I’ve recently been studying Isaiah 58 and have been struck by how we often mistake sinfulness for anti-religious behavior. Here, the sin God denounces is improper piety.
God tells Isaiah to “cry aloud” with a voice like a trumpet against the people’s sin (58:1). When we read the subsequent verses we see that the problem was not that they were irreligious. In fact, they were very devout (58:2-3). The sin was that the heart of their worship was wrong. Instead of genuinely seeking after God, they were practicing a self-serving religion.
They complained, “We fast and you don’t see. We afflict our souls and you ignore us.” God says they fasted “to make their voice to be heard on high.” (58:3-4)
This is not merely about fasting. It is about all forms of expressed worship. If I pray, give, sing, preach, or serve to increase my stature with man or with God I have a me-centered religion.
We can do any of these things “to be seen of men,” or to “be heard” by God. (Matthew 6:1-18) We can display commendable doctrine and works (Revelation 2:1-7), but if we do them out of love for ourselves rather than love for God they are a “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.” (1 Corinthians 13:1)
Religious expression is not about making a show of myself, nor is it making sure God likes me more. It is about expressing love for God (Isaiah 58:5), which radically alters how we express love to others (Isaiah 58:6-7), and brings the blessings of God’s love to us (Isaiah 58:8-12).
This matter is not exclusive to those listening to Isaiah. It was true of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. It was true of the Ephesians in John’s. It’s true of us.
Religious deeds designed to increase my favor with man or God are offered only at the altar of Me.