“These people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote.” —Isaiah 29:13
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares a beautiful teaching about how we should speak. At the heart of Jesus’ teaching are the virtues of integrity and honesty. Jesus says not to pile up oaths and promises, swearing that this time (perhaps unlike all the other times) we really are telling the truth. Some Jesus-followers take this teaching literally and refuse, for example, to swear to tell the truth with a hand placed on the Bible. The idea here is of course not that we shouldn’t tell the truth. Rather, our word should be reliable enough that a simple “yes” or “no” is all we need to say in order to be believed.
Jesus tells another story about a son who says he’ll help his father with some work, but doesn’t end up showing up to help. The willingness to say he would help was worthless divorced from the act of actually helping.
In today’s verse, the Lord speaks through the prophet Isaiah, describing his people as having a sharp disconnect between their external words and their internal reality. Words alone are cheap, worse than useless, in fact, if all they do is demonstrate a lack of integrity.
The implications aren’t difficult to figure out: God is not fooled by empty words. (Nor, it should be said, are other people, at least most of the time.) When we find ourselves saying things we don’t really mean, it’s time for some self-examination. Where’s the disconnect? What do I need to stop saying? Or what do I need to start doing in order to better line up my lips and my heart?
There’s good news here. In the verse immediately following today’s, just after God has laid bare the brokenness of his people, he follows with his plan: “So I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing” (Isaiah 29:14). Reading along, we expect God to say he’s giving up, but that’s not the kind of God we have. Given the starting point, these “amazing things” God is going to do may not be easy, but they will be good. God hasn’t given up on his chosen people. And he hasn’t given up on you or me either. So we can come to him honestly, vulnerably, acknowledging the gap between our words and our actions, between our lips and our hearts, and we can ask God to heal us, to make us whole, to give us integrity through his mercy and life-giving power.