Text: Isaiah 58:1-14, Isaiah 59:1-21, Matthew 21:12-22
I never had a rebellious phase.
As far back as I can remember, I’ve been a “good girl,” running my life on the straight and narrow, delighted to follow the rules. I loved to please my parents, my teachers, and my coaches because I was devoted to maintaining my pristine reputation.
Due to my well-practiced, people-pleasing ways, Christianity came easily to me. Religion offered one more list of boxes to check, all affirming my goodness. The only problem with all this box-checking is that as much as I honored God’s law, I did not understand His grace. I understood it on a head level, but not on a personal one. Not in my heart. I couldn’t grasp the urgency of it, or my deep need to be rescued by a Savior. Because, if I was really being honest, I didn’t think I needed rescuing. I was doing Christianity pretty well on my own.
That’s the beautiful irony of my story. While I lived my good Christian life of following the rules and doing all the right things, I only proved the depth of my brokenness. The truth was, my rule following was my rebellion. It was my own attempt to justify myself. As Tim Keller once suggested in his book The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, my rebellion wasn’t against God’s law but against God’s grace.
We witness this same kind of brokenness in Isaiah 58. Although the Israelites engage in the godly discipline of fasting, it only reveals their sin all the more, to which the prophet had this to say:
“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 in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high” (vv. 3-4).
According to Old Testament scholar John Oswalt, the Israelites were fasting for the wrong reason. They were not doing it to “express gratitude and submission to God” but were instead doing it “for the very same reasons the pagans do, to manipulate God to act in their favor” (Oswalt 625). This manipulation is why the Israelites are confused at God’s silence: “Why have we fasted, and you have not seen it?” (Isaiah 58:3). They thought they had done everything right. They thought fasting was a guarantee of divine favor. Why wasn’t God holding up His end of the deal?
In response to their entitlement, God had this response:
“Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save,
nor his ear too dull to hear.
But your iniquities have separated you from your God;
your sins have hidden his face from you,
so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1).
In short, God was not the one who broke His word. The Israelites’ “good deeds” point right back to their sin. They are unable to keep His commandments, try as they might. Thankfully, as Oswalt explains, “God will come and do for his people what neither they nor anyone else can do for them” (Oswalt 636).
The truth is, we all go through a rebellious phase. Some of us rebel against the rules and some of us rebel against the rescue, but the end result is the same: separation from God. Our only hope is to name and to confess our rebellion, in whatever form it takes. Because no matter how good and well-behaved we are, our arms are most definitely too short to save ourselves.
“The Redeemer will come to Zion,
to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
declares the Lord.
- Isaiah 59:20
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, and mom of two boys. She is a regular contributor to Christianity Today and recently completed her Ph.D, which focused on cultivating the gifts of women in the church.