“He was doing all the right things for all the wrong reasons.” Frankly, when I heard that, I didn’t even realize that was even possible. But it is. You really can do all the right things for all the wrong reasons, and then you’re amazed when the “right doing” doesn’t produce the “happiness” you were aiming for.
In fact, I’ve seen something even more amazing to me. I’ve watched as some have actually been very strict with their observance of this or that religious or “traditional” instruction and turn out to be really mean people, even disrespectful people, all the while being very strict with their “obedience” to this or that ritual.
What’s going on here? If we follow all the “rules,” aren’t we suppose to win the “game?” If we obey all the “requirements,” aren’t we suppose to get the “prize?”
There is a man I know who spends most of his time angry. He’s angry at life. He’s angry at others around him. He’s angry that others aren’t angry. He’s angry! AND he sees himself as the only one really interested in keeping all the “old ways!”
But aren’t the “old ways” suppose to create joy and peace? Aren’t the “old ways” suppose to bring love and service to everyone around us? If all this obedience is producing anger and disquiet, aren’t those “fruits” a sign of trouble?
They sure were in our Scripture Lesson this morning! In Isaiah 58:1-11, the Prophet reports God’s words to the people of Israel and the Lord comments about their strict obedience to the fasting times of the Jewish faith. And what He says to the people may surprise you.
Look at this powerful section of our lesson today: “Cry aloud, spare not, 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 ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. ‘Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and thou takest 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 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 man to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a rush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD?”
The people who are being strict with their obedience are wondering out loud “Hey, how come God isn’t answering our prayers? We’re doing all the stuff we’re suppose to! Where’s the payoff?” And God answers with a clarity that cuts right to the heart of the problem. They are fasting for themselves and their selfish desires, not to turn their hearts from the spiritual sickness of their souls. In fact, these folks don’t see themselves as spiritually sick at all. They are just “following the rules” to get a “reward.” And that, my precious one, is the heart of doing the right things for the wrong reasons.
The Lord goes on to describe a “real” fast that produces the results that were intended by the fasting wisdom in the first place. The REAL RESULTS were meant to be a real change in the person fasting, not in getting a reward from God for “doing” the right thing. The fast the Lord expects is “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs 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.'”
Today, as we approach the completion of Great Lent, and as we come to the even more rigorous spiritual disciplines of Holy Week, it’s time for a spiritual inventory of your focused obedience to the wisdom of the fasting of this time. Has your religious observances changed you? Has your religious observances made you more tender to others? Has your religious observances caused you to ignore yourself and give to those who cannot repay you?
My dearest, honest assessment of your spiritual labors makes you a real and purposeful Orthodox Christian. And it invites you to the deeper repentance that actually changes you into a more Christ-like follower of the faith. And that is the intent of the fast; of the prayers; of the almsgiving. It isn’t about “obeying the rules” so you will “get a reward.” The real reward of a purposeful Orthodoxy is your own transformed life. Until that starts happening, we simply aren’t doing it right. But when it does start happening, you will discover a sense of purpose, a sense of peace, a sense of joy that makes impotent all the other circumstances around you and places your life in proper order. And that is what all this is a bout in the first place.
Great Lent draws to its annual conclusion with our prayers and liturgy on Lazarus Saturday, and then we place our feet on the dusty road to Jerusalem with our Lord on Palm Sunday to walk with Him all the way to the Tomb. Stop, right now, and take 10 minutes to inventory your labors this Great Lent, and pray, and square your shoulders for the labors ahead! Go into Holy Week ready to be changed!