I was always taught that you should not answer a question with a question. I guess God never learned that lesson. In Zechariah 7, He is asked by the exiled Israelite community if they should continue in their practice of fasting and festivals. He responded with a couple of insight-producing questions of His own:
“Say to all your people and your priests, ‘During these seventy years of exile, when you fasted and mourned in the summer and in early autumn, was it really for me that you were fasting?” And even now in your holy festivals, aren’t you eating and drinking just to please yourselves” (vv. 5-6)?
Here is the thought that grabbed a hold of my heart and mind and has not let go since: I should not fast in order to impress God; I should fast in order for God to impress me. Let me expand the application of this thought by saying that I should not engage in religious practices in order to impress God; I should engage in religious practices in order for God to impress me.
This past Sunday I performed a baptism at church. When the person came up out of the water, a little girl watching blurted out, “What just happened?” I explained that baptism was an external sign, a public expression of our inward, personal decision to identify and follow Christ. I said, “If you haven’t accepted Jesus on the inside, then baptism just makes you a wet sinner.”
Paul warns us to steer clear of people who place their confidence in acts of the flesh to achieve righteousness (Phil. 3:2-3). In Colossians 2:23, he tells us that pious rules have no power to conquer the sinful flesh. Jesus bluntly calls those who look right, but live wrong, “Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity” (Matthew 23:27).
What God requires of us is not conformity to religious traditions, but transformation into the image of Christ who perfectly reflects the heart of the Father (“The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God…” Heb. 1:3). The heart of God is full of justice, love, mercy and compassion for the lost, broken, powerless and oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). The true fruit of our redemption and transformation is how we treat other people.
“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Judge fairly, and show mercy and kindness to one another. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and the poor. And do not scheme against each other” (Zech. 7:8).
“But this is what you must do: Tell the truth to each other. Render verdicts in your courts that are just and that lead to peace. Don’t scheme against each other. Stop your love of telling lies that you swear are the truth. I hate all these things, says the Lord” (Zech.8:16-17).
“No, O people, the Lord has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
“[Rather] is not this the fast that I have chosen: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every [enslaving] yoke?” … “And if you pour out that with which you sustain your own life for the hungry and satisfy the need of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in darkness, and your obscurity and gloom become like the noonday” (Is. 58:6, 10 MSG).
“If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you” (James 1:26-27).
Practicing spiritual disciplines, church attendance, and observing Christian holidays are useless religious activities if they do not flow out of a heart that has been transformed by the love of God and is intent on blessing the people of God.
Stop trying to impress God and let Him imprint Himself upon you.