Should we pray or should we act? Should we seek political and social change or should we seek the face of God and wait on the Lord to move on our behalf? Should we protest with signs and activism or should we protest with silence and prayer meetings?
These are some of the questions and debates people are having in light of our political and social climate. These questions are very important and essential as the Church engages our culture with the Gospel. If these questions go unanswered the consequences will be damaging. A focus on prayer while neglecting biblical action can be socially harmful and a focus on biblical action while neglecting the vital importance of prayer can be spiritually blinding.
In Isaiah 58, the prophet Isaiah is commanded by God to confront the hypocrisy of His people and to make clear the pathway to God’s blessing. The people of Israel were divorcing the practical implications of their relationship with God from their spiritual worship toward God. Their delight in the commandments of God was false and manipulative because their actions were oppressive and harmful toward fellow image bearers of God.
When our commitment and delight in God are not expressed in our relationships to people, our faith is dead. A pursuit of God in prayer without the pursuit of God in practice is false religion. Often the pursuit of justice and the talk of ethics are put up against the pure Gospel message or ministry of evangelism and making disciples.
Ethics and justice aren’t secondary to who God is. Ethics and justice are a part of who God is. We come up with this compartmentalization because just like the Israelites in Isaiah 58, we have divorced prayer and practice. I think this stems from a poor understanding of the glory and holiness of God.
The Distortion of Image Bearers
It is understandable to misunderstand the holiness of God. The holiness of God is a massive concept. One of the misconceptions of God’s holiness is that it is so lofty it can’t be seen. The holiness of God, however, is not an abstract thing; the holiness of God has a picture and face in which we find beauty.
In Psalm 96:5-9, the Psalmist exhorts the peoples of the earth to acknowledge the glory of God. In this text, the word “glory” is a synonym of the word “beauty.” The glory of God is a picture of His holiness, which is His beauty. The magnificent mountains and beautiful sunsets are aspects of the glory and holiness of God. Another form of God’s glory and holiness is His greatest creation—His image bearers.
Because sin has distorted our view of God’s holiness, sin has also distorted our view of the image of God. The people of God in Isaiah 58 exhibited their distorted view of God’s holiness by neglecting the pains and needs of people who are God’s greatest aspect of His creative glory. Idolatry always takes on two forms; the first form is the worship of another god, the other form is the worship of the right God but in the wrong way.
The people of God in Isaiah 58 were pursuing the right God in their fasting and prayer, but were worshipping Him the wrong way by their practices and actions. If the glory of God and the holiness of God are friends, then the worship of God and the ethics of God are friends as well. If our praise and worship gives glory to God then our practice of righteousness gives sight to the holiness of God which expresses His glory.
Supernatural Change or Systematic Change? Yes
The people of God in Isaiah 58 had the right posture before God, but had the wrong practice. The prophet Isaiah uses sarcasm in verse 5 to show the Israelites their wrong. It is not enough to humbly submit to God’s presence in prayer and fasting and not submit to God’s commandments in practice and righteousness. Our practice of God’s commandments to love selflessly and to seek justice validates our posture towards God.
It is hypocritical and contradictory to seek God’s presence while oppressing His supreme creation. Our desire for revival must be matched with our desire for societal change as it relates to justice and our love for neighbor.
So the answer to the above question is not either or, but a resounding yes! The prophet Isaiah gives us the answer to this historic dilemma. In Isaiah 58:6-12, God gives us the ingredients to a proper fast. In our fasting and praying, our actions must align with the heart and mission of God. When we soak in God’s presence through prayer and fasting, we should ring out like cloths so that the water of justice will flow in and through our communities and cities.
The God we serve is not an oppressive God. In the presence of God, there is freedom and joy. Our practices must reflect the nature of God’s truth and Personhood. The piety that God blesses is a piety that reflects His character and desires for His image bearers to be free and dignified.
May we not have the posture of godliness while denying the power of godliness in our actions. Our pursuit for supernatural change and systematic change are pursuits of God’s presence and God’s practices. Let’s organize prayer meetings in the churches and pursue activism in the streets.
is a pastoral fellow at McLean Bible Church who is passionate about teaching the Word of God, writing about the Word of God, and learning how to enjoy God in everyday life. He has a beautiful wife whom he has been married to for almost two years. He has previously written for the Reformed African American Network (RAAN), the Jude 3 Project, and Southeastern Seminary Intersect, and more.