Every Thought Captive

Isaiah 58 and Spiritual Discipline

Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek me daily
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
    and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
    they delight to draw near to God.
‘Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
    and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
    and to hit with a wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
    will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?

Isaiah 58:1-6

“What’s going on here?
Well, essentially God is telling the Israelites
that they’ve been selfish in their practice
of what we nowadays call ‘spiritual disciplines.’”
—Kyle David Bennett

Our sin is insidious. Satan knows how to twist the good things of God, like spiritual disciplines, and we unwittingly follow along. According to Isaiah 58, the Israelites were trying to love God, they were trying to follow the pattern of life He laid out for them, but God sees their attempt to love and follow Him as a transgression and a sin.

I am no better than the Israelites in many of my spiritual practices. On days when I fast, I tend to break the fast when I reenter my home after work. On those days, I’ll often spend the spare moments of the day praying for a group of people or a set of issues removed from me. When I walk through the door of my home, I encounter a new set of people running in circles right in front of me (they are currently 6, 4, and 1). The heightened spiritual sensitivity I cultivated throughout the day fails me as I walk right past the chaos to the pantry. The love for God that I thought I was seeking doesn’t shine through in my interactions with my children. It is not a fast in accordance with God’s command if it does not affect my relationship with my neighbor. It is not a spiritual discipline that deepens my relationship with God if it does not change the way I relate to the people around me.

Many of us have been taught to see the classic disciplines of our faith—Bible reading, prayer, fasting, etc.—as means of growing and developing our personal relationship with Christ, of knowing Him at a deeper level. We’ve been taught not to turn these disciplines into laws that, when kept, place God in our debt.

That is all true—as far as it goes. The spiritual disciplines are a means of growing our relationship with Christ. But if Isaiah 58 has something to teach us, it invites us to see the danger in seeing the spiritual disciplines as nothing more than a means of developing our personal relationship with Christ. It almost sounds wrong to say it, but that framework is insufficient. The problem is not a personal relationship with God. The problem is emphasizing that in a way that reinforces our selfishness. At the core of sin is selfishness, and in our selfishness we often fail to see the implications of how we are living. In Isaiah 58, the Lord paints a portrait of a people who were really good at spiritual practices and really bad at loving their neighbors. The spiritual disciplines were not bringing the kind of life transformation the Lord intended. 

When Christ was asked which is the greatest commandment, He replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matt 22:37-40). There is a very close relationship between our love for God and our love for our neighbor. John adds: “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20).

As we think about the disciplines of our faith, we must see them as God sees them. They should be opportunities to train us:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
    to let the oppressed go free.

About the Author

Photograph of Blake Schwarz

Blake Schwarz

Director of Fellows Program & PCPC @WORK

Park Cities Presbyterian Church

Blake Schwarz leads the faith and work ministry of PCPC, and serves as the director of The Pegasus Institute. The Institute runs intensive cohorts designed to help Christians dive deeply into theology and apply it in the world around them. Blake met his wife, Julia Flowers Schwarz, while attending Wake Forest University and went on to receive his Masters of Divinity degree from Reformed Theological Seminary. He is currently working on DMin focused on the intersection of faith and economics and what it takes for a city to thrive. Julia and Blake have three children, and they spend most of their free time enjoying them.