Wash yourselves clean! Put away misdeeds from before my eyes. Cease doing evil, learn to do good. (Is 1: 16-17)
Every once-in-a-while you come across a scripture verse that seems to summarize the Christian life in just a few words, and during this Lent these two verses from Isaiah have spoken to me.
“Cease doing evil, learn to do good.” Those seven simple words, though drawn from the Old Testament, capture one of the primary goals of the Christian life: to do good and avoid evil; to grow in holiness.
Isaiah, the great prophet of the eighth century B.C., preached these words boldly to the People of Israel, condemning their sinfulness, reminding them of God’s goodness, and calling them back to fidelity with the Covenant. In so doing, his call to conversion had a corporate dimension; he was addressing a whole nation that had drifted away from God.
Sound familiar? We can easily apply these words to our own nation, in our own time: To a people that promotes and pays for the extermination of unborn children; gleefully discards God’s own design for marriage; tries to change biological gender like an ill-fitting suitcoat; fails to welcome immigrants and refugees; can’t provide housing for the homeless; is polluted by vulgar language and vile pornography; is poisoned by addiction and abuse; and is shackled by political corruption and selfish partisan division.
I think of the words of another prophet, Daniel, who confessed to the Lord on behalf of his people: “We have sinned, been wicked and done evil; we have rebelled and departed from your commandments and your laws. Justice, O Lord, is on your side; we are shamefaced even to this day.” (Dn 9: 5,7)
“Cease doing evil, learn to do good.” I can envision those seven words being used as the theme of a moral crusade, a call to reform and repentance in our nation. They could appear on billboards and bumper stickers, on lawn signs and coffee mugs, and now, even on social media: #CeaseDoingEvilLearnToDoGood.”
Oh, where are the prophets today who will challenge us as did the prophets of old, fearless men of God, impervious to political correctness, who will call us back to faith, to repentance, to righteous living and moral virtue?
IF we long for the moral conversion of our nation, however, we make a grave mistake if we don’t start in the right place – with ourselves. That’s where the greatest need for repentance and conversion is found – in our own hearts and souls. Before we critique the national landscape, we need to look in the mirror. “Remove the wooden beam from your eye first,” Jesus warned, “then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.” (Mt 7: 5)
“Cease doing evil,” is the first part of the prophet’s exhortation, and here the Ten Commandments are especially helpful. The Commandments tell us what not to do; they warn us to cease doing evil. The Commandments are the guardrails of the moral life that keep us from driving off the road.
What are the personal sins you have to confront? Do you take God for granted, forget to pray to him, especially by not attending Sunday Mass, still a serious sin? Do you become angry easily, losing control and leaving wounded people in your wake? Do you gossip about others, tearing them down, and exploiting their weaknesses? Are you dishonest, cheating and cutting corners when no one is looking? Do you abuse drugs and alcohol, knowing that it harms your health and leads to serious trouble? Do you give into acts of impurity and unchastity, forgetting that your body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit?
We all need to do a good, honest examination of conscience and then confess our sins to the Lord, especially in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. When Isaiah says, “cease doing evil,” he’s speaking to you. And certainly to me.
But the other half of the instruction says, “learn to do good.” This positive encouragement to moral virtue is also part of the Christian life. But virtue is something to be learned, to be practiced every single day.
“Learn to do good.” Do we spend time with the Lord in prayer and recognize his presence in our lives? Do we respect, obey and support the Church? Do we make a habit of saying good and positive things to and about other people? Are we mindful of the needs of others and respond in acts of charity and compassion? Do we forgive others who have hurt us and seek forgiveness when we’ve offended others?
When we say “learning to do good,” the goal is to grow in holiness but, frankly, sometimes we don’t try very hard, do we? It’s not on the “to do list” we post on our refrigerators. We lack the energy and the desire to grow, to do better every day. That, I think, is the primary difference between us and the great saints. They just tried harder.
Pope Francis describes this apathy as a “gray pragmatism . . . a tomb psychology that develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum.” He laments a “faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like the most precious of the devil’s potions.” (EG, #83)
Well, there’s an awful lot packed into just those seven words of Isaiah, isn’t there? “Cease doing evil, learn to do good.” It’s a good lesson for Lent, a good lesson for life.