Lenten Devotional: A False Fast

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For the first six months after my son turned 2 I felt like all I was doing was disciplining my son and all he was doing was disobeying my commands. It was during this time that we left Chick-fil-a after eating lunch without going to the playground because he would not obey my telling him to sit in his chair and stop touching the sign hanging from the ceiling. Some days I felt like Philip was in timeout more than he was not in timeout. It was exhausting and all I wanted for him was to obey so he didn’t hurt himself or our belongings.

Around the 2 1/2 mark something happened. I remember that day perfectly. He stood up on the kitchen chair and began playing with the light fixture. I said, “Philip sit down right now.” He signed and said, “I’m sorry.” I was so excited! He was sorry that he disobeyed. Two minutes later I looked over and Philip was standing up again in his chair hitting the light again. Before I could get out a reprimand, he was signing and saying, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

For about 4-6 months after that time, Philip believed he could still disobey as long as he said he was sorry. He would say, “I’m sorry,” but not mean it. I knew he didn’t mean what he was saying because after apologizing he would turn around and do the act again.

Watching Philip do this cycle reminded me of God’s people in Scripture. The Hebrews would disobey God’s commandments, repent and then go back to doing what they were doing before. Consider this particular example from Isaiah 58:

“‘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.”

This generation, like many before it, had forgotten that YHWH discerns “thoughts from afar” and that even before a word is on their mouth God knows it (Psalm 139). They also had forgotten that there is no place they can go away from the Spirit of God (Psalm 139). Yet, despite knowing that nothing is invisible to God, including the desires of one’s heart, they thought they could trick their God with false worship. “Why won’t you accept our fasting, God?” they asked. God responded saying, I won’t accept your fasting or worship because you are living in disobedience to my commands. Not only are these people oppressing their employees, quarreling, and fighting, but they are also not sharing food with the hungry or caring for the homeless (v. 7). The problem is not that they should change one work (fasting) for another (social justice). Rather, God says one’s worship and repentance should match up with how one lives life. The real issue, here, is a heart issue. Someone whose heart is not rendered to God will act unjustly and not love his or her neighbor. Then, when he or she tries to worship through acts like fasting, it is false worship because his or her heart is not given to God as revealed in how he/she lives.

I have been following the Lectionary daily Scripture readings this Lent, which has had me in Jeremiah. Here the people of God again are professing one thing with their mouths while disobeying God with their actions.

“Run to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, look and take note! Search her squares to see if you can find a man, one who does justice and seeks truth, that I may pardon her. Though they say, “As the Lord lives,” yet they swear falsely” (Jeremiah 5:1-2).

“I’m sorry,” they say to God, yet they continue to disobey. “As the Lord lives” I will do this thing, they say. Yet, they swear with false intentions. “I’m sorry!” the people of God continue to say over and over, yet they worship false gods, intermarry with foreigners who worship false gods, murder, cheat and steal. And this wasn’t an issue that stopped with the Old Testament. This was still a persistent problem that even Paul addressed in his letter to the Roman believers.

“You then who teach others, do you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that one must not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law dishonor God by breaking the law. … For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:21-23, 28-29).

And now, you would think that after all this time we would not do the same thing that the Hebrews did in the Old Testament and the Christians did in the New. Yet this is a sin we still commit today! We, too, are guilty of trying to trick God with a false repentance. Especially during Lent it is very easy to fast without rendering our hearts to God. We think we will somehow please God by giving up food, Internet, or drink while we continue to disobey Him in our daily lives. We, like Philip who thought he could appease me by saying sorry while still disobeying, think we can appease God by saying, “I’m sorry,” but not truly mean it. We think we can substitute loving God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind and our neighbors as ourselves with a false fast or a false “I’m sorry.”

During this season of Lent let our fasting match our obedience. Let us turn our hearts over to God so that our worship will not disgust the God whose Son died for us. Instead of being quick to say, “I’m sorry,” let us learn true repentance and what it means to honor God with all our lives.

God, I’m sorry for being quick to apologize without truly repenting. Help me to face my own disobedience so that I can turn from it to obedience and honoring You, who died for me. May your Spirit help me in my weakness, and may I not be quick to worship with acts like fasting while dishonoring You in my daily life by not loving my neighbor. May my worship match my life and may you be pleased and glorified in all that I say, think and do. Amen.

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