There was a big problem in Malachi’s day.
The people had stone cold hearts. The Levites—the priests, unique men called to represent the entire nation before God—was asleep at the wheel, mistreating their wives and withholding tithes. Worst of all, they were questioning God—not humbly or sincerely, but as if to challenge him.
The people of had no spiritual pulse—which is quite a thought, considering that they were flooding the altar with their tears (Malachi 2:13). They had quite an impressive showing of religious exercise, but they were dead inside.
Throughout the book, whenever God tells the people something, the people react defensively. There’s a brief question-and-answer, and God forces them to literally eat their own words, quoting back various sayings and attitudes that were evidently popping up throughout Judah.
One of those verses has been striking me right between the eyes lately. It’s the last accusation God makes against the people before the believing remnant repents at the end of chapter 3. In Malachi 3:13-15, the prophet says (emphasis added):
“Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
That one phrase—“What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?”—is a sentiment to which I believe the overwhelming majority of us American Christians can relate.
‘I’m not a mourning person’
Zoom out a bit and look at your life from a bird’s-eye perspective. You get up, you go to work, you watch television, you go to church, you spend time with your family, and hopefully you’re praying and studying the Word.
Then it hits you. You remember a neglected duty, a spiritual discipline of some sort, perhaps. You’re reminded of a broken promise to God or a sin unconfessed. Perhaps you happen across an unmet need, or a global tragedy of some sort wisps in and out of your living room in mere moments by way of your TV screen.
You can react in a lot of ways when these things are brought to your mind. You could slow down, check your attitude, and remember you aren’t the center of the universe. You could stop and say a prayer. And certainly you could remember that God is reigning sovereignly from Heaven, doing all that he pleases (Psalm 115:3) and working everything together for the ultimate glory of his chosen believers (Romans 8:28).
But do you mourn? Are you moved?
Does your heart break with the Father’s heart over sin and suffering? Are you pliable in his hands, affected by his word, his Spirit’s leading, and the circumstances he ordains for you? Do you deny yourself, your appetite for food, or your thirst for entertainment to make yourself more sensitive to the things of God?
The problem is not just that we don’t donate enough, pray enough, fast enough, or weep enough, although certainly we can grow in those areas. The problem is that many of us don’t see the utility in such things. Worse, we look on them with suspicion, as if the Gospel of grace and love somehow precludes these attitudes of heart that are oftentimes most appropriate for the mature saint.
Paul makes a critical statement in 2 Corinthians 7:10, writing to a group of believers on whom he had spent large quantities of ink to rebuke because of sin. He says:
For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.
The idea of being “without regret” is about as American as it gets. “No regrets? Sign me up!” But that’s not what Paul is getting at. The life of a true follower of Christ has no regrets because of godly grief that produced repentance. You can’t skip the godly sorrow and repentance to get straight to the buzz.
Lest anyone confuse this talk of mourning and godly sorrow with worldly grief, there is a distinction to be made. We are not called to spend all our days sulking about the evils of the world or the sin in our hearts. We are called to be sober-minded and serious about the things of God, yet overflowing with joy in God through Christ. But when we avoid deep conversation topics, needs in the world, or dark areas of our own hearts, it isn’t our joy in Christ that we’re protecting; its our apathetic enjoyment of petty, sinful pleasures.
American culture—secular and Christian—tells us the same kind of message the people in Malachi 3 believed: it’s vain to mourn before God. Or to mourn in general, really. It’s pointless to sacrifice your own happiness and comfort to approach God with the reverence he is due.
(This is one reason many people find evangelism so horribly awkward. Want to be the buzzkill at the water cooler who suddenly requires people to—oh the humanity—talk about “deep stuff?”)
Even as Christians, we have the same aversion to anything that would force us to crumble beneath the weight of compassion, sympathy, or mourning. We play our lives safe. “Don’t read anything too convicting.” “I didn’t like that movie; it was too depressing.” In serious situations and in non-serious situations, the devil can seize upon well-meaning believers to turn self-control into cold-heartedness.
The truth is that we are not entitled to a perpetual God-buzz. We are indeed promised—commanded—to find our deepest joy in God alone, but such commands would make little sense if it weren’t so darn tempting to find cheap, knockoff gleefulness by sidestepping heavy Scriptures and playing nice all the time.
Paul goes on in verse 11 to describe the Corinthians’ great zeal and earnestness for holiness, which all started with their godly sorrow over sin. Since so few of us make a habit of letting ourselves bear the brunt of godly sorrow, we’re far from having any kind of real zeal. We’re left with no alternative but to manufacture the creepy, smiley niceness that frightens folks away from Christianity—or just remain dull in general.
God said to the people in Malachi’s day, “Your words have been hard against me.” Why?
Not because they didn’t serve God enough, fast enough, pray enough, or feel enough compassion. Those were grievous sins, but they weren’t what weighed upon God’s longsuffering spirit in that context. The burden to God was when they said, in essence, “What’s the point?”
I pray that we do not creep upon the same thin ice they did, assuming that there was no point is having spiritual affections malleable in the hands of God. But sadly I know many of us are already broken through that ice and pathetically treading the icy waters of apathy—because I know my own heart, and I see the same erroneous attitudes.
There is a certain figure in our community with whom a friend of mine and I are both acquainted. I’ve always, a bit cruelly, poked fun at the fact that almost every time this man speaks in public, he cries. Literally. Even when discussing innocuous topics like having breakfast cereal with his teenage daughter.
But my friend told me the reason why: this man, like many of us, realized one day that he was a cold, affectionless person. He never cried in public, of course, but even in ministry in private settings he found himself dangerously unmoved.
Making this realization, he didn’t put on a show and go blubbering to God. Instead, he asked—simply—God, break my heart for what breaks your heart. He asked to have a malleable spirit. Hard words to pray. But God responded, and his reputation now is as one of the most compassionate souls in our organization.
God is near to those who draw near to him. He will not reject the prayers of his children who sincerely ask to be made more like him. We need greater sensitivity to the things of God. And most of all, we need to remember that there is great profit in seeking God with softened heart.
Image credit: Flickr/thisisbossi