God’s divine requirements
The prophet Isaiah, when confronting similar religious issues during his time, makes a powerful prophetic proclamation that critically exposes, identifies and condemns these key issues which we have discussed up to this point. He then proceeds to make known God’s divine requirements regarding prayer and fasting.
Even though the context of what is written in this portion of the book of Isaiah refers more specifically to fasting, we will apply it in this context to prayer since both exercises were performed simultaneously and prayer is clearly being implied here as well. The entire chapter will be quoted here so that you are able to get the full context and content of God’s message, and I would encourage you to take the time and slowly read the entire text.
1 “Cry aloud, spare not; Lift up your voice like a trumpet; Tell My people their transgression, And the house of Jacob their sins. 2 Yet they seek Me daily, And delight to know My ways, As a nation that did righteousness, And did not forsake the ordinance of their God. They ask of Me the ordinances of justice; They take delight in approaching God. 3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and You have not seen? Why have we afflicted our souls, and You take no notice?’ “In fact, in the day of your fast you find pleasure, And exploit all your laborers. 4 Indeed you fast for strife and debate, And to strike with the fist of wickedness. You will not fast as you do this day, To make your voice heard on high. 5 Is it a fast that I have chosen, A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a bulrush, And to spread out sackcloth and ashes? Would you call this a fast, And an acceptable day to the Lord? 6 “Is this not the fast that I have chosen: To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, And that you break every yoke? 7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, And that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out; When you see the naked, that you cover him, And not hide yourself from your own flesh? 8 Then your light shall break forth like the morning, Your healing shall spring forth speedily, And your righteousness shall go before you; The glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. 9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; You shall cry, and He will say, ‘Here I am.’ “If you take away the yoke from your midst, The pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, 10 If you extend your soul to the hungry And satisfy the afflicted soul, Then your light shall dawn in the darkness, And your darkness shall be as the noonday. 11 The Lord will guide you continually, And satisfy your soul in drought, And strengthen your bones; You shall be like a watered garden, And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. 12 Those from among you Shall build the old waste places; You shall raise up the foundations of many generations; And you shall be called the Repairer of the Breach, The Restorer of Streets to Dwell In. 13 “If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, From doing your pleasure on My holy day, And call the Sabbath a delight, The holy day of the Lord honorable, And shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, Nor finding your own pleasure, Nor speaking your own words, 14 Then you shall delight yourself in the Lord; And I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, And feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
(Isaiah 58:1-14 NKJV)
Notice the seriousness and intensity of God’s charge against His people in verse 1. He commands the prophet Isaiah to lift his voice and rebuke them for their hypocrisy without restraint (spare not). This was not just a simple exhortation: God is soundly rebuking them for their sin, and He wants the prophet to communicate the full intensity of the rebuke without watering it down with diplomacy, tactfulness or any false sense of tolerance. The reproof must be loud and clear so that it captures the people’s attention.
We can gather from verse 2 that these are a similar religious people to the ones we discovered in the previous text (2 Tim. 3:1-5). They are deeply and zealously religious, faithfully seeking after God daily – whether through prayer, fasting, worship, sacrifice or corporate gatherings. They read or study their bibles, attend Bible schools, seminars, conferences, or stay glued to Christian television. They know more truth than they can practice. Many of them rarely ever miss a church service or prayer meeting. They’ve attended every conference and read every book they can find on prayer and intercession. They cry out for justice and that God would end abortion in America. They look like they’re holy, talk like they’re holy and act like they’re holy, but they’re really no better than the Pharisees of Jesus’ day (Luke 18:11-12).
After a period of review they begin to recognize the futility of their prayers and sacrifice (fasting). They begin to make inquiry toward God regarding the lack of answers and their continual disappointment. Having done all that they have, following every principle of prayer and intercession that they have learned, why has the “breakthrough” they so often sought continued to elude them?
God responds to this inquiry by revealing the key issues of corruption and violation of God’s original intent and purpose regarding prayer and fasting:
A. Self-gratification and personal pleasure: Though outwardly “correct” and religious, their internal architecture was of a corrupt nature, elevating personal pleasure above self-denial (v.3). Most of the Church’s current emphasis is on what God can do for us – a clear violation of the Kingdom!
This self-indulgence or reluctance to embrace self-denial is made even more apparent by the people’s attempt to make sure that they suffered as little hardship or loss as possible during their time of fasting. They continue to be driven by greed and the accumulation of wealth, even oppressing those who work for them in order to achieve more and not suffer loss during their time of consecration. It is no different than the Church’s invention of various types of “fasts” (Note: The word fast means to abstain from food… period. So-called “Daniel” fasts – which should more accurately be called a diet – where we abstain from meats or sweets, as well as other contrived “fasts”, are unbiblical and cannot be supported with Scripture. When we claim to fast and deny ourselves only meat, while filling our stomachs with bread or other things, is that really a fast? Where is the affliction, self-deprivation or the intense pain of hunger? Is that really the best you can give God?).
Fairly recently I was sent a prayer request from a certain intercessor. They were requesting my assistance in praying for a major conference their ministry was about to host. The ministry had asked for members to volunteer to go on a Daniel fast for three weeks (21 days). But the focus of their petition was that the conference “be a huge success with great attendance and finances.” The emphasis was upon themselves, having the seats of the auditorium filled, having a great intake of finances through systems of extraction and generous offerings, and having a “successful” conference that would make everyone happy and cause many to want to return the next year. Man’s agenda superseded God’s agenda in an example of self-gratification in action!
Some find personal pleasure in fasting through publicly announcing their fast or time of prayer and consecration as a way of bolstering their image or spirituality. Some even go so far as posting their time of separation or consecration with God on social networking websites like Facebook or Twitter, but like the Pharisees they have their reward (Matt. 6:5).
B. Strife, contention and a lack of compassion or love: This was a people so self-absorbed that nothing took precedence above their own happiness or rights. Without a firm anchor of love and compassion, or an accurate Kingdom mentality where we willingly lay aside our rights for the benefit of another, they were left without any restraint or constraint towards selfishly enforcing their rights and pursuing their own happiness to another’s hurt, thus creating strife and contention (v.4).
They would employ prayer and fasting as a means of striving with their brothers/sisters, seeking God for bigger ministries, churches, buildings, finances or anointings while being driven by a spirit of pride and competition. They would use prayer as a weapon of warfare against people, asking God to judge them, remove them, kill them, change their behavior or afflict them, especially in situations where they felt they were personally wronged.
I was quite appalled recently when I was told of a Christian teleconference hosted by two prophets. One of the prophets got a “sensing” that someone on the line was praying against them and began to pray himself and call down judgment upon the person. This is not only unbiblical, it is satanic! Jesus commanded us to bless those who curse us, and He was referring to any evil or negative declaration or invocation pronounced against us (Luke 6:27-28).
I had an email forwarded to me recently from a student at a very prestigious university in the United States. Without going into too much detail, this man and his wife were experiencing some opposition from various groups for their stand in trying to facilitate the advancement of the Kingdom of God on campus. He sent an email requesting that we pray for him and against any sabotage or backlash perpetuated by a certain opposing group against them. No doubt some of the others who received this prayer request went on to pray against this opposing group as well as their tactics. My concern was that this couple was given an opportunity to be a partaker of Christ’s sufferings but was too concerned about their own personal comfort and security to recognize the blessing of it (Matt. 5:10-12).
Jesus never prayed or uttered a negative word against His persecutors, and neither did His disciples. And there is not one occasion in Scripture where any patriarch, prophet or saint ever prayed to God that He would stop or prevent the persecution they were facing for righteousness, because such behavior would be tantamount to rebuking the blessing of God from our lives as well as refusing to identify with Christ’s sufferings.
C. Ritualistic religious compliance without accurate internal configuration: Their correct external actions were being governed and motivated by an incorrect internal principle (v.5). Even though they had the correct outward form, they were lacking in true repentance, faith and obedience emanating from a deeper level. Like the religious company in 2 Tim 3:1-5 these people had a form of godliness without the internal substance to truly validate it. True righteousness, faith and obedience stem from a much deeper place than mere external performance or behavior.
The Pharisees, like many today, were notorious for practicing an externalized religion built upon a technology of cleaning the outside of the cup while the inside was left untouched, corrupted and defiled (Matt. 23:25-28). They would not commit acts of murder but they would harbor anger toward others or attack them verbally (Matt. 5:21-22). They would never be caught in adultery or fornication, yet they would entertain lustful thoughts and make allowances for divorce and remarriage (Matt. 5:27-32). They fasted more than anyone else (Matt. 9:14), prayed longer than anyone else (Matt. 23:14), and were experts when it came to the knowledge of scripture (Matt. 23:6-8; Luke 5:17). They gave the appearance of being righteous and obedient when in fact they were not.
Not only did Jesus warn us to beware of this type of technology (Matt. 16:6), as echoed by Paul when he told the Ephesian believers to shun and avoid it (2 Tim. 3:5), but He makes it clear that there can be no access into the Kingdom of heaven unless our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, having a much greater depth of internal accuracy and correctness rather than mere outward acts of religion (Matt. 5:20).
God’s divine intent and righteous requirements regarding prayer and fasting must become the basis of a new and higher standard for God’s Kingdom citizens. The correct principles by which we must operate, as spoken by God through the mouth of his prophet, are as follows:
1. Liberation: To loose the bonds of wickedness… undo heavy burdens… let the oppressed go free and… break every yoke (v.6). This describes a militant push and deliberate forceful advance against every system of human oppression – whether spiritual or social – that seeks to impose itself against the just and righteous standards of the Kingdom of heaven. It describes a mentality that not only motivates and accurately focuses the spiritual activity of prayer and fasting as we are stirred by the suffering and oppression of others, but it also produces correct practical actions or initiatives, whether individually or corporately, within the various spheres of our existence as we seek to eradicate these spiritual or social ills.
Instead of the focus being upon ourselves, it is, therefore, placed upon others less fortunate than us – and there are always others less fortunate than us.
2. Compassion: To share your bread with the hungry… bring to your house the poor who are cast out. When you see the naked that you cover him… not hide yourself from your own flesh… extend your soul to the hungry… satisfy the afflicted soul (vs.7, 10). This describes a heart and mentality of love, mercy and compassion. Not only is the emphasis upon others from an internal dimension of genuinely seeking after another’s welfare, but it is void of hypocrisy in that it does everything in its power to meet the need rather than just depend on God to do it for us.
Unlike the hypocrite described by James who sees a brother or sister in dire need and responds with a religious, prayerful declaration of peace and provision without taking the necessary action of faith to meet the need, the principle here is the responsibility of taking proper action (Jam. 2:15-16). Christians today love to use prayer as a substitute for obedience, thus rendering their prayers ineffective and powerless. Only a foolish hypocrite would ask God to do what he has the power to do himself.
When you are confronted by a need that you personally know you have the resource to meet on your own, the correct response is to meet the need, not pray and ask God to do it for you! Even if you don’t have what is necessary to fully meet the need, you are still obligated to do what you can so the need is partially met before you pray, unless you’re asking God to work a miracle and multiply what you have to give.
How can you say you’re praying for a young single mother of two children who is struggling to put food on the table during the Thanksgiving season when you’ve got hundreds or thousands of dollars saved up in your bank account to go on a shopping spree the Friday after Thanksgiving? I have story after story where I have seen this kind of hypocrisy displayed by Christians and religious leaders alike. It would take an entire book to relate every story to you. Many of you reading this are probably being assaulted with memories of similar kinds of hypocritical displays.
Prayer only works by faith, and faith only works by love (Gal. 5:6). We would do well to note that while there has been a lot of talk and discussion regarding sheep and goat nations in recent years, the biblically qualifying mark of a sheep nation is not its religious tolerance, size or number of churches, national prayer gatherings, or acceptance of Judeo-Christian based principles. The identifying characteristic of a sheep nation is found in their practical acts of love, mercy, kindness and compassion toward those who are hungry, thirsty, destitute, afflicted, imprisoned and oppressed (Matt. 25:31-46).
3. Sanctification: Take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness… turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day… honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words (vs.9, 13). The obvious principle being communicated here is one of obedience and true repentance. As stated earlier in this writing, prayer is nullified through disobedience. We must allow God’s sanctification process to penetrate the deceitfulness of our own hearts if we are to be effective in prayer.
It’s important to note that the issues of disobedience being identified here are not what the Church today would consider as major or game changing, because religion has a way of minimizing or diminishing things that are really very important to God, while magnifying things that aren’t. You would think that only fornication, adultery, murder and other blatantly immoral acts would be the undermining issues being identified; but instead we find less salient issues such as accusation (pointing of the finger), gossip or slander (speaking wickedness), pursuit of personal pleasure, dishonoring God and an independent or un-submissive spirit that does and says what it pleases or what feels good at the time.
I know many women who claim to be “intercessors”, as well as many church leaders, who engage or participate in gossip frequently. Some even use prayer as a guise for spreading harmful gossip and accusations to others as they pass their poison around to friends, leaders and/or other “intercessors”. Most of Christianity today is in pursuit of another personal “blessing” or “breakthrough” as we delight in pursuing our own personal pleasure above God’s, yet we expect our prayers to be heard.
Many of us will gluttonously indulge ourselves during the holiday season in December and then assume a religious posture of prayer and fasting in January because it is convenient for us to shed the unwanted pounds we gained through our own lack of restraint or self-indulgence. God will not accept this type of sacrifice because it is a violation of the core principles and technology of prayer.
True repentance requires a change of mind, a change of heart, a change of direction and a change of behavior. It is not enough to just cry out to God and say we’re sorry. The Church by and large has employed this tactic by mobilizing local and national prayer gatherings during times of crisis or calamity to cry out to God in “repentance” according to 2 Chron. 7:14 (If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves and pray…). What many of us fail to recognize is that one of the conditions to God hearing from heaven, forgiving our sin and healing our land is the turning away from wickedness factor – repentance – which always includes corresponding acts of obedience. You can pray, fast and cry out to God until you literally expire from this earth, but until there is the required obedience you would have done it all in vain (1 Kings 8:30-50; 9:1-9).