gang violence, who don’t have enough food to eat, who can’t get clean water, and who watch their babies die of preventable causes.
In this extraordinary passage, Isaiah declares three vital messages to the religious people of his day. The passage begins with “Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet.” This is not a casual message for Isaiah to share over a cup of coffee. God demands that Isaiah proclaim this message with such power and conviction that it cannot be ignored. And what does God, through His prophet, declare?
First, God is not impressed with their religious performances. They seem eager to know God’s ways (“day after day they seek me out”), they seem eager for God to come near, and they wonder why God hasn’t noticed their fasting. But it’s all wrong. Their worship is self-serving (“you do as you please”), produces conflict (“your fasting ends in quarreling and strife”), and they ignore the poor.
These people seek God daily and have the appearance of righteousness, but God sees right through it, “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” They are warned that they are in the presence of an unlistening God.
The second message of Isaiah 58 is that if you truly want God’s attention, if you want to please Him, and if you want your prayers to be heard, then you need to live the “True Fast”—to seek justice for the oppressed, share your resources with those in need, break the structures of oppression, honor the Sabbath, and pour yourself out for the hungry.
Verse 10 pleads, “If you spend yourself on behalf of the hungry … ” (NIV). Other translations read, “If you pour yourself out for the hungry” (ESV), “If you give yourself to the hungry” (NASB), “If thou draw out thy soul to the hungry,” (KJV) then …
This is a call to deep, personal commitment on behalf of the poor and oppressed. It must be genuine. Look again at the verbs of personal sacrifice and action—“loose the chains,” “set … free,” “share,” “provide,” “clothe,” and “do not turn away.” It is not a call to “slacktivism” or a depersonalized concern. A personal connection to the poor and oppressed is central to Isaiah 58. The prophet is showing us how to recalibrate our lives. And he’s sketching out a map leading to an unimaginable treasure. A treasure of God’s promises.
The promises of Isaiah 58, the third part of the message, offer assurance that if you live the True Fast then God will heal you, guard you, guide you, strengthen you, and listen to you. God will show up. You will become like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. You will be called “repairers” and “restorers.” God will give you life and beauty and joy. These astonishing promises speak to the longings of His people for guidance and healing, for protection and strength, for good reputation, and for life. Don’t we still long for these things?
The three-fold message from Isaiah 58 cries out to us today with conviction, passion, and hope. We are broken by the reprimand of our irrelevant religious performances, we are challenged to recalibrate our lives toward the True Fast, and we are struck with wonder over the incredible promises. The prophet’s voice must be heard again by our generation.
Sadly we often hear only the first part of the prophet’s message. Critics of our religious habits sit in the cheap seats and rant against our hypocrisy, lobbing loveless and destructive words like grenades at the Church. But love for God’s people motivates and saturates the prophetic words of Isaiah. Love sees what is possible and yearns for it to come alive.
Love burdens Isaiah’s heart as he cries out for change. The true prophets of the twenty-first century are burdened with that same love. They don’t spew their words in unguided rants. Instead, they point the way forward to greater hope and offer guidance on how to recalibrate our lives. They entice us with stories of the waiting treasure of God’s promises and they are daring to share the map that will lead us to it. The map of Isaiah 58 guides us into something that is somewhat foreign to our culture—fasting. A natural response to a grievous sacred moment. Felt in the gut and compelling us to action. It is not simply a willingness to skip a meal. It is a change of appetite, a new desire, which motivates our action in response to the grief and embraces the sacred opportunity.
Such action is never a show. Unlike the performances of the people Isaiah addresses, authentic action is not a notice-me religion. It doesn’t try to impress people with “ta-da” charity. Instead, authentic action wants to know if it “worked.” Disingenuous action is pleased with itself regardless of its effect—the performance is about me and the important thing is my act of charity. But authentic action is always motivated by something beyond itself and strives for the advancement of another.
The True Fast produces a hunger that cannot be satisfied with a show—it demands results and will remain hungry until the good we desire has been achieved.
If we are serious about living the True Fast, then we will be serious about our thinking, use of resources, and even our habits. We will create a culture of effective Christian generosity with the objective of ending extreme global poverty.
We cannot defeat Goliath by talking about him. By shouting angry words from the safety of the ridge above his valley. By posing in a posture of defiance rather than knocking him down and hacking off his head. Isaiah 58 calls us to do away with idle words. The True Fast will change us from verbal posing to authentic action—intelligent, credible, personal action rooted in love and seeking results. The end of idle words. The end of poverty.
We can fuel an unprecedented scale of social change through the Church, influencing governments and even the business sector. Powered by God’s love, we can charge Goliath with ferocious faith, bring him down with well-focused strategy, and hack off his head. Our timidity here has a lot to do with our low expectations of the future. If we think the poor will always be with us, then they probably will.
It’s time for new expectations. It’s time to be strong.
To be effective in this fight we have to understand our enemy. He is formidable, but we can take him! We must be released from the tyranny of our low expectations that tell us poverty is unstoppable. Similarly, we must bring clarity to the confusing claim that poverty is a metaphor rather than a brutal reality. With God-given insight into the realities, causes and challenges of global poverty, we will prevail.
An expert on global poverty, Scott C. Todd is a senior ministry adviser at Compassion International and serves as chairman of the board for North America’s largest network of Christian relief and development organizations. He co-authored Shared Strength, Relentless Hope and wrote Poverty. Todd also is one of the leading voices of the 58: Initiative to end extreme poverty around the world. The initiative includes the book Fast Living and 58: The Film, which releases in October 2011.
This excerpt is from Fast Living: How the Church Will End Extreme Poverty, by Scott C. Todd. Copyright © 2011 by Compassion International. Used by permission of Compassion International.
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