And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly. And the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? . . . (1 Kings 21:27-29)
The mercy of God surrounds every pain and hardship we experience. He fashions and molds us as He wills in manners we rarely understand. Yet, his incomprehensible mercy is an abiding balm that soothes our every sorrow and grief.
Guilt implies internalization of the moral rules of the society; therefore, a guilty person experiences negative emotions regardless of whether other people are present or aware of his or her transgressions. Guilt is remedied by confession and penance . . . [The Journal of Social Psychology, August, 1998 by Lester, David]
The penitential fast is a means to manifest regret and contrition before the Creator. Its primary purpose is to approach God with sincere compunction and remorse, to restore the damaged relationship.
God prescribes fasting as a spiritual remedy, a ready penance available to all, anytime. It need not be within a particular month or in a holy season. Fasting offers us an ever-open door to self-evaluation, rededication and commitment.
God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” [Romans 2:4].
This fasting as self-imposed punishment for our errors or misdeeds can be a paradox since we also fast for its positive spiritual benefits. In His mercy, the Creator imposes a punishment which, if observed correctly, enhances repentance, atonement and, ultimately, conversion.
However highly works may be estimated, they have their whole value more from the approbation of God than from their own dignity. For who will presume to plume himself before God on the righteousness of works, unless in so far as He approves of them? Who will presume to demand of Him a reward except in so far as He has promised it? It is owing entirely to the goodness of God that works are deemed worthy of the honor and reward of righteousness; and, therefore, their whole value consists in this, that by means of them we endeavor to manifest obedience to God. [John Calvin, Book 3:11, The Institutes of The Christian Religion].
Thus, the fast can simultaneously punish and elevate, revitalizing our vacillating faith and edifying the shaken foundations of a wavering believer. As with the modern concept of community service, the punishment is designed to benefit as well as to chastise.
And Samuel said, Gather all Israel to Mizpeh, and I will pray for you unto the LORD. And they gathered together to Mizpeh, and drew water, and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day, and said there, We have sinned against the LORD. [1 Samuel 7:5-6]
Fasting can also be a group response to a calamity. People just do not feel very hungry after an occurrence of widespread destruction or distress. At such times, we consciously exchange transitory pleasures for sober introspection and self-analysis. Fasting is quite consistent with such a state.
The penitential fast offers an acceptable catharsis, expressing remorse for any personal culpability associated with the disaster. By acknowledging indirect complicity, we assuage our guilt, manifesting true contrition by turning to God for mercy.
Say, O My slaves who have been prodigal to their own hurt! Despair not of the mercy of God, who forgives all sins. Lo! He is the Forgiving, the Merciful. Turn to Him repentant, and surrender unto Him, before there comes upon you the doom, when you cannot be helped.
And follow the better of that which has been revealed unto you from your Lord, before the doom comes on you suddenly when you know not. Lest any soul should say, “Alas, my grief that I was unmindful of God, and I was indeed among the scoffers!” Or should say, “If God had but guided me, I should have been among the dutiful!” Or should say, when it sees the doom, “Oh, that I had but a second chance, that I might be among the righteous!” [Quran 39.53-58].