Breaking the 4th Wall

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Isaiah 58:1-12

A young woman was moving into a house that was in need of some renovation, so she called one of her friends who had a background in architecture to get his advice. She showed her friend one of the rooms that she wanted to change.

“Can I take down some walls in here?” she asked.

Her friend looked carefully around the perimeter of the room. Finally, pointing at one section of the structure, he warned, “This fourth one’s a load-bearing wall. You’ll have to leave it alone, or you’ll compromise the integrity of the whole house.”

The woman nodded but was clearly disappointed. Leading her friend to the door, she thanked him for the help.

A week later, he and the woman bumped into each other at a restaurant.

“Hey! Did I end up helping you out with your house problem at all?”

“It was a bit discouraging, but I eventually found someone who could help.”

Curious, he asked who.

She smiled as she answered. “It took a bit of looking, but I found that the people on Reddit reading this joke were quite helpful!”

A look of panic crossed her friend’s face.

Concerned, she asked, “What’s wrong…?”

A few moments passed before he answered, “I told you not to break the fourth wall.”[1]

The fourth wall is the imaginary wall between the actors on a stage and the audience.  Actors break it when they acknowledge and talk to the audience. It’s a fun device that is often used to give us an inside view of a character or a situation, similar to the way that an omniscient narrator in a book gives us insight into the thoughts and motivations of a character.

What is your favorite show that breaks the fourth wall?

One of my favorites is the British comedy called Miranda.  The main character, Miranda, breaks the fourth wall for comic effect, and does it with integrity, by which I mean that Miranda is the same whether she’s talking to the other actors or talking to the audience.  She’s the same inside and out.

Sometimes, when characters break the fourth wall, they acknowledge that they are a character inside a play. Maybe that demonstrates even more integrity. They show they know who they really are.


In the James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the first one in which George Lazenby played Bond, he acknowledges that everyone is going to be comparing him to Sean Connery, saying to the camera, “This never happened to the other fellow.”  Or in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Cary Elwes as Robin Hood misses a target with his bow and arrow. He’s incredulous, and says something to the effect of “I’m not supposed to miss!” and pulls out his script to check.[3]

What would be the church’s 4th wall?

  • When I talk [to the camera] to people at home
  • Between us and those outside these walls
  • How we are inside vs. how we are outside – we aren’t always so good at that

As the old joke goes, If you’re going to die, better do it on Monday, right after you’ve been to church, because by Wednesday you’re starting to be questionable, and by Friday you’re definitely going to hell.

In our scripture reading today from the prophet Isaiah, he doesn’t exactly break the 4th wall, but he is challenging the people for their lack of integrity in how they live throughout the week.  God says:

They seek me day after day, desiring knowledge of my ways
    like a nation that acted righteously,
    that didn’t abandon their God.
They ask me for righteous judgments,
    wanting to be close to God.
 “Why do we fast and you don’t see;
    why afflict ourselves and you don’t notice?” (Isaiah 58:2-3)

[4]The people are complaining that their fasting isn’t helping God hear them.  But notice how this scripture starts out—God tells Isaiah to SHOUT!  God is trying to get the people to hear HIM.  Fasting and prayer are more about helping US hear God better, about seeking to let God work in us. 

Isaiah also points out that on the same day that they are fasting, their behavior is terrible.

 You quarrel and brawl, and then you fast;
    you hit each other violently with your fists. (Isaiah 58:4)

The people are trying hard to do all the right things in their worship practices to earn God’s favor. They’re basically changing God’s gift of grace into something earned by their own good behavior.[5]

There are two problems with that:

  1. None of us can be good enough to earn God’s grace.

As Paul says in Romans 3, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”  Romans 3:23-24

  • They’re trying to be right with God, but they have no care for being right with their neighbors.

But if we say we love God and don’t love each other, we are liars. We cannot see God. So how can we love God, if we don’t love the people we can see? 1 John 4:20 CEV

The problem is that fasting and praying and going to the temple hasn’t changed their hearts or spilled over into their actions.  They are blind to the fact that there are people around them who are hungry, people who aren’t eating not because they chose to fast, but because they just don’t have enough food.  The people are complaining that God doesn’t hear their cries, but the Israelites aren’t hearing the cries of the people around them.

So God says, [6]

Isn’t this the fast I choose:
    releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke,
    setting free the mistreated,
    and breaking every yoke?
Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry
    and bringing the homeless poor into your house,
    covering the naked when you see them,
    and not hiding from your own family?

We worship God not just through prayer and fasting and going to church, but also by how we live and how we treat one another.

As Jesus says in Matthew 25, whatever you did to your neighbors, you did to me.


James Wray, a pastor in Tennessee, tells about a woman who was doing a great job at worshiping God by loving her neighbors.   Her name was Gloria.  She had long, stringy, gray hair, and simple clothes. She looked out of place among most of the well-dressed congregation.  She always sat in the back row, and was often referred to as “Glory in the back pew.”

The pastor was not surprised when Glory asked one Sunday if he could bring any leftovers from the church fellowship supper to her house. That became a regular monthly routine. What did surprise him was when he later learned that the leftover casseroles and salads and cakes weren’t for Glory and her husband Gerald, but were for an old couple across the street; a single mother next door; an unemployed family down the road; a sick neighbor; a boy in the local jail.

The pastor was not surprised when Glory called and asked if he could bring her the clothes that did not sell at the spring rummage sale; what surprised him was that she was distributing those clothes to families in her neighborhood and out in the country.

The pastor was not surprised when she called one day and asked if he had a little extra in the pastor’s discretionary fund for a utility bill. He knew she and Gerald lived only on Social Security and the little extra she picked up from sewing. What was surprising was they had opened their home to a young man out on parole. He had now found a job and a little apartment and needed some help getting the lights turned on.

One day some of the women of the church came by the office and said, “Pastor, we’ve taken up an offering in circle and we want you to go to the department store and buy Glory a coat for the winter. It’ll be kind of an early Christmas present from the circle.” The pastor suggested instead that they ask Glory to go with them to the department store. They protested and he protested. But finally he won and they went. (Incidentally, he says that was the only time in his ministry he ever won an argument with the women’s circle!) The next Sunday Glory came to church in a nice, comfortable, warm winter coat.

Later that winter, Glory called the office. “Preacher, I need you to take me on an errand.”

Pastor said, “Ok. How about 3:00 this afternoon?”

Glory had other ideas. “How about in 30 minutes! I need to do this now.”

The pastor went to her little house. Inside on the table was a big box full of food–sandwiches, a jar of soup, some cookies and a paper grocery sack with the top taped down.

“Put these in the car.” Glory directed.

“Yes ma’am.”

She put on her new coat, got her cane and hobbled out to the car.

“Glory, where are we going?”

“We gotta find somebody.”

“Who, Glory?”

“The poor child doesn’t know where she’s going, or how to get there, we gotta find her.”

“Glory, who do we have to find?”

“Just drive.”

They drove out of town a few miles till they came to an underpass beneath the highway.

“Pull over here.”

“Glory, where are we going?”

“Just get the box and sack and follow me.”

Down the embankment we stumbled and under the bridge we went. There was a young woman and two little girls huddled up under that bridge. Glory said hello as if she knew them. “My girls, I was afraid you wuz lost. You shore look hungry. Look what Glory brought you.”

And she brought out the sandwiches and the cookies and the hot soup. She opened the sack and pulled out a couple of blankets and two little dolls and gave them to the little girls. Handing an envelope to the mother she said, “Here’s enough money for your bus fares back to Kentucky. Preacher here’ll take you to the station.”

And then she said, “You look cold, child.”

“Yes ma’am, I am.”

“Well, here you take this coat, it’ll keep you warm.”

And taking off that coat the church women had bought her, Glory laid it around that woman’s shoulders. And then she said, “I’m so glad I found you. Everything’s gonna be alright now.”[8]

Gloria was the same inside and out, loving God and loving her neighbors.  It’s just who she was.

And that’s who we are, too, the more we let God’s love live through us.

There’s one thing about this scripture that I want to point out.  There are several if-then statements. It makes God’s love sound conditional. 

God’s love is unconditional. God does not say, “I will love you if you prove that you deserve my love and are worthy of it. I will love you if you first become law-abiding, God-fearing, respectable people.” God does not even say, “I will love you if you first repent of your sins and believe.” Rather: “Christ died for the ungodly.… God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6–8). . .There are no “ifs” or “buts,” no strings attached, to God’s love. God’s love is unconditional.[9]

Thanks, God.


[2] By Comet Photo AG (Zürich) – This image is from the collection of the ETH-Bibliothek and has been published on Wikimedia Commons as part of a cooperation with Wikimedia CH. Corrections and additional information are welcome., CC BY-SA 4.0,

[3] Robert Frost on Quora,

[4] By 18 century icon painter – Iconostasis of Transfiguration church, Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia, Public Domain,

[5] John A. Braun, People’s Bible Commentary: Isaiah 2, (Concordia Publishing House, 2005), pg. 283.

[6] Isaiah By Antonio Balestra – The Bridgeman Art Library, Object 569354, Public Domain,

[7] Photo by Brandon Jean on Unsplash

[8] Adapted from James Wray, “Glory in the Back Pew” accessed on ATLA database. Date and source unknown.

[9] Guthrie Jr., Shirley C.; Christian Doctrine, Revised Edition (p. 105). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

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