For my daily quiet time this morning, I was meditating on Malachi 3:16: “Then those who revered the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the LORD and thought on his name” (NRSV).
I’ve heard pastors use this verse to club introverts over the head. “You’re supposed to fellowship with other believers. After all, Malachi says that those who revered the LORD spoke often with one another. So who cares if you’re an introvert? God wants you to be a super-happy extrovert.”
But, today, I want to look beyond whatever hurt this verse (or, rather, a certain application of it) has caused me and look at how it helps me understand the entire book of Malachi. Also, this morning’s quiet time has shed some light on another issue that has troubled me over the years.
Why does Malachi emphasize that those who revered the LORD spoke often with one another? Like a lot of commentators, I read Malachi 3:16 in light of Malachi 3:13-15:
“You have spoken harsh words against me, says the LORD. Yet you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the LORD of hosts? Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape.'”
Incidentally, this passage has also been used to club me over the head. One time, I was getting into a debate with a Calvinist lady. I was struggling with the problem of evil and the Calvinist portrayal of God, which doesn’t exactly present him as all that loving (in my opinion). She replied that Malachi 3:16 applies to people like me: those who question God. She seemed to imply that I should stop asking questions and just have faith.
I then pointed out that there are godly people in the Bible who question God and wrestle with the way he does things. God was about to wipe out Sodom, and Abraham questioned if God would be just to destroy the righteous with the wicked. When God threatened to annihilate Israel because of the Golden Calf incident, Moses disagreed with him. The Psalmist often complains about God’s failure to stop evildoers. Don’t question? Apparently, there were biblical figures who never heard of that rule.
I’ve often heard that I should be honest with God, even if that involves expressing my problems with him. When I was growing up in the Armstrongite movement, one preacher I really enjoyed was Ron Dart. He said, “One thing you can say about the Psalmist, it is that his prayer was honest. If you hate God, then you’d might as well tell him, because he already knows.” And that is the sort of advice that I’m getting from Philip Yancey’s Prayer: Does It Make a Difference?
But here’s my struggle: There are times when people in the Bible do question God, and they get punished as a result. For example, in Numbers 13-14, the Israelites weep because there are giants in the land of Canaan and they are reluctant to conquer it. God punishes them with forty years in the wilderness and the promise that they will never see the land. “But not everybody has strong faith,” I thought. “I’d be scared too! What was wrong with them being honest with God about their fears? Aren’t we supposed to be honest?”
And, in Malachi, God expresses clear disapproval with what many Israelites are saying. “God doesn’t love me.” “There’s no point to serving God.” “God gives the wicked a free ride.” But weren’t they just being honest, like the Psalmist? Not everyone has pious thoughts and feelings.
The problem in both cases was that the impious thoughts were leading to impious deeds. The Psalmist may have struggled with God, but he remained committed to righteousness. He also had some hope that his prayers would move God to act, or at least alter his (the Psalmist’s) attitude in a righteous direction. But the wilderness generation and the Israelites of Malachi’s day were succumbing to total despair, with the result that they were ditching God. The Israelites of the wilderness generation were eager to abandon God’s very purpose for their lives, for they were gathering up a captain to lead them back into Egypt. And the Israelites of Malachi’s day were putting themselves ahead of God. The priests took the best meat for themselves, while giving God the defective animals. The Israelites did not give God their tithes and their offerings. They also were leaving their Israelite spouses to go after idolatrous foreign women. And sorcery, adultery, lying, and oppression of the weak were rampant throughout the land.
There is a difference between having a faith that struggles and seeks understanding, and not having faith at all. When questioning God leads to utter faithlessness or immorality, then it becomes problematic.
Where am I in all of this? My readers probably know that I have a lot of questions about evangelical Christianity, not to mention a significant amount of bitterness against it. The Israelites of Malachi’s day were becoming lax in their service of God, and I will admit that I am rather lax as well. I am not active in church activities. I don’t belong to an evangelical small group. I no longer participate in campus Christian events.
But, to be honest, I didn’t really enjoy these things when I was doing them. Sure, I liked a lot of the people in the churches and small groups that I attended. But I wasn’t that big on participating in all these activities. When I was at Harvard, I helped organize this Praise Night. I hated doing that. I preferred to stay at home and read my devotional literature.
Do I witness? Well, it depends on what you mean by “witnessing.” I no longer tell people, “If you don’t believe in Jesus, then you will go to hell.” I don’t act as if my Christian faith is perfect, like I have no struggles with it whatsoever. Sure, there is biblical justification for that form of evangelism, but I can’t pretend anymore. I’m tired of reading a script. But I do witness in this sense: I am on a spiritual journey, and I share that journey with other people. There are many times when I do this on my blog, since I have difficulties in my personal interaction with others. But I have also done so on a more personal level. My spiritual journey consists of this: I try to believe in a loving God who is continually working on me. God wants me to have love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, generosity, faith, and all sorts of other positive attributes. I still have a long way to go, but God offers me encouragement and wisdom on my journey. And there may be times when he gives me some nugget that can help somebody else.
And there may be times when God wants me to step outside of my comfort zone. At this one meeting that I attend, I always have to chair. I walk in, and there is the notebook sitting right in front of where I normally sit. I think, “Man! I don’t want to do this!” And the people there know that I don’t want to do it. I’d much rather sit in the background and listen to others talk. But I don’t really serve at the meeting in any other way (e.g., making coffee), and so I’d might as well do it. I don’t like doing it, but it is an opportunity to serve.
But this is God gently pushing me into an activity. It’s not me feeling that I have to be a total extrovert and activist on a 24-7 basis, as some preachers seem to assume. I’m not asking “What would Jesus do?” as if I always have to be perfect. Rather, God is helping me to grow, and I am cooperating with what he is doing. My cooperation is sometimes good, sometimes not so good. But God will not give up on me, and that gives me assurance.
And that’s the difference between me and those who totally ditch God: I thirst for God and the life that he offers. I just get impatient with him and life. But I crave inner peace and the attributes that God wants me to have.
Of course, I need to make sure that my grumbling against God does not lead to ditching him totally. But, at the moment, I am like the Psalmist in the sense that I desire God’s love and favor, even while I am complaining against him.
Let’s come back now to Malachi 3:16. Israelite society is saying that there is no point to serving God, since God doesn’t care for people anyway. The result is selfishness and immorality throughout the land. But God’s people continually tell each other that serving God has its rewards. They say that God is loving and notices all of the good things that the righteous are doing, as well as their avoidance of moral evil (which is difficult in a sinful society). They encourage one another in the faith.
I’ve been blessed by people who have encouraged me in the faith, who tell me that God loves me and has a plan for my life. I have problems doing that myself, but there is one thing I can do if I don’t feel like making pious statements: I can pray for other people. Prayer is actually making a statement about God. It says that he exists, and that there’s a good chance he loves us enough to listen and answer. Prayer, even prayer that rants and raves, contains some basis of faith.