This is a very relevant warning for us in a day of great worship renewal. Many people are discovering the joy of meeting God in extended times of emotionally charged singing to the Lord. I personally find such seasons of lingering before the Lord a very rich communion with him. But I see a danger. The danger is that we will subtly slip from loving God in these moments into loving loving God. That’s the way one of my colleagues put it recently. In other words, we begin to savor not the glory of God but the atmosphere created by worship. When this happens we open ourselves to hypocrisy. And under the cloak of great religious fervor, deadly inconsistencies can emerge in our lives.
It All Looked So Good
Something is wrong in the worship of Isaiah 58. The people express their frustration in verse 3, but they don’t know what is wrong. They say to God, “Why have we fasted and Thou dost not see? Why have we humbled [or afflicted] ourselves and Thou dost not notice?” In fact, verses 2 and 3 mention five religious activities they are doing in vain. In verse 2 it says (1) they are seeking God; (2) they delight to know God’s ways; (3) they ask God for just decisions; and (4) they delight in the nearness of God. Then in verse 3, they are (5) fasting and afflicting themselves. Yet, in spite of all of that, God tells Isaiah, “Cry loudly [not softly, not quietly, but loudly] … and declare to my people their transgression” (verse 1).
They were fasting. They were seeking God’s face. They were praying. They were doing a kind of external humbling of themselves. This all sounds just like what we are supposed to do, according to 2 Chronicles 7:14. Nevertheless, this fasting and this worship is not pleasing to the Lord. It is the kind of fasting and worship we do not want. And yet, we ask, what is wrong with seeking God, and delighting to know his ways, and asking him for just decisions, and delighting in his nearness, and fasting and humbling ourselves before him? What is wrong with that? It sounds like the very way we talk about worship at its best! Is that not sobering? Does that that not make us tremble? Does it not make us want to get so real with God that we could never be startled by the Lord in this way—with our most zealous religious practices and desires exposed as a sham?
What’s wrong with their worship? God answers:
Behold, on the day of your fast
you find your desire,
And drive hard all your workers.
Behold, you fast for contention and strife
and to strike with a wicked fist.
You do not fast like you do today
to make your voice heard on high.
Is it a fast like this which I choose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed,
And for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed?
Will you call this a fast,
even an acceptable day to the LORD? (verses 3b–5)
So here’s the issue. The ethical, practical, relational accompaniments of fasting are the real test of the authenticity of the fasting. God lists the external religious forms of fasting: humbling or afflicting oneself (no food), bowing the head like a reed, spreading out sackcloth and ashes. Then he lists the (un)ethical accompaniments of fasting: you go after your own pleasure (in some other way besides eating), you drive hard all your workers; you become irritable or contentious and stir up strife; and you even go so far as to get into fights. And God asks, “Is this the fast that I choose?” The answer is No.
John Piper, A Hunger for God: Desiring God through Fasting and Prayer (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1997), 132–134.
I have just completed a series of lessons on the theme of Loving God. They are available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions, as well as part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription service. For a medium-sized church, lesson subscriptions are only $10 per teacher per year.