Spiritual disciplines are practices that orient the heart and mind of followers of Christ to see past the distractions of our culture and uncover the heart of God. Dallas Willard states, “Our plan for a life of growth in the life of the kingdom of God must be structured around disciplines for the spiritual life. A discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.” God will faithfully lead his children to the things that matter to his heart, but each person must choose to orient their lives in a way that allows clear communication from God.
It is important to note that spiritual disciplines are not a requirement. Conversely, the practice of regular disciplines in the pursuit of a relationship with Jesus is a choice from each disciple. Disciplines help sharpen the focus of where we set our affections. James K.A. Smith states, “To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.”
Thomas Merton explored the discipline of solitude and noted that there is need for some sort of technique that brings the body and soul together, harmonizing their power, and bringing them into deep resonance. In this case, solitude is practiced to fight the distraction that is present in a rapid-paced world. Likewise, Dallas Willard points out the importance of the discipline of silence. He states, “Total silence is rare, and what we today call ‘quiet’ usually only amounts to a little less noise. Many people have never experienced silence and do not even know that they do not know what it is.” Through these disciplines of solitude and silence, Merton and Foster highlight practices that point directly to Jesus.
If disciples were to truly orient their lives to learn the heart of the Father, what would they find? A major role of shepherds and teachers in local congregations is to help their parishioners realize what is deeply important to the heart of God. The Scriptures uncover who stands at the center of all of our spiritual activity: Jesus Christ. If this is true, it is important to see the way that Jesus lived his life, and explore what was truly important to Him.
In his book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, Ronald Sider challenges churches and parishioners to evaluate themselves in regards to their care for those who are poor and marginalized. He states, “Is there the same balance and emphasis on justice for the poor and oppressed in our programs as there is in Scripture?” Sadly, all too often the answer to that question is a resounding no. The message of the Gospel demands attention in this area, because Jesus demanded that attention be given to the plight of the poor and marginalized.
When Jesus was asked what was most important to him in the expression of faith, he responded that he valued true love for God and others higher than anything else (Luke 10:27). In light of this, it is important to remember that loving others was given equal weight to loving God in the opinion of Jesus. This should cause Christians to truly consider the holistic message of the Gospel in relation to the way that they seek to understand their relationship with Jesus. Additionally, Jesus seemed to actually embody the plight of the poor as he told his disciples that any time they gave to the poor, they were actually giving to Jesus himself (Matthew 25:31-46). This does not sound like the words of a distant deity that is aloof or disconnected to the cries of the poor. This sounds like God himself is present with the poor, and if Christians want to be present with their Creator, they can find him among the weak and the marginalized.
The effort to follow Jesus should find expression in the lives of Christians by behavior matching that which they are studying. A discipline for the spiritual life is, when the dust of history is blown away, nothing but an activity undertaken to bring us into more effective cooperation with Christ and his Kingdom. As this research project will seek to highlight, drawing closer to the heart of God will draw Christians to advocate for those that have been pushed to the margins. Closeness with Christ means understanding his heart for equity and justice.
Isaiah 58:1-5 – An Affront on Disingenuous Religious Activity
The prophet Isaiah gives us a startling window into the relationship between spiritual disciplines and the things that truly matter to God in Isaiah 58. In this passage, the prophet is calling the nation of Israel to genuinely seek God. However, he does not simply ask for their genuine pursuit of God, he wants their outward expression of neighborliness to match the very heart of God himself.
It is important to note that this passage of scripture is directed to people that seem to genuinely desire to know God, express faithfulness, and have implemented disciplines into their regular routine that would show devotion to God. However, examination of this text shows that Isaiah is asking the people of Israel to devalue the practice of fasting food, while adding value to the discipline of fasting inequitable behaviors that bring division to God’s people and marginalize those that are most vulnerable in their community.
Isaiah 58:1 starts off emphatically by stating, “Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast. Shout aloud! Don’t be timid. Tell my people Israel of their sins!” The prophet is not attempting to speak calmly and quietly about the situation. Rather, he is shouting at the top of his voice for all to hear. God is using Isaiah to call these seemingly faithful religions individuals into a deeper understanding of his heart. He is also sounding an alarm that this is a matter of life and death.
Verse 2 continues by describing the sinful behaviors that were keeping them from truly expressing the heart of God. Isaiah continues,
“Yet they act so pious. They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to learn all about me. They act like a righteous nation that would never abandon the laws of its God. They ask me to take action on their behalf, pretending they want to be near me.”
Isaiah is calling out the community of believers for neglecting their marginalized neighbors as they concurrently declare their commitment to God. Walter Brueggemann states, “These two verses establish the core problem of the community, namely, a hypocritical gap between the actual conduct of the community and the intention of the community expressed in worship.” The language in this passage is direct and offers biting criticism toward people that truly felt that they were offering acceptable sacrifices to God. However, God is forcefully showing that he does not want worship that stops at the surface and never reaches the heart. This passage echoes Amos 4:4-5, in which the poet chides his contemporaries for turning worship into an act of self indulgence void of ethical content.
Isaiah opens this address with both urgency and passion to make sure that the community understands that this is no small matter. John Oswald observes, “It is nothing short of rebellion, which calls for the most dramatic action.” One of the more pressing reasons for this call to repentance is that God has stopped responding to the religious activity of his people. He chooses to instead focus his attention on the fact that during their pious exercises, they are still involved in the exploitation and ill treatment of their employees. Human ethical behavior is not called for to obtain God’s favor, but to enter into God’s work of service and love.
The people respond to this harsh critique of their behavior by defending their activities. They present multiple observations and questions to God. The response that is given by God through the prophet leaves nothing to the imagination in what he is expecting from his people. Verse 3 continues,
“‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have been very hard on ourselves, and you don’t even notice it!’ “I will tell you why!” I respond. “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves. Even while you fast, you keep oppressing your workers.”
This question and response clearly shows that God is not interested in their pretentious displays of affection. He longs for their heart to match his heart, and ritualistic public expressions of love will never replace his desire for shalom and justice for neighbors in their community that have been oppressed. Walter Brueggemann states, “The religious act of fasting, which can indeed be a serious act of faith, is here only a calculation.” God does not want our spiritual disciplines to be acts of addition and subtraction. His economy does not use normal equations, as we see in the life of Jesus when he states that the last will come first and the first will come last in his kingdom (Matthew 20:16). God is reiterating his consistent theme throughout scripture that he can see what people are doing with their lives, not just their words. This type of worship offers no access to God, because God will not be moved by calculated manipulation.
Richard Foster describes his journey from outward expression of faith to the inward transformation of genuine relationship with Jesus in his book The Freedom of Simplicity. He states, “For years I loved him and sought to obey him, but he remained on the periphery of my life. God and Christ were extremely important to me but certainly not the center.” He continues, “I was deeply committed, but I was not integrated or unified.” In the same way, the worshipping community in Isaiah 58 thought that they were expressing great devotion to God, only to come to the startling realization that their relationship with him was not integrated or unified. Foster was touched by God’s desire to be at the center of his heart. He states, “But slowly I came to see that God desired to be not on the outskirts, but at the heart of my experience.”
This passage clearly shows why God is displeased with these acts of worship. As John Godingay observes, “There was a mismatch between people’s spiritual practice and the rest of their lives.” The incongruity of the manner in which the people of Israel were expressing their faith and treating their neighbors was so egregious, God sent Isaiah to deliver this concise and poignant message of correction. Ultimately, this rebuke is in response to the tension between the interest of man and the interest of God. This passage adds to the overarching narrative in the Bible that religious practices such as fasting are useless unless they are accompanied by work for a just and compassionate social order.
Isaiah 58:4-5 continues to paint a dire picture for this worshipping community. The poet gives colorful language to the state of their hearts, while calling into question the way that they expect him to respond to their behavior. The prophet states,
“You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like reeds bending in the wind. You dress in burlap and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?”
God is communicating through Isaiah in no uncertain terms that he can see past their religious activity and into their sin-filled hearts. Even though the people genuinely believe that these acts of worship should win them special favor with God, its real purpose is to gain ground in the struggle for power, position, and possessions. God sees past all outward activity and to the heart and motive of his children. Through Isaiah, he is lovingly and forcefully calling them to repentance.
Richard Foster observes the way that Jesus calls out another worshipping community in the New Testament that was using fasting to try to curry favor with God, but their hearts were misguided in their affection. He states, “It is sobering to realize that the very first statement Jesus made about fasting dealt with the question of motive (Matthew 6:16-18). To use good things to our own ends is always the sign of false religion.”
The passage that Foster recounts here is found in the context of Jesus’ famous teaching is often referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. As He taught his disciples on a hillside, a large crowd began to gather to hear this teaching. He used part of this time to address pure and genuine acts of discipline that lead to the heart of the Father. Matthew 6:16-18 states,
“When you fast, don’t make it obvious, as the hypocrites do, for they try to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting. I tell you the truth, that is the only reward they will ever get. But when you fast, comb your hair and wash your face. Then no one will notice that you are fasting, except your Father, who knows what you do in private. And your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.”
The fact that God did not respond to the disciplined act of fasting of this community does not mean that he is incapable of doing so or that his ears were deaf to their cries, it simply means that God was deliberately looking past their behavior to get to the heart of the matter. Renovation of the heart is what God longs for in interaction with his people, not modification of their behavior. God does not respond to fasting; God responds to faith and faithfulness. Richard Foster concisely states, “”Fasting must forever center on God. It must be God-initiated and God-ordained.”
Isaiah 58:6-11 – A Fast of Inequitable Practices
Isaiah moves on to describe the type of fasting and behavior that the Lord truly desires after putting the community on notice in the first five verses of Isaiah 58. Verses 6-7 state,
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry, and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.”
The prophet is encouraging this community to devalue the personal act of fasting from food and embrace the corporate act of fasting from inequitable practices that target those that are oppressed. Yahweh challenges the powerful members of the community not only to free people from bondage to debt but also to avoid practices that can get people into more bondage.
The poet is asking the God-centered community to treat their employees in a way that values them as human beings, not just as agents that can bring profitability to their organization. He is asking those that reside in the position of power to allow those that have been oppressed to go free. He is requiring that this worshipping community would care about justice and establishment of shalom for all to be a reality.
John Oswalt states, “If they want to deprive themselves, let them do it for the sake of the oppressed, the needy, and the helpless, not for the sake of their own religiosity.” He continues, “The prophet says God would much rather we show our devotion to him by alleviating hunger in others.” The neglect of the poor and oppressed has historically wounded our communities, yet the words of Isaiah give us the directions for healing and for creating the possibility of health for all through the true fast God desires.
Verse 8 introduces an important transition that refers back to the initial challenge, while offering hope for the future. It states, “Then your salvation will come like the dawn, and your wounds will quickly heal. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind.” It is important to highlight the fact that the Lord has been ignoring the religious activity of the community when it did not also include a genuine spirit, but when their hearts are turned to the things that matter to his heart, his response is to quickly respond.
If and then are two words that are important to consider when exegeting scripture. This means that something has preceded the words on the page, and also carries a consequence one way or another. This particular use of then refers to the challenge that God has given the Israelites through Isaiah to come to him with purity and proper motives in their worship. Verse 8 introduces the image of light that breaks through darkness to illuminate the path to genuinely please God. The light that is promised here is not the light of absolute certainty, but one of hope, confidence, trust, and self-giving love, and no darkness can put it out. When people share their food, their homes and their clothes, that is when they will find light and healing according to God’s path that he is laying before the Israelite community in this passage.
The imagery of light is introduced here, as well, breaking through the darkness like the sun illuminating a new day. This newfound fixation of their hearts upon God brings the benefits of healing, faithful direction, and protection from the Lord. Coming directly after a full-voiced affront on their religious activity, this passage is pregnant with promise and hope for the future if they choose the path that God has prepared. John Oswalt states, “Coupled with the promise of light in the dark is the promise of guidance and sustenance in the desert.”
God had clearly chosen to willfully ignore the cries of the Israelites when they were engaging in self-serving worship. However, the language of verse 9 shows the speed in which God responds to the things that align with his passion and love. It states, “Then when you call, the Lord will answer, ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply. Remove the heavy yoke of oppression. Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!” God will not move toward outward piety that is not accompanied by a genuine heart.
The poet reminds the Israelites that they have a responsibility yet again to their neighbors by pointing out that they need to abstain from oppressive activities, blaming others unjustly, and spreading needless and harmful gossip among their community. The heartfelt worship of God will produce neighborliness that will impact the entire community and encourage unity and joy. Any other behavior is divisive and harmful. Kwesi Dickson states that this type of behavior, “encompasses the symbolic and verbal means of disparaging one’s fellow human beings; to behave in this way towards others is to treat them as if they were not children of God.”
Isaiah turns his attention to behavior that honors God and displays neighborliness, while continuing to fill this community with hope in the form of God’s pleasure toward them as they engage in healing behaviors. Verses 10-11 state,
“Feed the hungry, and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon. The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.”
Leon Morris states, “The function of light is to shine precisely in the darkness, to oppose darkness, to dispel darkness.” This charge from the prophet accurately assesses the inequities in the community between the powerful and those that are less privileged and requests that their beliefs would inform their behavior in a way that brings equal opportunity for each member of the Israelite family. The promise that is present in this passage is that Yahweh will give light to a community of justice and compassion. Additionally, Isaiah is asking for the community to reframe their view toward the poor and marginalized. He longs for the less fortunate among them to be seen as a part of the family, not as a burden – or worse yet – a lower class that can be oppressed for their personal gain. Oppression of the poor and the weak will not stop ultimately until they are no longer seen as objects of scorn and contempt, or as pitiable victims.
Isaiah 58:12-14 – Restorers, Rebuilders, and Rest
The imagery is changed in verse 12 to address the topic of community-wide change. He states, “Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls and a restorer of homes.” It is important to note that Isaiah starts off this hope-filled verse by classifying that God will only use some in a way that is so full of influence and power that they are able to bring lasting change to entire cities. This is a powerful reminder that each person has the ability to choose whether or not they will allow God to captivate every part of their heart, life, and spirit. If they choose this God-ordained path of personal accountability and commitment, he clearly states that the entire community might look at them as one that establishes shalom by their behavior and actions. The people addressed will have the energy, fortitude, and resources from God that arise from genuine neighborly investment in the community. 
It is important to note the clear path that Isaiah has laid out for the Israelite community. At first glance, this passage could be viewed as a call to social justice. While it is clear that God cares about inequities that were dividing this community, this passage carries a nuanced call to accountability that leads the worshiping community back to the heart of Yahweh. Isaiah is calling out their disingenuous worship because it is self-serving as opposed to God-honoring. He highlights the cause to care for the poor as a way of showing how much more he values each individual rather than an elaborate group fast.
The worshipers will eat again, but their temporary fast does nothing to care for the poor that are perpetually hungry for both food and justice. The path continues to unfold as Isaiah says that there will be some that will be so closely attuned to the heart of Yahweh that he will call them to lead efforts that bring hope and healing to entire cities. The poet forcefully admonishes this worshiping community as a way of showing them that if they will choose God personally, he will use some of them to lead a citywide restoration project that brings peace and justice to a broken and divided community. The imagery of shalom is introduced in the form of rebuilt cities and homes that have been restored.
The final portion of this passage takes an unexpected turn by addressing the discipline of observing the Sabbath. Verses 13-14 state,
“Keep the Sabbath day holy. Don’t pursue your own interests on that day, but enjoy the Sabbath and speak of it with delight as the Lord’s holy day. Honor the Sabbath in everything you do on that day, and don’t follow your own desires or talk idly. Then the Lord will be your delight. I will give you great honor and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob. I, the Lord, have spoken!”
In the preceding verses, Isaiah forcefully asked the Israelites to push aside the practice of disciplines that do not carry a genuine expression that pleases Yahweh. Instead, he has asked them to fast oppressive behaviors that keep members of their community in the devastating cycle of poverty. He highlights promises to his people that ruin and destruction are not the last word for the fallen human race. Isaiah paints a picture of citywide renewal that will spring forth through their God-honoring behaviors and practices. Finally, after such a thrilling journey from repentance to joy, God lovingly reminds them that they cannot and should not attempt to do all of this reparation work without choosing the discipline of taking one day per week to rest, reflect, and allow the Spirit to reenergize their work. The Sabbath, therefore, becomes a delight, not a legalistic requirement.
The people that Isaiah addresses in this passage of scripture were keenly committed to expressing their devotion to God. The trouble was that they were blindly so. The rebels and sinners that are referred to in these passages sought God with devotion every day. This is a startling reminder that each follower of Christ must test their motives and ask for purity just as the Psalmist, David, requested to God in Psalm 51:10. He says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me.”
Spiritual disciplines awaken the senses and heal the spiritual awareness of disciples of Christ. Finding places of quiet reflection allow for God to highlight areas of our lives that can be identified as misguided affection. Every disciple that longs to be a rebuilder of cities and a restorer of homes must first choose to allow God to impact their daily lives in a way that brings personal healing through repentance. Thomas a’ Kempis speaks to the practice of spiritual disciplines in his classic work The Imitation of Christ. He states,
“The more a man hath unity and simplicity in himself, the more things and the deeper things he understandeth; and that without labour, because he receiveth the light of understanding from above. The spirit which is pure, sincere, and steadfast, is not distracted though it hath many works to do, because it doth all things to the honour of God, and striveth to be free from all thoughts of self-seeking.”
These moments of intimacy between the Father and his children can be viewed as time to simply recalibrate our lives to allow God to remain at the center of all religious activity. Isaiah was challenging the Israelites to understand that God cared much more about their treatment of others than he did about their vigorous public expressions of worship. Better to share their food (and their homes and clothes) than forgo their food in their expression of worship to God.
It would be an egregious error to read Isaiah 58:1-14 and come to the conclusion that God does not take interest in the spiritual discipline of fasting. If this passage is an affront on misguided affection, it also highlights the way that God responds quickly to those that genuinely pursue him. The act of abstaining from something to focus attention on God can only be viewed as a benefit to our spiritual growth if that is also accompanied by a willingness to behave in a way that promotes neighborliness and joy. Dallas Willard states, “This discipline teaches us a lot about ourselves very quickly. It will certainly prove humiliating to us, as it reveals to us how much our peace depends upon the pleasures of eating.” 
Additionally, a group fast can be a wonderful and powerful experience provided there is a prepared people who are of one mind in these matters. God does not want our spiritual fervor, however, to replace our call to simply love our neighbors well and treat people with equity and kindness. As a community genuinely seeks God through a corporate fast, they learn how to suffer happily as they feast on God.
Influence, Power, and Equity
The prophet had forceful words for those in the worshiping community that sat in positions of influence and power, yet chose to impose inequitable work conditions upon their neighbors that were poor and marginalized. John Goldingay observes that employers that refuse to practice spiritual discipline in their own lives seem to have a direct link to their instinct to ill-treat their employees. It seems as if those that offered jobs viewed the poor as something less than an equal part of the family. This is not only an offense to
these individuals; this is an offense to God. All of God’s children carry the same distinct family trait: they were created in the image of the Father.
The wealthy should not feel compelled to feel guilty for being successful. Willard speaks to this topic by addressing the rich and powerful very directly. He states, “No one can give what they do not possess. If giving is good, having is also good – providing one’s spiritual balance is retained. If giving much is good, having much is also good. If giving more is good, having more is also good.” God can and will use the wealthy, and powerful in any given culture, if they are willing parties to his plans. Spiritual disciplines that genuinely point to the Father afford influential leaders of society the privilege of listening for God to lead and direct as to how he wants to use them to distribute wealth and opportunity equitably across the community.
Those that hold the keys to the business community have the ability to equitably distribute the elemental resources that are necessary to life. Isaiah 58 deeply challenges the temptations of our current society, especially affluent business owners that are short on neighborliness. Sadly, we find ourselves in a world where few people are rich and powerful, while many are poor and weak.
Jesus says that it is extremely difficult for a rich man to truly grasp the holistic message of the Gospel (Mark 10:25). This is, in part, because a great expectation of residing in the Kingdom of God is the willingness to share resources (Acts 2:42-47). Spiritual practices raise questions about what a person really wants and whether all their wants are compatible and whether they are capable of doing something regularly that they don’t want or feel like doing. One great issue at the heart of Isaiah 58 is that the community receives the grace of God, and then it is expected to flow out of the worshipers onto everyone around. This is an important message for those who have the ability to allow the Holy Spirit to lead them to creatively create opportunities that will result in various resources flowing into high poverty neighborhoods in their community.
Isaiah 58:1-14 gives a powerful admonition to a community of worshipers that were zealous and boisterous in their spiritual disciplines. However, the act of fasting is not what moves God to advocate on their behalf. God is drawn to individuals – to communities – whose hearts are willing and open to learn about matters that are close to his heart. Simply put, God would rather a person fast inequitable behavior over a lavish food-fast that was is practiced with impure motives. However, when the believing community is genuinely engaging with the heart of the Father, a natural reaction will be for that community to care for each other well. Neighborliness is a natural outflow of time spent with God. Equitable practices flow down stream naturally when the river of God is allowed to flow unimpeded in and through the lives of his children.
Dallas Willard states, “ A successful performance at a moment of crisis rests largely and essentially upon the depths of a self wisely and rigorously prepared in the totality of its being— mind and body.” Individuals are in charge of their own spiritual growth. They have been given the opportunity to respond to the call of God in their lives to take stock of their own life. Disciples of Jesus are expected to regularly implement disciplines that will afford them the opportunity to search their heart and allow the light of Christ to shine where wickedness may be laying discreetly in the dark corners of their lives.
God’s nature is to give himself away to those who can never repay him. There is no clearer evidence of the presence of God in a person’s life than a replication of that same behavior. Spiritual practices inspire disciples of Christ to joyfully take on unnatural behaviors that result in unnatural wisdom, understanding, and power from God.
Jesus speaks to this natural pattern of inward growth that leads to an outward expression of genuine faith in John 15:5. He states, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Healthy spiritual disciplines point individuals and communities to the heart of the Father, producing fruit privately and publicly for the glory of God and the benefit of their neighbors.
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Frederick J. Gaiser 2016. “The delight of the Sabbath: an exegetical/homiletical study of Isaiah 58.” Word & World 36, no. 3: 228-236. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 11, 2017).
 Chase-Ziolek, Mary. 2005. “Repairing, restoring, and revisioning the health of our communities: the challenge of Isaiah 58.” Ex Auditu 21, 150-164. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 11, 2017).
 Kwesi A. Dickson. 1988. “He is God because he cares: Isaiah 58:1-12.” International Review Of Mission 77, no. 306: 229-237. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed March 12, 2017).