The sun was setting on a sweltering late Friday afternoon in Amman, Jordan. Sun filtered through the dust in the air, glazing the buildings and streets below, as the smell of petrol wafted through my open window.

I had just returned from a lengthy day of study and prayer at the Qasid Arabic Institute and was preparing to host my Muslim friends for dinner. The previous night, they had shown me overwhelming hospitality while serving dinner in their own home, and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to match their level of love and sincerity—or meet the culinary standards instilled in me by my Mexican mother. More than anything, I wanted whatever meal I cooked to convey the fullness of my mutual affection for and genuine fraternity with them.

After all, this was the month of Ramadan—a holy month for Muslims, where they fast from dawn to dusk to engender hospitality, prayer, and spiritual purification. How could I infuse my deep appreciation for what I had learned about fasting and prayer from my Muslim friends with the fragrant love of Christ? “God, please bless these chicken fajitas after a day of fasting and enliven good conversation after a time of prayer,” I prayed silently.

By the grace of God, my homemade chicken fajitas were well-received, and our group sat around the table to enjoy hours of good conversation—about the gospel, prayer, and what it is like to have sincere faith in a world that seems to be careening into secularism.

The short three months I spent in Jordan fundamentally transformed my understanding of God in numerous ways. And in this holy season of Lent, I have begun to rethink what it means to fast and pray as a Christian in light of my experience reading the Gospels in a Muslim-majority context.

Growing up in a Catholic family, I used to think fasting was about not eating certain foods and lauding those people who dedicated themselves to strict dietary regimes. After embracing Protestantism in high school, I began to think of fasting as something that misguided people did to try and earn their salvation—and I, Reformed Christian Alex, clearly knew better than they did. Instead, I would “fast” by giving up something I enjoyed to show God how serious I was about this fasting thing. In turn, my prayers for repentance would be that God would invade my interior life and make me more holy. I believed in the sovereignty of God so much that I expected God to do all the work.

Looking back, I realize I’d misunderstood the significance and the purpose of spiritual practices like fasting and prayer—both as a Catholic and as a Protestant. Fasting is not about food; it is not about appearing emaciated like St. Jerome. And it is also not about the act of giving up something to demonstrate my holiness. What I have come to understand is that true fasting and prayer, as outlined in Scripture, is a rebellious act against our desires and a disposition for action.

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In Matthew chapter 6, just after listing the Beatitudes, Jesus teaches his disciples to not look somber while fasting—a mark of hypocrisy. Rather, he says, “when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matt. 6:17–18).

Fasting is not for the sake of other people or even for our own sake. Jesus seems to be telling us that fasting is for the sake of God. Those who look somber and who mark their faces with ash desire the attention of others. Their religiosity is on display. Their quest for holiness is motivated by self-satisfaction and the attention they get from others. They believe they are spiritually satiated because they feel full of religious vigor and commitment. But this is not the kind of religiosity that God wants.

The prophet Isaiah critiqued Israel for seeking God’s blessings while oppressing others in Isaiah 58, declaring “on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers” (v. 3). He describes how Israel cries out for God to recognize their fasting because they have bowed their heads “like a reed” and laid in “sackcloth and ashes” (v. 5).

Yet Isaiah responds, “You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (v. 4). Instead, the fasting God desires is “to loosen the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke.” He further instructs his audience “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter” (vv. 6–7). This fast will result in Israel’s righteousness shining “like the dawn” and “healing will quickly appear” (v. 8). Only this fast of justice will bring glory to God and invoke his blessing, Isaiah says.

Isaiah is critical of those whose stomachs are full of holy vigor because they perform the outward actions of fasting and expect God and society to recognize their piety. Their fast has become indifferent to God’s desires. Self-deprivation, whether through fasting or even through giving to the poor, has becomes a means to advance their own agendas, leading to injustice.

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The fast God calls for in Isaiah is one that not only attends to the oppressed, but also ends the systematic exploitation (v. 3c) and violence (v. 4) that perpetuates oppression. Instead of merely giving to the poor, Isaiah calls Israel to “loosen the chains of injustice” (v. 6a)—by addressing the unjust systems keeping them poor.

The Lord desires a fast that rebels against systemic brokenness in the world—a fast that overturns injustice, liberates the oppressed, feeds the hungry, and clothes the naked. The goal of fasting is not a hungry stomach—but one must hunger. It is not strictly a form of self-denial, but the self must be denied. Fasting is a rebellious act, saying no to the things we desire to create a deep sense of hunger within us for the perfect justice and righteousness of God.

In our age, we are constantly assaulted with demands for our attention, distracted by entertainment, and concerned with our self-image online. When we starve the idols of our desire, we feel hungry, tense, and unsettled. And so, I believe the fasting God desires is a fast that unsettles us to the core of our being, where we cannot truly find rest until we are united with the object of our desires: God. Put simply, fasting allows our souls to experience an unsatiated hunger that only God can truly satisfy. The fasted soul, united with God, does not desire the praise of others. What is the praise of others when one is filled with God?

Fasting involves a rebellion against our capitalist consumerism that tells us that, to be happy, we need to consume more. The soul in God does not feel overly burdened by feeding the poor, liberating the oppressed, and countering injustice. Instead, the fasted soul feels a compulsion from God to do these things. The soul that is in God cannot help but desire God’s kingdom here on earth.

It is this desire for God’s kingdom of justice and freedom here on earth that impels the fasted soul to prayer. This compulsion to prayer is the result of tension the fasted soul attains between dwelling in the presence of God and living in a broken world. One the one hand, the fasted soul dwelling with God has a vision for the potential glory of creation as it should be in God’s kingdom. One the other hand, in this life we cannot dwell in the presence of God forever. We must engage creation as it is and not escape into a holy shelter away from the oppressed and poor.

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Indeed, we see this in the transfiguration when Peter desires to “put up three shelters” for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah hinting that he wants to remain in this state forever (Matt. 17:4). Yet Jesus leads them off the mountain of glory and immediately heals a demon-possessed boy (Matt. 17:14-20). Jesus shows his disciples that although it is good to see the glory of the Lord it is not sufficient to dwell in this state forever while the world needs healing.

In this season of Lent, we should consider how the fasted soul moves the believer from desire to prayer inspired action. When we fast, we train our souls to focus on its true desire—God. Starved of idols, the fasted soul yearns for God. Yet faced with the tremendous need in the world, our first recourse is to call out in prayer. Like fasting, prayer is not for the praise of others. Jesus taught his disciples to “be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others” because they will “have no reward” from God (Matt. 6:1).

Instead, he instructs his followers to pray in seclusion and with intention, because God already knows what is best before we even speak (Matt. 6:5–8). This sets up an interesting tension. On the one hand, humans need words to pray, because without words we struggle to communicate. Yet when we use words, we can fall into assuming that God operates according to our norms, constraining God to the concepts that our words communicate. When we pray for “the good,” for example, we are constrained to the English language and our cultural context. A Christian praying for Ḥasan in Arabic is praying for something good, excellent, or favorable.

On the other hand, Jesus tells us that God knows what is best even before we speak. In this sense, God is beyond the constraints of human language. God both accommodates the intentions in our words and is beyond the limited language concepts embedded in our words. Our notion of what is “good” cannot contain God, who is ineffable, beyond our human minds. The fasted soul understands this because the believer has given up her or his intellectual idols and is open to God acting in ways that are beyond our understanding. Indeed, God is greater than our limited conception of goodness. And praise be to God!

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The joint practice of fasting and prayer cultivates the soul’s yearning to commune with God and seek his kingdom through tangible actions in this world. The fasting soul confesses, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Such fasting awakens a desire to loosen the bonds of injustice, to break the yoke of oppression, to feed the hungry, to open homes to the homeless, and to clothe the naked. Prayer arising out of a fasted soul often leads to tangible action. As rabbi Abraham Heschel said when he returned from Selma with Martin Luther King Jr. and was asked if he found time to pray, “I prayed with my feet.”

As I sat in my apartment on that late June evening listening to the waning sounds of prayer echoing from the mosque next door, I was hungry. I had not eaten all day. It was Ramadan and I was fasting with my Muslim friends as an example of my Christian faith. Having fasted for several days, eating only before sun-up and after sun-down, I had become accustomed to the feeling of physical hunger.

However, I discovered a different, deeper hunger during that month—a spiritual hunger for God’s kingdom to be made manifest in the lives of myself and the people around me. I wanted to see the gospel for the poor and oppressed in action: for the man with his donkey-pulled cart of fuel tanks to be freed from his poverty, for my refugee friends to find a safe and permanent home, and for the city where I lived to flourish. I yearned for the universe to attain the harmony found in its Creator.

And although we ate, I left hungry. Although we talked late into the night, I felt discontented. Fasting had awakened a new perspective, one that was not satisfied with knowledge or material gain. Having fasted during Ramadan, I began to realize the holy discontent that one feels when confronted by a world that is suffering, in need of people radically transformed by God.

I have long since left Jordan. I have a wonderful family, work that is fulfilling and meaningful, and could not ask for more. Yet in the quiet moments of the day, I find my soul restlessly yearning for a fast. In this time of Lent and Ramadan, let us fast to clarify our soul’s yearning for God. Let this clarity compel you to pray. And let these prayers excite you to action.

Alexander Massad is assistant professor of world religions at Wheaton College.

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