The following is a message that I presented for my Message Preparation for Women course this semester at Moody. While it is written for an audience of college-aged women living and studying in Chicago, I feel that this message is pertinent for all of us as we continue to face the question of what pursuing justice requires of our nation. As we look ahead toward November 2020, these are my heartfelt reflects on what the Bible says about desiring to live in a just society.
The year 2020 has already proven to be a significant time in all of our lives. One aspect of this year’s significance that I believe has been overlooked, however, is that it is the 100 year anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment, which granted women in the United States the right to vote. For the last century all of us, women and men together, have been able to voice our desires for justice in this country at the polls. And in the midst of a tumultuous presidential election season, we see all around us that there are many Americans who desperately need justice.
For instance, where is justice for our neighbors in Little Village whose unemployment benefits gets revoked if it is suspected that they are undocumented (even if they are not)? What does justice look like on the South Side, when children often have no access to technology, so they can’t get to class on zoom this school year? What would justice mean for the Planned Parenthood clinic down the street on LaSalle, and for the mothers who make devastating choices because they don’t think they can support a baby? These are just examples from our own city, microcosms of what is happening across our nation. Like some of you, perhaps, this is my first time voting for president since being eligible to vote, and I want to engage this task responsibly and in a godly manner at such a crucial time. I wonder, however, if justice is something we are able to vote into office?
In reality, there is only one government that has ever instituted a just society in all human history. This was God’s theocratic rule over the ancient Israelites. The Law in the Old Testament, therefore, is the only expression of a truly just system.
Still, Israel had problems (in their sinfulness) living out this system. We know that Jesus is the only man to ever live the Law perfectly, and that His righteousness fulfills it. But the prophets often had to bring Israel’s sin and rebellion before them to guide them toward justice and God’s grace again. Our passage today in Isaiah 58 is one example of this prophetic confrontation.
As we turn to Isaiah 58, it’s important to note that this prophecy was written during the reign of Hezekiah (king of Judah during the divided kingdom), whose story is told in Isaiah 37-39. This king makes major religious reforms in Israel, guiding people to worship only the true God. One day, however, Hezekiah welcomes messengers from the superpower nation of Babylon to see all his royal treasures, because he feels invincible. After this unwise action, Isaiah, the prophet, promises Hezekiah that Judah will be carried off to Babylon with the king’s riches. Hezekiah doesn’t worry, however, because he knows there will be peace in his lifetime. Judah begins coasting through Hezekiah’s reign, which stunts the reform movement he started. Let’s look at the state of Judah, who was fasting as nation to receive God’s favor, in Isaiah 58:
“Shout it aloud, do not hold back. Raise your voice like a trumpet. Declare to my people their rebellion, and to the house of Jacob their sins.
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?'”
What we see here is that Israel’s self-righteous fasting does not fool God. In verse 1, it is clear that God is confronting His people about their practices in a way that they cannot ignore–a declaration like a trumpet call. After Isaiah uses this kind of attention-grabbing imagery, he begins to call out Israel’s wickedness. The prophet does this because Judah’s integrity did not match their requests to God, as it says in verse 2. Judah thought they were seeking the Lord, but they had actually forsaken His commands. Then they wondered why he did not notice their fasting in verse 3. I think it is important to stop here and ask: why were they fasting to seek just decisions from the Lord?
We should not let our idea of fasting be confused with what Israel was doing at this time. They were not only abstaining from food as an expression of individual devotion to God. That is the way we tend to see fasting. This was a nation hungering together for righteousness. God had commanded Israel to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement to remind them that they needed his provision for their sin to be taken away. However, as time went on the leaders and teachers of the law increased their fasting days to prove their religious zeal. In ancient Judaism, they hoped prayer and fasting would manipulate God, so that he would answer their requests. Yet, we see that this fasting was beyond what God had commanded, and in doing it Judah left what God did command undone.
I realized when studying this passage that our society actually does this too (both inside and outside of the church), but our approach is not typically appealing to God through fasting. The ways that we reveal our hunger for righteousness look different from Judah’s, but are just as problematic as theirs.
What does this look like in our nation typically?
Firstly, we take to social media, posting about tragedies or events that reveal injustices around us. Also, we do research: our culture often turns to studies and science to find out how oppression impacts people in all areas of life in hopes that information will change us. One we’ve seen much of this year is protesting: seeking the attention of our leaders and verbalizing our disapproval.
I don’t think these things are always bad, however, I also do not think they are what God is necessarily commanding us as the Church to do to fight injustice.
We as American believers are often just like the Israelites, thinking that we do right and seek the ways of the Lord. But, this hunger for righteousness is superficial and ungodly. We think God should hear our petitions, but really we only care about appearances. Our social media posts don’t lead to action, and we only post when everyone else is talking about something. We use research to confirm our own opinions, not to lead us to the truth. Protests might garner attention from the government for a time, but they don’t guarantee that any changes will come about. We do these things to demand the outcomes we desire to see in the world and forget to listen, praying, Father, your will be done.
Spurgeon says it this way in his commentary on Isaiah: “O my dear friends, let us always be afraid of merely external religiousness!…it is indeed but the ghastly coffin of a soul that never was quickened unto spiritual life.”
We need the grace of God to clear us of this hypocrisy and reform our hunger for righteousness, so we can climb out of the coffin of external religiousness and truly pursue a just society.
It is no surprise that we also find in Isaiah 58 that our self-righteous fasting cannot create a just society. As Isaiah says:
“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.”
Evil resulted from Israel’s fast days, which were meant to be set aside to pursue goodness and truth. This was utterly hypocritical behavior. A very recent example of this kind of fruitless fast in our own culture was Blackout Tuesday, which happened on June 2nd of this year. I participated in it, and maybe some of you did too. On that day, the music industry encouraged media outlets to abstain from releasing new material, and instead producing silent or blacked out programming for 8 minutes and 46 seconds to reflect the amount of time that a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck. The trend took to Instagram, and users began posting black square photos, abstaining from their own posting habits. Unfortunately, confusion over the hashtags which were being used for protests and for Blackout Tuesday left mobilizers unable to track events over social media in the sea of black squares flooding the internet. At the end of the day, there was greater tension and anger from the misunderstanding than unity because of the expression of solidarity. It was a fast that led to arguments and discord rather than creating a just society.
As the second half of verse 4 says, we should not expect God to hear us when we act in this way. It says:
“You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.”
God doesn’t have to listen to foolish arguments, or honor self-righteousness. The Lord sees through this behavior, and knows when our fasting completely misses the point. He asks Israel in verse 5:
“Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for 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?”
These are rhetorical questions, but it is clear that the answer to each is no. God sees that our hypocrisy cannot transform us. He knows–as Shakespeare writes in his play, Hamlet– that, “One can smile and smile and be a villain”. Yet, we still ignore His grace, and we think that putting in our day of fasting (or our black square on instagram) is enough.
We are not called to a Blackout Tuesday kind of fasting, which does not create a just society. Instead, our self-righteous fasting needs to be replaced by the kind of fasting God desires, which is something greater, and empowered by His Spirit in us. Verses 6 and 7 tell us what true fasting looks like:
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?”
We should note at least three things about God’s kind of fast:
- It is active: doing good for others and working to solve problems. This is not sitting around waiting for God to work, but going to the heart of where injustice happens and expecting that in His grace He will meet us there. The avenues through which we can actively work for justice are boundless, but here are a few ways you could get started: attending church or a small group with people of a minority from the South Side or West Side during your time at Moody; volunteering once a month (or more frequently) in underserved communities through food banks, homeless shelters, or local church ministries; donating to pregnancy care centers and organizations that pursue justice globally, like Samaritan’s Purse or A21. You could even dedicate space on your blog or social media to contribute meaningful dialogue about issues that other people are facing. I’ve had the privilege of doing some of these things during my time at Moody, and they have blessed me immensely and propelled me forward to do more on the behalf of the voiceless. For you as well, even a small step could be the catalyst to something greater, but if none of us move, nothing will change. We all must listen to where God’s heart for justice wants us to go, and then act in obedience in His power.
- It costs us something: we have to give up our food, share our shelter, and provide clothes in this kind of fasting. We don’t just abstain, what we forfeit is given to others. It could be as simple as giving our time or our money beyond our regular tithing. The point is that we choose to bless others with what we have every right to keep for ourselves.
- It dismantles oppression: we should be fasting in such a way that our society is reordered. This is penetrating work, and we have to let ourselves be examined in every sphere of our influence. We must be ready to sacrifice and listen well to the conviction of the Holy Spirit to find what areas we need to change in ourselves and our communities. Then we can move forward with the grace of God, living a lifestyle of justice that flows from our relationship with Him and our conformity to His character.
Here is an example of this active, costly, and oppression-dismantling kind of fasting in our society: In 2018, Chick fil a responded to the devastation of Hurricane Florence by giving away free food to those displaced by the storm and to first responders. This is the company’s pattern of responding to the hardship around them. By fasting from profit and sacrificing product, the company is an active agent in seeing justice done.
The Lord promises that His kind of fasting–active, costly, and oppression-dismantling–results in breakthrough, because He Himself responds to it.
“Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.”
This beautiful image Isaiah uses of light breaking forth with the dawn reminds me of the battle of Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings. This battle in the second part of the trilogy, The Two Towers, begins in seemingly impossible odds. The army of men, bunkered in an ancient stone fortress on the side of a mountain, is on the verge of despair. None of their allies have come to their aid against the hordes of Mordor.
A few days before the battle, the wizard, Gandalf, decides to leave, making everything more bleak. He tells Aragorn, one of the leaders of the frail army, “Look to my coming on the first light of the fifth day, at dawn look to the east.” He leaves, and soon Mordor attacks. The fighting lasts all night, and the fortress is breached several times by the enemy. Surely enough, however, at the first glimpse of that fifth morning Gandalf sweeps over the hillside on a white horse, bathed in the light of the dawn with hundreds of new soldiers and renewed hope. The enemy goes into full retreat and the fortress is saved. This is my favorite scene of the entire movie.
Imagine seeing this kind of magnificent hope manifest in our nation today! God is able to deliver us from the overwhelming forces of injustice, when we are cornered and beat down from every side. Amidst the uncertainty and calamity, He wants to give us glimpses of the future kingdom that we long for.
He will be our healing, behind us and before us like verse 8 says. And He will hear us when we ask for His divine aid, granting us His presence as a definitive answer to our call. But we have to fight the battle in expectation of His arrival.
We fight this battle under the banner of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As I noted before, in all human history only He has ever lived a life truly committed to justice as a man. Isaiah 59 actually predicts this centuries beforehand, and says in verses 16 and 20:
“He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him.”
“‘The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,’ declares the Lord.”
Jesus fasted in God’s way with his entire existence–his ministry was active, costly, and dismantled oppression from within. He hungered for righteousness in every moment. Jesus spent himself for the poor, loosed every chain, set the oppressed free, shared his food with the hungry, clothed the naked. It led him to death, and his sacrifice covered our inability to live as He did for justice. Growing in Christlikeness should cause us to show the same sacrificial love in action. Our active, costly, and oppression-dismantling fasting for justice should make us look more like our Savior as His Spirit works in us. We fast in God’s way by becoming more like him, and trusting in his righteousness instead of our own.
So this year, as women and men of America we long for justice, but as followers of Christ, we can do more than simply filling out our ballots at the polls. We must hunger for righteousness in honor of Him. We must be active, sacrificial, and destroy oppression through the Spirit’s leading. We must fast and pray in God’s way, becoming more like Christ to see His justice break forth like the dawn over the darkness of 2020.