Bible Studies for Life

with Beth S. Bowman

Sunday,  January 19

How Can God Use Me When Others Suffer?

Isaiah 58:3-11

It’s important to understand to whom the book of Isaiah was written, and why. The Prophet Isaiah was primarily called to prophesy to the Kingdom of Judah. Judah was going through times of revival and rebellion. Threatened with destruction by Assyria and Egypt, Judah was spared because of God’s mercy. Isaiah proclaimed a message of repentance from sin and hopeful expectation of God’s deliverance. Isaiah has some strong words for those who call themselves followers of God. The verse prior to our focal passage (Isaish 58:3) sets up our lesson, “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.” Their outward expressions of worship and devotion seem right on target. They ask God in verse three, “Why have you not noticed us — we have fasted and we have humbled ourselves?”

The answer from God through Isaiah was not the expected answer. Isaiah was quick to tell them that their fasting was not from their hearts. Their fasting was for selfish purposes and personal gain. The reality was that even on a day when they fasted, they still exploited their employees. God didn’t accept their fasting when it wasn’t in tune with a sincere heart of obedience. At the end of their fasts, they continued their bitterness and anger. Yet still the people of Judah expected God to hear them. Because they did not hear from God, they became indignant and arrogant toward him.

God rebukes their empty show of fasting and outward appearance of devotion. Even though they do the right things, their hearts were far from devoted to God. Doesn’t this make you think of stories of the Pharisees from the New Testament? They trusted and practiced empty rituals for the sake of their image. They wanted to appear religious but their religion had not impacted how they conducted their lives. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18, the self-righteous Pharisee made it a point to say, “I fast twice a week.” God sees through the empty religious rituals that we practice and He calls us for something more: a true relationship with Him.

In Isaiah 58, God calls his followers to not simply attempt to show off their religion through fasting but to stop oppressing people and acting wickedly toward them. Our devotion to God could be best expressed through acting Godly and responding to those around us who are hurting. Verse eight turns the corner for us with the word, “Then…” If God’s people would couple their fasting with lives of righteousness and love and kindness toward others, they would see their prayers answered. Their lives would be full of light, healing, righteousness, and most importantly, the Glory of the Lord. When they called out to God, the Lord would answer.

This lesson, more than any other we have studied so far, spoke to me. As a follower of Jesus, I have found myself with empty worship and selfish actions way more times than I care to think about, but I so long to hear from God! Don’t you? I long to see Him work in my life and the lives of my family in miraculous ways! For me, it’s the issue of racism. So many times I have sat quietly by while people of color have been treated unfairly. I pray this lesson speaks to your heart in the areas in which God is calling you to boldly represent him, and that nothing will stop you from the priority of worshiping Him in your heart and in your love toward others.

Bowman is a conference speaker, Lifeway contract writer and member of West Carthage Church, Carthage.