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Like me, you may enjoy some religious activities. Bible reading and prayer reduce my anxiety and give me a sense of peace. Other people have a similar feeling about worship music.
We could add to a list of religious actions that are beneficial: informative sermons, small group discussions, Christian friends, and much more.
One religious activity that I have reluctantly done is fasting, the elimination of food for a while for spiritual purposes.
Isaiah 58 contains reasons why God pronounces religion to be wrong. He doesn’t speak about calming “quiet times” of prayer, but goes to a more difficult activity, fasting. Even fasting can be wrong.
When Fasting is Wrong
When can something as self-denying as fasting be wrong? Isaiah relates the kind of occasion when fasting is wrong.
Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers. (Isaiah 58.1-3)
God commanded Isaiah to announce to his people their rebellion and sin. Two phrases in these verses identify the problem with their religious activities.
— You delight to draw near to God (verse 2).
— You serve your own interests (verse 3).
It is one thing to use God for a “feel good” experience or to get something we want from him, and another to serve him in faith and trust.
Pagan religions seek to manipulate their gods through extreme effort. They deprive themselves and call out to their gods, “See how much I am suffering. Won’t you come to my aid?”
When we use fasting or other religious activities to get something from God, we are guilty of the same attitude as that of the pagans.
A pastor once said to his Sunday crowd, “The most spiritual thing you may do today is be kind while you are trying to leave the parking lot today.”
The pastor pointed out an important truth. If we engage in religious activity but remain self-centered, we have a long way to go in our walk with God.
A Sharper Point of Criticism
Isaiah put a sharper point on his criticism of religious activity.
Let’s not forget that the religious activity in mind is not the enjoying excellent of worship music or a good sermon, but depriving ourselves of food for spiritual purposes. Imagine what he may say about religious practices that require no more devotion than sitting in an air conditioned building for an hour.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord? (Isaiah 58.4-5)
Can you imagine a war that lasted 30 years and took the lives of 8 million humans? It happened. Not between Muslims and Hindus, or Muslims and Jews. It happened between Christians and other Christians in the 17th Century.
The Thirty Years War between Germany and France was over the ungodly splitting of hairs on doctrinal issues.
During those years, religious activity did not cease. Certain fast days were observed. Yet, the most predominant issue was the fight within the church of God that killed one-fourth of German men.
We do well to remember Paul’s evaluation of religious activity and the action of love.
He wrote, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
“If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13.1-3).
If our religious observance does not produce loving attitudes and actions, we need to evaluate it.
Religion that Works
God never intended for us to cease singing his praises, reading the Bible, listening to sermons, and prayer. Neither did he eliminate fasting and giving.
However, religious observances are not the end-product of religion. They are the means to the end. The end of religion is to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Matthew 22.36-40)
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isaiah 58.6-7)
One of the members of the men’s small group I attend asked for prayer this week. His daughter and grandchild were facing homelessness.
Several men in the group prayed for his needs. If we had prayed but offered no action, we would have come under the judgment of Isaiah 58.
After prayer, one of the men said, “I have a spare bedroom. Before your daughter is on the street, she can stay at my place.”
This man understood the spirit of love, as James said: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?
“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?
“So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2.14-17).
About This Blog
Rudy Ross and I discuss this passage today on the Bob Spradling YouTube Channel. Rudy is Jewish and a follower of Jesus Christ. He is an excellent Bible student and love of God. You will enjoy his insights.
Please email your prayer requests to firstname.lastname@example.org or private message me on Facebook. The Maywood prayer team will pray for you.