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Isaiah 58:9b-14

A few years ago, I was struggling with my faith, and I found myself asking the question, “Why do we pray?” It was a question that had been weighing on my mind. I was looking for a reason, for an answer. Something wasn’t making sense, and I wanted to know why. Why do Christians pray?

I was going through what some people might call a “deconstruction of my faith,” and I spent most of my twenties here, questioning my Christian beliefs. I wasn’t sure what to believe because the easy answers no longer seemed fit. I was reminded of this period in my life and this question as I read Isaiah 58:3 “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Why do we pray when we get no answer?

I can remember sitting across from my pastor asking her this question, and her response is seared into my mind. She looked at me with confusion as she repeated the question back to me, “You are asking me why we pray?” The question didn’t make sense to her. I had been a Christian my whole life. I was raised in the Christian school system. This question should have been covered in Kindergarten. My pastor didn’t understand what I was asking, but she held space for me to ask her questions.

I have found myself reflecting on this period of my life a lot lately. There have been a number of articles and Facebook posts about high profile Christians questioning their faith, and the response has been all over the place. In my own life, I am thankful for the people that walked alongside me and faithfully pointed me to Jesus because questions and doubt are not always met with kindness. I think it scares people, and it makes them uncomfortable. There is fear in uncertainty, and there is a fear that things won’t reach reconstruction.

It is in this week’s text, the second half of Isaiah 58, where we find instructions for reconstruction. This isn’t the answer to questions and doubts. Religious certainty is not the goal here. The passage is redirecting the heart. The people of Israel were focusing on the wrong things. They fasted, but they fasted for the wrong reasons. They were yoked to something outside of God’s heart.

The same is true for Christianity today. God is not after our religiosity or our righteous actions. God’s desire is for our heart to align with his. In Christianity, we often use the language of “invite Jesus into your heart,” but we risk losing our focus with that language. Christianity is not about inviting Jesus into our heart and world. He is already active in our world. Christianity is about accepting God’s invitation to live in his heart. When we live in God’s heart, we join his mission for our world. He calls us to partner with him in his redemptive work which includes feeding the poor and comforting the afflicted.

Isaiah says to “remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, and the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” This is all easier said than done, but I know it to be true. As St. Francis prayed, “it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life.”

The yoke Isaiah refers to could be a lot of things. It could be the expectations of others, unrealistic views of the church, the need for certainty, a past dream, the old way of doing things, and so on. These yokes hold us back because we are called to be yoked to the heart and mission of God. As the writer of Hebrews instructs, we must “throw off everything that hinders… and… run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” It is when we let go of our yokes that Isaiah’s words come true. “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

It was in my deepest doubts and questions that God met me and answered my cries. We shouldn’t be afraid of questions. God can handle our questions and our doubts. He doesn’t require us to have all the answers or to say all the right words. His desire is for our whole heart to join in his redemptive plan.

“The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 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 live in.”