Self-Denial vs Self-Sacrifice

1 “Cry aloud; do not hold back;
    lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
    to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek me daily
    and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
    and did not forsake the judgment of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments;
    they delight to draw near to God.
‘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.
Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
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 pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

13 “If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath,
    from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the Sabbath a delight
    and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
    or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,
    and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Isaiah 58:1-14 ESV

Something is wrong with this picture. In this chapter God is going to paint a somewhat confusing image of His people. On the one hand, He describes them as transgressors of His ways. They are disobedient and rebellious, failing to live up to the standards He had provided through His law. And he pulls no punches in pointing out their guilt.

“Tell my people Israel of their sins!
   Yet they act so pious!” – Isaiah 58:1-2 BNLT

There is a palpable dissonance in the outward behavior of the people of God. At times, they appear to be enthusiastic seekers of God. From all outward appearances they seem to be genuinly excited about growing in their knowledge of God. They even display a certain allegiance to God, in the hopes of winning His favor.

They fast. They pray. The offer sacrifices. In other words, the display all the right evidence of being faithful followers of God. But then, God reveals the disconnect between their actions and His judgment against them. Even they can’t understand why God seems so upset with them. From their perspective, the were doing all the right things to win God’s favor and earn His assistance in time of need. They even ask God:

“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
    Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?” – Isaiah 58:3 ESV

They are at a loss as to why God would ignore such obviously righteous behavior. So, God explains His evident inattention and inaction.

“It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers. – Isaiah 58:3 NLT

It was all about themselves. Their fasting was nothing more than an outward display of righteous-looking behavior that was intended to win brownie points with God and impress other men. And Jesus addressed this kind of hypocritical fasting.

“When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth, they have their reward” – Matthew 6:16 NLT

They were fasting to get noticed. And all the while they fasted, they were taking unjust advantage of the people who worked for them. Their outward display of morality had a certain inconsistency about it that God found unacceptable. Everything they did was intended to impress. But God was having none of it. He could see into their hearts and knew full well that they were simply going through the motions. They were expecting God to reward their actions, but Jesus made it clear that the only reward these kinds of people were going to get for their efforts was the praise of men.

Fasting was intended to reflect a repentant and remorseful heart. It should have been an outward display of their inner desire to turn from all other things in life and seek God only. But their brand of fasting was meant to satisfy their own selfish desires. Their fasting wasn’t a reflection of a changed heart. It was simply meant to change how others thought about them.

And just so they don’t miss His point, God points out the difference between their kind of fasting and His.

“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.” – Isaiah 58:6-7 NLT

God expected a change in behavior. He demanded that their outward displays of self-denial be true reflections of a heart that was selfless rather than selfish. They were fasting to get God’s attention and to garner His help. But God had no intention of responding to their hypocritical charade. Going through the motions and feigning a false commitment to God was not going to cut it. Seeking His assistance while remaining unwilling to follow His commands was not going to cut it.

But if their fasting became sincere, and their display of humility were to reflect a truly repentant heart, they could count on God’s assistance.

“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.
Then when you call, the Lord will answer.
    ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.” – Isaiah 58:8-9 NLT

He would show up in a big way. And their fasting would bring about significant change in their own lives. Fasting that is accompanied by true self-denial that puts the will of God and the needs of others first, brings about true godliness. It also brings the favor and glory of God. He steps in and answers us when we call. He delivers the salvation we desperately need.

At the end of the day, God is far more interested in self-sacrifice than self-denial. Giving up food for a season is nothing when compared to sharing your food with the needy. Fasting from buying new clothes means little if you are unwilling to clothe those who have nothing to wear. Giving up something you enjoy for a predetermined period of time bears little merit when compared to giving what you have to care for those who have nothing.

Near the end of His earthly life, Jesus taught a timeliness lesson to His disciples. It had to do with the end times, during a period known as the Great Tribulation. There will be those on earth who find themselves persecuted for their relationship with God Almighty. And yet, there will be those who step in and provide these individuals with food and shelter. And Jesus announces that these gracious individuals will be blessed by God for their generosity. He claims that their actions to help the helpless were just like they had been extending the same courtesies to Him. But they will ask Him:

“‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’” – Matthew 37-39 NLT

And He will answer them:

“‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me.’” – Matthew 25:40 NLT

And God tells the people of Judah that, if they will practice true fasting, sacrificing themselves for the well-being of others, He will reward them.

your light will shine out from the darkness – vs 10

The Lord will guide you continually… – vs 11

You will be like a well-watered garden – vs 11

you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities – vs 12

“the Lord will be your delight…” – vs 14

I will give you great honor and satisfy you with the inheritance I promised to your ancestor Jacob – vs 14

Physical fasting accomplishes little, if the heart is not sincere. But selfless sacrifice is always in keeping with the will of God and always brings with it the rewards of God. Going through the motions may impress others, but it will never impress God. Jesus provided His disciples with the key to receiving the reward of God.

“When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:18 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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