Isaiah 58 tells a story of religious people. They seek after God. Or so it seems. This is how God saw their devotion: “they seem eager to know my ways” and “they seem eager for their God to come near.” God further describes, “it’s as if they were a nation who does right.” Don’t miss the words seems and as if. In sum: seems as if.
Much religious action happens apart from genuine devotion. In Isaiah 58 we see that fasting can be just one more of the things religious people do hoping to have God smile upon them–or one more way in which a religious man might be noticed by his peers. “Wow! Look how devoted that guy is!”
The word but doesn’t appear in Isaiah 58, although the spirit of such a hard contrast can be seen throughout: ‘you look like a very religious people, but looks can be deceiving.’
In Matthew 6 Jesus teaches on a number of these spiritual behaviors–giving, praying and fasting. It’s interesting to note that Jesus begins each section with the words “When you…” as opposed to saying “If you…” In other words, Jesus is presuming that these behaviors will be practiced by believers. He also builds each lesson on a big but. Look at verses 16-17.
“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do… to show men that they are fasting… But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face so that it will not be obvious to men…”
Jesus used the word hypocrite (literally, an actor who wears a mask). Fasting, like giving and prayer mentioned before it, was not intended to be a show before men, but an act of devotion unto God. You could use the words horizontal and vertical: Are your acts of devotion aimed horizontally for the sight of our peers, or vertically to be a source of glory and adoration to our God?
Are your acts of devotion the overflow of what is a real thing–a genuine relationship with God? Or is it more a matter of looks–seems as if?
Now those are some questions we should ask ourselves. May there be no buts about our devotion.