Having spent a lot of time in church, I have to wonder if we are confused about joy. We spend inordinate amounts of energy on how we “do church” in order to elicit feelings. Services are carefully crafted to involve the whole person—soul, body, mind, and emotion.
But sometimes I wonder how God views these efforts. Do we run the risk of sliding into a situation like we see in the book of Isaiah? The people are joyless and angry at God for not showing up, for not responding to their fasting and worship. And God, for his part, is angry at the people. A standoff ensues. He is upset because the form of their worship has become entirely detached from its intended function:
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God.
Clearly God is angry. His people are seeking him day after day in the temple. But, from God’s perspective, there is some fundamental flaw. God’s tone is actually sarcastic! “Day after day they seek me . . . as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God” (Is. 58:2, emphasis added). Clearly, God sees an ironic disconnect between the people’s perception of their pursuit of him and the reality of it.
You can also hear the frustration of the people: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Is. 58:3). What’s wrong? God answers quite clearly:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
God’s answer comes clear and sharp. The people’s “religion” is completely detached from the rest of their lives. Their worship and fasting are having no effect on how they conduct themselves in other spheres of life.
What ‘Righteousness’ Means
The word translated righteousness in Isaiah 58:2 is tsedaqah, and its meaning combines the English words righteousness and justice. This may seem like an unimportant detail, but to disconnect these ideas makes it possible for us to think of Christianity as a disembodied spirituality that separates rightness with God from our social surroundings. It makes it seem possible to pursue personal holiness with God while at the same time disregarding the injustice around us. But both concepts are included in this single word; in God’s view, we simply can’t have righteousness without justice.
There is a long historical tendency for humans to divide life into two basic spheres: sacred and secular. In the sacred sphere, we try to contain all of our religious observance, all that we understand about God, and all that we do in life to worship and obey. The secular sphere, on the other hand, contains many of the unavoidable things in life: working, doing chores around the house, putting food on the table, changing diapers, or taking the car to the mechanic.
The problem is that if these two spheres are pulled far enough apart, hypocrisy breeds in the middle ground. In other words, if the sacred sphere of our lives becomes so far removed from the secular sphere that the first can no longer influence the second, we lose integrity as the people of God.
Uniting the Sacred and the Secular
This is the very thing that has happened in Isaiah 58. God’s people are crying out. They are engaging in their religious observance with abandon. But somehow they have allowed this spiritual reality to become disconnected from the physical one. God is aware that workers in their midst are being oppressed. God is aware that disputes among the people are not being resolved fairly. But somehow, all of this escapes their notice. Somehow, as they enter the temple, they convince themselves that they leave the secular and enter the sacred. They shake off all of the concerns of the world and simply pursue God—a God who, for some reason, remains elusive to them.
The deep irony they are missing (and that we sometimes miss) is that God longs to connect with them. He longs to pour out on them the very blessings for which they are pleading. But God’s solution to their problem will be somewhat counterintuitive. In order for them to find God, they’ll have to leave the temple, but bring the sacred with them back into the world. How will they find God? By engaging in the suffering of those around them:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs 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?
Essentially God is saying, "If you’re going to fast, at least have the wherewithal to share the bread you are choosing not to eat with those who have no bread at all!" To do otherwise would be to engage in a spiritual discipline (with God) entirely disengaged from the other human beings around you. Fasting in this disconnected way could never be considered tsedaqah.
Righteousness Is Personal
What’s striking about God’s words in Isaiah 58 is just how personal the commands are. God isn’t suggesting that I should know the right places to refer hungry people so they can get food; he’s telling me to feed them. He’s telling me to clothe the naked, free the oppressed, and bring the homeless poor into my house.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
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.
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
What God promises in return for obedience is astounding: a level of connection to God, a level of joy that is hard to imagine. And in my repeated experience, it is a level of joy that cannot be achieved by direct pursuit. Who stands to benefit more from God’s people being obedient to his mandate? Certainly the oppressed who are set free will benefit greatly. But it seems like God wants to show us that the people of God in general have at least as much to gain:
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.