Religion, faith in God or following Christ is not a matter of religious observance as if you can treat God like a slot machine. You cannot make Him to do anything for you. He is no genie in a bottle that you can manipulate with the right magic words and force Him to manifest Himself and say, “Your wish is my command”. It’s exactly the opposite – we have been created for Him, for His glory.
But once you get that right, you will orientate your life towards God seeking Him for Himself. You will learn to love Him and live for Him, just because He is who He is. And you will have an amazing discovery—God’s way works.
At the heart of it all is living right—walking humbly before God, caring for the poor and delighting yourself in the Lord.
The prophetic voice calling us to this lifestyle is being raised today. Just as in Bible times, God is laying His heart bare, exposing His burden for the poor and needy, for the weak and vulnerable in our world. Along with this comes a stern warning from the Lord of His judgement upon a careless people who are content with playing religion while neglecting the real cause of Christ – to make His love known to the world in word and deed.
When religion becomes a sin
Isaiah 58 is one of the greatest chapters in the Bible dealing with the pursuit of godless religion at the expense of genuine compassion for the poor. This prophetic word begins with an exposure of the sin and unrighteousness of God’s people in Isaiah’s day. Above all, the prophet exposes the religious pretenders of his generation – those who were extremely religious but whose religion was of absolutely no value to God, themselves or others.
“Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet; tell My people their transgression, And the house of Jacob their sins.” Isaiah 58:1
They had a form of religious externalism which loved the performance of religious acts but was a superficial cover for a superstitious and selfish way of life.
The prophet observed the people during one of the fast days—one of the religious “bank holidays’ in which people fasted supposedly to seek the face of God. He saw the utter futility of what they were doing. They were going about it in totally the wrong way. And it was all a fruitless and frustrating exercise.
This cuts to the heart of much of contemporary Christianity and shows us how to bring correction to our lives and find true satisfaction in Christ. This word from Isaiah exposes the same thing today where people who, despite being extremely religious, find no satisfaction in religion, because it’s not working—God is not, it seems responding to them.
” ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?'” Isaiah 58:3
God doesn’t play audience to our religious performances
At the root of all such religion is the vain attempt to get God to comply with our wishes. But He is not our servant. The Christian faith is more about what we can give to God in loving response to His grace in our lives than trying to get His attention through our religious deeds. God resists all forms of religious ritual which are not a genuine expression of the heart. He never succumbs to religious pressure to perform or to our attempts at spiritual manipulation.
“Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the LORD?” Isaiah 58:5
The fasting God has chosen
Instead of the hyperactivity of false religion God calls for genuine spirituality and leaves us in no doubt just what that is:
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh?” Isaiah 58: 6-7
Here, true worship is measured not in any outward acts of religion but the simple expression of genuine compassion on others. This is in line with the word of other prophets:
“He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justly, To love mercy, And to walk humbly with your God?” Micah 6:8
James shows that this is also a New Testament matter:
“Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” James 1:27
The test is as simple as it is searching. How you deal with people and how you express your care and love for your neighbour is an expression of what you really think about God.
“If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” 1 John 4:20
The fasting God has chosen is to use every opportunity in your life of faith to reach out to people in need.
This is not mere moralism, or the social gospel or salvation by good works. Rather, it is the expression your love for God as you respond to His love in your heart.
Working to change society
Our faith is to be made practical in the modern world of social injustice and pressure on the weak. God wants us to help change wrong structures, to overturn situations and oppose people who destroy or diminish the liberty and well-being of others.
Reaching out to individual need
There are three simple things we can work together to do which are guaranteed to make a difference to others and bring God’s blessing. God calls us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and clothe the naked.
HEAVEN BREAKS OPEN
“Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.'” Isaiah 58:8-9a
What a contrast this is to futile religion and our vain attempts to get God to bless us through spiritual manipulation. Once we stop trying to make God respond to us and instead respond to Him, once we stop trying to get God to serve us and we begin truly to serve Him, we find heaven open and His blessing come pouring down upon us.
What you can never receive by any acts of religion God will pour out upon you just because you fulfil His conditions and express His heart to the poor.
Look at the blessings which come to you this way—that is, as a byproduct and not from intentionally looking for these things.
ISAIAH 58 – 12 BLESSINGS OF AN OPEN HEAVEN
1. A NEW BEGINNING IN LIFE
Then your light shall break forth like the morning (verse 8).
God will give you to a new day full of promise and joy.
2. PERSONAL HEALING AND RESTORATION
Your healing shall spring forth speedily (verse 8).
Your healing and restoration will come swiftly like fresh flesh growing over an open wound.
3. SECURITY AND PROTECTION
And your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard (verse 8).
Righteousness will be your protection from behind and the glory of the Lord your protection in front. This means the Lord in all His glory is going before you to bring you security and protection.
4. FREE FLOWING FELLOWSHIP WITH THE LORD AND ANSWERED PRAYER
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am’ (verse 9).
God will respond to you and will always be ready, just as a servant is, to act to fulfil your need.
5. CLEAR GUIDANCE IN LIFE
Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, and your darkness shall be as the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually (verses 10-11).
This is the promise of light in the darkness of the midnight hour when you don’t know where to turn and you don’t know what to do. He will give you light, comfort, guidance and direction.
6. DIVINE PROVISION IN TIME OF NEED
And satisfy your soul in drought (verse 11).
This is not just referring to what the Lord will give, but where and when He will give it – when everything appears most hopeless and most bleak. In the dry and barren times God will come and meet your need.
7. INNER STRENGTH FOR THE BATTLE
And strengthen your bones (verse 11).
This is the inner strength which you need to help you keep going day by day in the heat of the battle, in the midst of the conflict. When you grow weary, the Lord will give you this inner strength. It’s the life of God inside you – love when you are not loved, peace when you are troubled and the joy which is your strength in times of sorrow.
8. CONSTANT REFRESHMENT
You shall be like a well-watered garden. And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail (verse 11).
When all around you is failing and resources are running dry you will enjoy the constant flow of refreshing from the Lord.
9. RESTORATION FROM THE PAST AND PROVISION FOR THE FUTURE
Those from among you shall build the old waste places; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; and you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to dwell in (verse 12).
God promises you recovery from past disasters in your life and provision for your future well-being.
10. GENUINE SATISFACTION
Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord (verse 14).
Nothing is more frustrating than fruitless, dissatisfying religion. It is sheer drudgery and an absolute bore. Still worse it is deeply disturbing. Because if God appears not to have the answers, or not to be adequate for our lives, then where is the answer to be found? But the real joy is to discover your total sufficiency, and your 100% delight in the Lord. This is the real secret of life and living: God only promises Himself—and that’s enough!
True worship is absolute delight in God and in God alone—without one hint of idolatry in your heart.
11. CONFIDENCE IN LIFE
And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth (verse 14).
God promises you success, confidence, a positive outlook, a positive outcome in all things. These things are not to be judged superficially or outwardly in some worldly sense, but God will give you the true, deep joy of real confidence in Himself which no one can take away from you.
12. ENJOYING THE COVENANT BLESSINGS OF GOD
And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father (verse14).
This is the promise which lies at the heart of the Bible—God choosing a people, separating them to Himself, and pouring His goodness and blessings into their lives. The covenant conditions of faithfulness, heart relationship with God and true obedience, qualify you to enjoy His covenant blessings.
And at the heart of these is the promise of God: “I will be your God, and you will be My people”. This blessing is His presence and His overwhelming goodness saturating every part your life.