Is God Impressed By our Religious Exploits? #181
Hello friends and Happy Friday to you! Allow me to urge you to pray evermore for God’s mercy and healing for our land – for repentance and for the Fear of God to rise up in our political leaders, our medical leaders, our church leaders and our family leaders. This is a time for us to humble ourselves, pray and ask God to remember mercy and heal our land. Raise your voice to the Heavens and keep raising it!
Today’s Bible readings are Deuteronomy 31, Psalms 119:97-120, Isaiah 58 and Matthew 6. Time has erased the exact date from my memory, but sometime in the late 90s or early 2000s, my wife Janet and I found ourselves home early for New Year’s Eve. She went to sleep fairly early, and I was in bed with her reading the Bible. Lest this story fool you, I need to say that I don’t normally read the Bible right before midnight on New Year’s Eve, but was doing it on this particular night for some reason. That night, I was reading Isaiah 58, and as the clock struck midnight and the new year began, something strange happened to me. It was like the Word of God came alive in a more powerful way than it had ever done so for me. The Words of Isaiah 58 were thumping into my heart like arrows, and they left a deep and lasting impression on me. That’s probably the way every Bible reading time should go – but speaking frankly, that hasn’t been my experience…but on this particular night, it was! Every passage of the Bible is important for various reasons, but I believe that Isaiah 58 is one of those peculiar and particular passages that are maximal in their contents of truth and their communication of the heart and passion of God.
For most Christians, if I say the word ‘fast’ in a church context, one would assume that I meant the voluntary forgoing of food for a certain amount of time, and that is indeed the proper definition. That said, God redefines the word for us in a glorious way in this passage, pointing out a truth that we must understand as the people of God: doing religious deeds – even religious feats of sacrifice like fasting – with hearts far from God and actions far from those that are God pleasing – is a waste of time. God is not impressed by our church attendance, by our programs, by our writing, by our doing of daily Bible podcasts, by our Scripture memory, by our speed in sword drills, by how many sermons we’ve preached, how many sermons we’ve heard, how many biblical languages we know, how many hours of seminary we’ve completed, how many people go to our church, how many people we’ve witnessed to, or ANY other thing like that…if our hearts and actions are far from Him!
God is not impressed by our outward religious behavior. God is impressed by the inner person:
7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or his stature because I have rejected him. Humans do not see what the Lord sees, for humans see what is visible, but the Lord sees the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7
7 Hypocrites! Isaiah prophesied correctly about you when he said: 8 This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. 9 They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines human commands.” Matthew 16:7-9
So God in Isaiah isn’t telling us not to fast, or not to memorize Scripture or Witness, or go to church – those are all good things and we must do them. He’s telling us they are meaningless, however, if our heart is far from God. Imagine a husband giving his wife flowers, tossing them down at her feet with barely a glance in her direction, and saying, numbly, ‘here: I got you some flowers.’ In the same way that wives aren’t impressed by empty gestures that have no heart behind them, God is even less impressed (indeed, He is repulsed!) by religious activities that are not wholehearted. Consider Malachi 1:10
10 “I wish one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would no longer kindle a useless fire on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord of Armies, “and I will accept no offering from your hands.
And now, let us do something slightly out of character and turn to our friend Charles Spurgeon. That’s not out of character, of course, but I’d like to read through his verse by verse notes on Isaiah 58 for us, and – at the same time – read the text of Isaiah 58 alongside those notes…in the King James Version!
Chapter 58 Verses 1, 2. Cry aloud, spare not, lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and shew my people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. Yet they seek me daily,—
There are many nominally religious people who are full of sin. They have an external religion which allows them to live in rebellion against God. And such people are not easily convinced of sin. Hence the prophet is bidden to lift up his voice like a trumpet; yet, even if he does so, they will not hear him. There are none so deaf as those that will not hear; and these men are not wishful to hear what God has to say to them: “Yet they seek me daily,”—
2. And delight to know my ways, as a nation that did righteousness, and forsook not the ordinance of their God: they ask of me the ordinances of justice; they take delight in approaching to God.
They are always in a place of worship if possible; they cannot have too many services and sermons; yet they have no heart towards God. O my dear friends, let us always be afraid of merely external religiousness! Genuine conversion, real devotion to God, true communion with God,—these are sure things; but mere outward religiousness is nothing but so much varnish and tinsel, it is indeed but the ghastly coffin of a soul that never was quickened unto spiritual life.
This is the way these sham religionists talked about their religion,—
3. Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?
When God rejects a man’s religion, what must be the reason of it? Here is the explanation.
3. Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours.
“You fast, but you make your workmen toil on still; you determine that they shall not have one atom of their labour abated; and you make an amusement of what you call a fast: ‘In the day of your fast ye find pleasure.’ ”
4. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.
The best sort of mere external religion will soon turn sour. If you do not worship the Lord in a right spirit, God will loathe the very form of your service. Why, you might, by hypocrisy, make even prayer-meetings to be hateful in the sight of God; and the ordinances may be made as abominable to God as the mass itself. You can soon degrade sermon-hearing into mere listening to oratory, and the Sabbath-day may easily become an object only of superstitious and formal observance. The heart—the heart is everything; if that be wrong, it sours the sweetest things under heaven.
5. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the LORD?
Does God care for the externals of worship only? Is he satisfied with sackcloth and ashes, and the hanging down of the head like a bulrush?
6. Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
Yes, this is true fasting before God;—not to demand your pound of flesh, and declare that you will have it; not to grind down the poor man to the last farthing; but “to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free.”
7. Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
That is the kind of fast that the Lord approves,—to deny yourself that you may give to those who are in need.
8, 9. Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward. Then shalt thou call, and the LORD shall answer; thou shalt cry, and he shall say, Here I am. If thou take away from the midst of thee the yoke, the putting forth of the finger, and speaking vanity;
That is, if thou shalt take away all oppression, all wrong-doing to men, all talking of falsehood and speaking vanity: “Then shall thy light break forth as the morning.”
10, 11. And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noon day: and the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water, whose waters fail not.
What promises God gives to those who consider the poor and needy round about them! But if you shut your ears to the cry of the distressed, God will shut his ears to your cry.
12 And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.
13 If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own words:
14 Then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth, and feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
C. H. Spurgeon, “A Lost Christ Found,” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, vol. 45 (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1899), 107–108.