“The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. 12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.” (Isaiah 1:11-13)
If you were to look back on a lot of my posts, you would see that I regularly encourage people to develop spiritual habits: yearly Bible reading, meditation, memorization, silence, solitude, fasting. But each time we seek to form a new habit, we place ourselves in very real spiritual danger. How could it possibly be dangerous to avail ourselves of the means of grace, you ask? Quite simply, it’s dangerous because we can so overemphasize the means that we forget the grace. That is, we might pursue a new spiritual discipline with a performance mindset: “At last, I measure up. God must be pleased with me, because look at all I’m doing for him.” This was a constant problem for the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and in the passage above, we see Isaiah, some 700 years earlier, pointing out the same issue.
The Israelites did “good” things. They brought sacrifices to God, celebrated the right holidays, showed up to church—er, I mean, temple. But, while they were congratulating themselves on their impressive piety, God was rejecting the gifts they ostensibly brought for him. Why? Because, as Alec Motyer puts it, “They loved religion but did not shun sin” (Isaiah by the Day). Slowly but surely, they had forgotten the purpose of their religious activities. It became an end to itself, as opposed to a means to intimacy with God the Father. So, Isaiah says, the offerings were “meaningless”—literally, “gifts of emptiness.”
We don’t want to bring God empty gifts. Why are you committing to read the Bible through in a year? Is it because of the feeling of pride you get in moving that bookmark ahead a few pages, checking off another box on the reading plan—or because you want to know God who has graciously disclosed himself to us? Why will you meditate on and memorize Scripture? Is it because this is one more proof that you’ve got your life together, that you’re on top of things—or because you want to hear what God has to say to you, to put it into practice, and to hide his Word in your heart so that you don’t grieve him by your sin?
Please don’t misunderstand me. These are all very good habits, and I hope we all seek to develop them more and more in 2022. But as we do so, let’s examine our hearts, check our motives, to make sure we’re doing it for God—that we might know him better—and not for ourselves.