In “The Picture of Dorian Grey,” a novel by Oscar Wilde, the title character, a young man, gets his portrait painted by an artist who is impressed with this young man’s beauty. Then Dorian meets a friend of the artist, a young nobleman, who has a hedonistic world view. Dorian’s new friend Lord Henry suggests the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment of the senses.
Realizing that one day his beauty will fade, Dorian wishes out loud that he could sell his soul to ensure he would keep his outward beauty, and his portrait would age rather than himself. Dorian’s wish is fulfilled, as he commits more and more debased and debauched acts in what he thinks is the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment.
The portrait serves as a reminder of the effect each act has upon his soul, with each sin making his portrait look older and more diseased.
What does the rest of the world see? The handsome, dashing Dorian Grey.
He keeps the reality hiding away in the closet, his secret kept close, under lock and key.
Piety, Or So It Seems
Let us pretend you and I have moved to a new town and we are looking for a church. What would we look for? Well, let us look at this congregation here:
day after day they seek meIsaiah 58:2 (NRSVUE)
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
they want God on their side.
At first, it sounds like a great place, does it not?
- They seek God every day!
- They delight to know God’s ways!
- They ask for God’s righteous judgments!
- They want God on their side!
What could Isaiah possibly have against all that?
But there is trouble in this congregation.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?Isaiah 58:3 (NRSVUE)
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Here is an assembly of God’s people who appear to be doing all the right things, all these good things, with no awareness, it seems, that to God something is deeply wrong. So they ask plaintively, Why is God not responding to us?
They were frustrated. Here they were prostrating themselves, humbling themselves, and it seemed so unfair for God not to notice! With all their piety, their fasting and praying and self-deprivation, they resented God’s lack of response.
They were trying to obligate God and pressure God into responding to them.
The key is in the phrase “as if” in verse 2. The people may have had authentic religious fervor, but it was religion they loved, not God.
How could God tell the difference?
The Reality Revealed
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast dayIsaiah 58:4 (NRSVUE)
and oppress all your workers.
You fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
To fast is to forego something essential in order to focus on God.
But the people Isaiah was writing to were focusing on themselves. It looked good to each other anyway, they were in full form with bowing heads, sackcloth, and ashes, but God saw straight into their hearts. It was religion without any reality. Religion that impressed each other, and themselves, but was empty of the things that matter to God.
And it was still business as usual. Slamming doors at home, yelling at everybody, indulging themselves with other pleasures, short tempered, arguing on the way to worship … Did they think God only saw what they looked like in public? That God only noticed when they were in the temple?
Actually, going to church, fasting on certain days, keeping regular prayers and all that is still a lot less work, a lot less investment, than taking care of people, sharing what we have with others, looking for ways to help those in need, doing what is right at a cost to ourselves.
It is not that God did not want God’s people to pray, or to spend time in Scripture, searching out God’s wisdom. You and I do need to be quiet with the Lord in a consistent way. We do need worship, prayer, praises, singing, fasting in our desire to draw near to God. Faith is deeply internal and personal, yes. But faith is much more than a feeling, or a conviction.
Faith follows through in how we live our lives.
James, one of the leaders of the early church, said that real faith is expressed in taking care of other people. You and I cannot say, “Bless you brother,” or “Bless you sister,” then walk away leaving that person hungry and in need. That is never what the Lord Jesus did. Neither can we ignore others’ needs.
The fasting God called for focuses on repentance and emphasizes God. Their fasting focused on receiving God’s favor and blessing, emphasis on themselves—they were seeking to gain God’s favor with works. People who actually do delight in God’s ways and long for God’s justice regularly do acts of service, mercy, justice, righteousness, and kindness for those in need, out of genuine love and compassion.
Saved to Serve
Paul explored this topic in his circular to the assemblies in Ephesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus -for- good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we may walk in them.Ephesians 2:8-10 (NRSVUE, emphasis added)
Essentially, we are saved to serve.
No one can be saved by human works. On the other hand, God has prepared works to be done by the person who has already been saved, and in this case, works are absolutely necessary, because they were planned out by God for all who have been born anew from above. In fact, if there are no good works, then it is fair to wonder if there is new life. An outward proof of inwardly changed life is the presence of good works—as James famously wrote,
So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.
But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from works, and I by my works will show you faith.James 2:17-18
And as God says here,
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
… Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”
If you remove the yoke from among you,Isaiah 58:6-7, 9-10 (NRSVUE)
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.