“For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’ Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high” (Isaiah 58:2-4). Is this us? A people who call out to God, asking and fasting, but with motivations and an impatience that causes our pleas to go unheard? A people that appear to approach God with prayers of righteousness, but that He knocks down a notch and considers us only “seeming” in our eagerness? A people that assume the cocktail of upright requests, mixed with false notions of holiness, will come to fruition because we’ve come to God in prayer and fasting?
Isaiah offers a word of response, begging us to answer more questions as we consider this: “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (58:5). These are implications that lead me to three conclusions. The first, that our longings need to be checked against the calendar and, just because respite isn’t received in our desired timing, we persevere past today in our pursuit if it is genuine. The second, that we seriously audit our intentions and motivations as we divulge our hearts before God to align them with what He considers worthy. The third, that we strive to seek His consolation while living without an attitude that draws quarrels, exploitation, and strife into the mix. All three involve a constancy of inward and outward checking that surely is exhausting, but a battle worth waging if we truly want our “voice[s] to be heard on high” and deeply desire them to be “acceptable to the Lord.”
If we’re to read on in this 58th chapter of Isaiah, we are given a lengthy answer to what kind of fasting God has chosen and the promises He gives as a result of it (6-14). It is a list of deeds that go above and beyond a period of time, in expectation that we receive credit and our wishes fulfilled; but a way of living into the light and healing He provides (58:8). Do we doubt His promises and provision? Is it our ignorance and naivety that holds us back from following His directions? Worse yet, there are some of us who, although aware of our sinful status in any certain situation, will continue to purposely stray from His commands for reasons only known to them. Correction: reasons also known by God. These are the folks who knowingly engage in contemptuous behavior, without apology, and find themselves among those questioning God in verses 2-4.
God tells us that we ought not expect Him to hear us if we’re blatantly unrepentant or unwilling to offer contrition. Is this surprising? Even among our own relationships, it’s understandable how one could take issue with another claiming to come in need, but wholly unable to realize the depth of their own brokenness or neediness. He says, “I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15). A blessing not to take lightly, but our pride gets in the way and humility, as God defines it, is often just beyond our reach.
Those that can consider what God claims is true fasting, that stay the course, consistently check their intentions in accordance with Him rather than their own flesh, and struggle to refrain from participating in injustices and striking each other with wicked fists can, with righteous expectation, receive this: “Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I” (Isaiah 58:9). At times, our eagerness to achieve what we want may feel gargantuan to us, but fortunately, it is God, not us, who judges whether our attempts are meager or not. And like a broken record, I repeat, only Scripture will guide us in discerning what pleases, or displeases, our God. Let us not “seem” eager for God to come near, but wholeheartedly be eager and He will answer.