Why do we practice spiritual disciplines? Why do we pray and read our Bibles? Why do we fast and keep Christian celebrations like Easter and Christmas? Do we keep up with spiritual practices in order to earn favor from God?
In Zechariah 7, the people of Bethel send a delegation to the temple to seek the Lord’s favor. They ask, “Should we mourn and fast in the fifth month as we have done these many years?” (Zechariah 7:3). In essence, the people wanted to know: “What do we need to do to keep God on our side?”
God answered them through His prophet: “When you fasted and lamented in the fifth and in the seventh months for these seventy years, did you really fast for me? When you eat and drink, don’t you eat and drink simply for yourselves?” (7:5–6). God’s response through the prophet is meant to be a rebuke. Zechariah knows that the people are just currying favor, attempting to ingratiate themselves to God through their devout behavior.
How often are we just like them? We may be outwardly religious, but inwardly we’re more in love with the benefits God gives than we are in love with Him. Here’s the truth: God wants more than our personal piety. He wants our hearts.
As verses 7–10 make clear, God demands justice. He wants His people to treat widows, orphans, refugees, and the poor with compassion. He demands the same from us. The Bible says it again and again: “Mankind, he has told each of you what is good and what it is the Lord requires of you: to act justly, to love faithfulness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).
Of course, none of us can live up to the exacting standards of God’s justice (Zechariah 7:11–14). So, God gives the remnant of Israel a promise. He says, “I will return to Jerusalem” (8:3–8; see also Jeremiah 31:33). God tells them that He’s coming as the Savior to make them faithful and holy again.
We know God has come to us in Jesus Christ, so we should hear these promises as an encouragement. Christ has made us new, and He will make us fruitful (Zechariah 8:12). He’s given us His Spirit so we can love our neighbor. Let your hands be strong and build up one another. Because the Spirit dwells within us, we can practice justice and mercy. And when we do, even our fasting and feasting will be holy and joyous (v.19), not because they’re earning us favor with God. But because these religious acts now come out of the overflow of hearts that love Him.
Written by Jared Kennedy