Mercy is Messy

For the past eleven years I have been in positions that entail enforcing rules and administering discipline for young people. There have been many times when I have wrestled with making the right decision in situations when disciplinary consequences were necessary, hoping and praying that I would make the right decision. Balancing justice and mercy is not easy to do. For some reason, though, a recent situation prompted me to wrestle with this matter even more than I have in the past, or at least more than I have in a long time. I probably spent the better part of three days mulling over how to handle a situation, praying for guidance and wisdom. Here’s the conclusion I reached after all that mulling: mercy is messy.

It is easy to make a decision to impose consequences. When in an institutional setting, there are almost always guidelines in place that inform discipline. Nothing could be easier than finding the offense and following your finger across the chart to the predetermined penalty. That requires no thinking at all, though; a computer or a robot could be programmed to do that. People are more complicated than that, though. And when you are enforcing discipline in a ministry that claims to be following Christ, it gets exponentially more complicated. God does not use a cookie cutter approach to discipline. He does not kick us out of His family when we blow it. He does not revoke our salvation. He does not eliminate the consequences of our actions, either, of course. There are often very real, even very painful, consequences for sin. Dallas Willard wrote, “If you choose to step off the roof, you cannot then choose not to hit the ground.” His point was that our actions and choices all have consequences, and we cannot opt to avoid the consequences after we have made our choice. I agree with that wholeheartedly, and I do not want anything I am saying here to suggest that I think we should eliminate consequences. What I am saying, though, is that meaningful, effective, God-honoring consequences do not come in neat, clean packages.

Laura Coulter has written this: “I think when we aren’t being merciful, it’s because we aren’t seeing the wild mercy of God in our own lives. If we were, we couldn’t help but splash it everywhere we go, all over everything.” This is the rub, actually. When I stop and reflect on all of the mercy God has shown me, I am left wondering how in the world I could not show mercy to someone else. If being a Christian means being like Christ, showing mercy has to be an essential part of how I live my life. The reality, though, is it isn’t. I don’t really like mercy most of the time. When I have been offended or wronged or, let’s face it, even just irritated, I want justice. I want revenge. I want punishment inflicted and pain felt. I want to hear wailing and gnashing of teeth. I want to see fire fall from heaven and the offending party obliterated, blown into a billion tiny particles scattered across the universe. I want the offending party to get exactly what’s coming to him.

When I calm down and think about what I am really saying, however, I realize exactly how much like Jonah that sounds. Jonah got ticked off at God because He decided to show mercy to the people of Nineveh. Jonah wanted no part of mercy. He wanted to see cosmic destruction, up close and personal, from a front row seat on a hill overlooking town, enjoying the shade of a lovely plant that God provided for him. When God took away the plant and extended mercy on the Ninevites Jonah was so incensed he wanted to die. How many times have I read Jonah’s story and used him as a great example of the wrong kind of heart, the wrong kind of attitude? It’s not so fun when I look into the mirror of God’s Word and see Jonah staring back at me, though.

Being merciful means taking a huge risk. Multiple risks simultaneously, in fact. It means risking the comments that will come from others who see you as weak for not giving someone what they deserve. It means risking the behavior that others may engage in when they saw someone else “get away with it,” whatever “it” may have been. It means risking the possibility of having that mercy thrown back in your face by the very one to whom it was extended when, rather than seizing the opportunity to change his life, he decides instead to capitalize on the opportunity to do whatever he wants yet again. It means taking the risk of having to look back later and wonder if all of the trouble, headache and heartache that comes from the possibilities just enumerated could have been avoided by just saying “see ya” the first time someone messed up.

I have no idea if the decision I made in the instance that I alluded to at the start of this post will turn out well or not. It is too early to know for sure. I do know, though, that I have–for now anyway–peace about that decision. When I ponder why I have that peace I am left with a simple conclusion: if doing my best to treat someone the way God would treat them, I cannot be doing the wrong thing, even if it turns out to be a disaster. Phillip Holmes wrote recently on the grace of God, describing it like this:

God is neither motivated by his own sinfulness nor enabled by his ignorance. He is a holy and righteous God, completely void of sin and full of goodness and love. He’s never made a mistake and can do anything but fail. He is perfect in all his ways. If he were a doctor, he’d never lose a patient. If he were a lawyer, he’d never lose a case. There is no moral compass that could measure how upright and blameless he is.

Nevertheless, when we, his sinful and rebellious prodigal children, spit in his face, wallow in our sin, and grieve his Spirit, he calls us to repentance with open and loving arms saying, “Come home, child.”

He’s not ignorant of all the ways we’ve sinned against him. He knows everything we’ve ever done and is able to stomach it. His knowledge of who we really are will never hinder his love for us. He’s even aware of the evil behind our righteous deeds. The intimacy by which the Lord knows us but is able to lovingly embrace us as his children is supernatural. God’s grace is mind-blowing. Every time I think of this reality, I’m brought to tears because I serve a God whose love and grace baffle me.

I have to agree. God’s love and grace baffle me, too. So does His mercy. God gives me far more than I deserve, and, in His sovereignty, does not give me what I do deserve. I am not God. I am not perfect, I am not all-knowing and I surely make mistakes. I know all of that quite well. Here’s what else I know, though: If taking the opportunity to extend mercy to someone has even the slimmest chance of leading them to the Lord, or closer to the Lord, it’s worth it. Every time. All of the mess, the risk and the headache is worth it. I do not spend much time reading Rick Warren and I rarely quote him, but he got it right with his blog post on May 21, 2014 entitled “Don’t Be Reluctant to Show Mercy.” “The mercy God shows to us is the motivation for us to show mercy to others,” Warren wrote. That is certainly true, because in and of myself, there is no motivation for mercy. In and of myself I am just like Jonah. In and of myself I am like James and John in Luke 9–I want to call down fire from heaven. But I don’t really want to be like I am in and of myself. I want to be like Christ.

In a sermon entitled “Blessed Are the Merciful,” John Piper said the following about mercy:

[M]ercy comes from a heart that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy, and has come to grief over its sin, and has learned to wait meekly for the timing of the Lord, and to cry out in hunger for the work of his mercy to satisfy us with the righteousness we need.

The mercy that God blesses is itself the blessing of God. It grows up like fruit in a broken heart and a meek spirit and a soul that hungers and thirsts for God to be merciful. Mercy comes from mercy. Our mercy to each other comes from God’s mercy to us.

The key to becoming a merciful person is to become a broken person. You get the power to show mercy from the real feeling in your heart that you owe everything you are and have to sheer divine mercy. Therefore, if we want to become merciful people, it is imperative that we cultivate a view of God and ourselves that helps us to say with all our heart that every joy and virtue and distress of our lives is owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God.

That last sentence is a doozy, isn’t it? How transformational it is to understand that everything in our lives is “owing to the free and undeserved mercy of God”!

Importantly, Piper also points out that knowing when and how to show mercy is not easy. Note what he has to say…

If we ask, How shall we know when to do justice and how to show mercy? I would answer, by getting as close to Jesus as you possibly can. I know of no hard and fast rules in Scripture to dictate for every situation. And I don’t think this is an accident. The aim of Scripture is to produce a certain kind of person, not provide and exhaustive list of rules for every situation.

The beatitude says, “Blessed are the merciful,” not, “Blessed are those who know exactly when and how to show mercy in all circumstances.” We must be merciful people even when we act with severity in the service of justice.

That’s an insightful reminder to end with, I think. It seems contradictory, but sometimes mercy does require the effective administration of swift justice. Guess where that leaves me, though? Exactly where I started–with the point that knowing what to do and when is difficult. Mind-taxing, heart-wrenching, time-consuming and just plain hard. Like I said…mercy is messy.

Celebrating sin

Earlier this year ESPN awarded “Caitlyn” Jenner its Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs. I did not agree with that decision and still do not. Even if I did not think that transgenderism is a sin, I agree with a number of other individuals who commented that there were far more deserving, far more courageous possible recipients of the award than Bruce “Caitlyn” Jenner. Apparently, celebrating sin is in this year, though, big time. This past Monday, Glamour presented Jenner one of its Women of the Year awards. This not really news for Glamour, since it gave one of last year’s awards to Laverne Cox, a transgender actress. We cannot really expect much else from the world, though. The world is full of people who like to do their own thing, and when someone does their own thing so publicly and gets praised for it, it becomes a little easier for everyone else to do their own thing, too. The more people there are doing their own thing, the easier it is to suggest that your “own thing” is just as legitimate, just as deserving of acceptance. Celebration even.

One thing that did stand out about Jenner’s acceptance speech on Monday, though, was her assertion that coming out as a transgender individual was the reason God put “her” on earth. Said Jenner, “My transition was very, very long. I had many, many, many years of isolation from the world, of lying to the world, of not being myself. I sat down with each one of my ten children, and I said, ‘This is my story. This is who I am. What can I do?’ I had a lot of conversations with God. I came to the conclusion that this is why God put me on this earth — to tell my story. To be authentic to myself, to who I am.”

I have never met Jenner, and the odds a quite high that I never will. I am not a prophet, either. I will tell you this, though, with absolute certainty: God did not put Bruce Jenner on earth to come out as transgender, to tell a story or to be authentic to him/herself. God did not put anyone on earth to be true or authentic to themselves. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that ever since Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden of Eden all humans have been born with a sin nature. The Old Testament law was given to reveal that we are flawed, sinful individuals and that, in and of ourselves, we fall short of God’s holiness, God’s glory and God’s perfection. In an of ourselves there is nothing we can do to earn or warrant forgiveness for our sins.

Proverbs 14:25 and 16:25 both say that the way that seems right to a man ends in death. Jenner’s words of choice were “to be authentic to myself.” That translates quite well to “the way that seems right,” and the Bible clearly does not condone that thought process. The Westminster Shorter Catechism, on the other hand, says that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Revelation 4:11 says that by God all things were created, and they were created for His pleasure. The Westminster Shorter Catechism goes on to state that we glorify God by adhering to the instructions in His Word, the Bible. Question 10 further addresses Jenner’s matter by stating this: “God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures.” Scripture makes it clear that God created male and female. Scripture also makes it clear that God Himself creates each individual human being, knitting them together (Psalm 139:13). God does not mistakenly put a female in a male’s body, as Jenner is suggesting. God certainly does not create anyone for the purpose of contradicting the Bible and then celebrating it. That would be contradictory to God’s nature and His holiness.

God loves Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, and if he/she ever chooses to confess his/her sins to God, repent and accept the forgiveness of sins made possible through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross–a perfect sacrifice paying a penalty demanded by a holy God that no human could ever pay–then God will forgive Jenner and we will spend eternity in heaven together. That, by the way, would be why God put Jenner on this earth. Unless and until Jenner chooses to do that, though, I think it would be in his/her best interest to leave God out of it completely. Bringing God into a celebration of sin–indeed, giving Him credit for it–is a really bad idea.

The right thing to do

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was in the news yesterday after the announcement on Thursday that the church will now consider those in same-sex marriages to be apostates. The policy change also declared that children of same-sex parents will not be blessed as babies and cannot be baptized until they are 18 years old. Eric Hawkins, spokesman for the LDS church, was quoted in the Washington Post saying, “Church handbooks are policy and procedural guides for lay leaders who must administer the church in many varied circumstances throughout the world. The church has long been on record as opposing same-sex marriages. While it respects the law of the land, and acknowledges the right of others to think and act differently, it does not perform or accept same-sex marriage within its membership.”

The church had, according to the Post article, left the discipline of same-sex couples to local leaders prior to making the change on Thursday, a change the church decided was necessary because of the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage across the country. The article further clarified that the LDS church defines an apostate as “people who renounce their faith. If someone is believed to be acting in an apostate way, it triggers a disciplinary council, which can have different outcomes, from counseling to potential loss of membership.”

Interestingly, the new policy puts homosexual marriage into the same category as polygamy, which the LDS church officially renounced in 1890. I am on record as arguing long before last summer’s SCOTUS decision that redefining marriage to include homosexual unions would open the door to polygamous marriages, as well.

As of Friday afternoon there were more than 1,200 comments on the Post story. Not surprisingly, most of them were not supportive of the policy change. The daughters of former Utah governor Jon Huntsman said the church had gone too far. I wonder, though, of perhaps the real problem is that other faiths have not gone far enough. A number of Christian denominations have gone the other way, saying that they welcome homosexuals and believe that homosexual marriage is okay. This despite the fact, of course, that the Bible clearly states otherwise. If a church firmly believes that the Bible teaches that marriage is to be between one man and one woman, why wouldn’t that church consider those who reject that core tenet of their faith to have rejected the faith? If a church expects its members to accept and agree with its statement of faith, why would it allow members who directly contradict and oppose a fundamental element of that faith? Churches that practice infant baptism expect–require, I imagine–the parents of those infants to be members of their church and to profess faith consistent with the church’s teaching. Why then would the LDS church not hold that infants of same-sex couples will not be blessed? I do not know what the LDS position is on when an individual becomes old enough to become a member of the church, but the Post article says that children are typically baptized around age 8. While I do not know this for certain, of course, I cannot imagine there are many churches that would baptize an 8 year old without the consent of the child’s parents. The LDS position here is that even if the parents consented, the child is being raised in a home that by its very existence contradicts the teachings of the church. Accordingly, I do not consider the LDS position change to be too severe or even inappropriate. Instead, I see a church willing to take a clear, public and unambiguous stand for what it believes in the face of a culture that has decided it does not agree. That is not easy to do, it will not make the church popular and there is little to gain from doing it. Little, that is, except the one thing that really matters–standing firm on what that church believes is the truth. There is not much I agree with when it comes to Mormon faith or teaching. In fact, I do not even agree with all LDS teaching on marriage, given that the Mormon faith teaches that marriage is an element of salvation. On this issue, though, I both agree with and applaud the church for standing boldly and firmly for God’s design for marriage. I might handle some of the details differently or change some of the details of how the children of homosexuals are treated, but the details of my church practice and ordinance are different than the details of the LDS church.

My hope is that other churches, those churches that claim to hold to biblical inerrancy and authority, would likewise take an unequivocal stand for God’s Truth and His design for marriage. Homosexuals need to be treated with respect, need to be shown the love of God and need to be prayed for consistently. Homosexuals are loved by God, but God hates their choices when they engage in homosexuality and they defile His design for marriage. Softening the truth of God’s Word is not a loving act. Saying God condones something He clearly does not is not a loving act. Standing for unpopular truth will not win many friends, but it is the right thing to do.

Not-So-Good News

This post contains mature content that may be offensive to some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

The odds are good that you have already heard by now that Playboy has decided that it will stop publishing full nudity in its magazine. The New York Times reported on October 12 that Cory Jones, the top editor at Playboy, went to see Hugh Hefner and suggested that the magazine “stop publishing images of naked women.” Hefner, the man who made his fortune and his image as a playboy and a purveyor of “tastefully nude” images of women agreed with Jones. “As part of a redesign that will be unveiled next March,” the Times reported, “the print edition of Playboy will still feature women in provocative poses. But they will no longer be fully nude.” Why did the magazine that is synonymous with nudity decide to stop publishing nudity? “That battle has been fought and won,” said Playboy‘s chief executive, Scott Flanders. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.” In other words, Playboy fought for the freedom to sell nudity and won…and has fallen victim to the seemingly unending amount of nudity and pornography–of every kind–that is now available. That is precisely why so many commentators have said that the news from Playboy is really not good news at all. Considering that the decision was made because nudity is available anytime, anywhere, for free, those who are concerned about porn and its influence have no reason to cheer.

Here is what Albert Mohler had to say in response to Flanders’ statement: “That is one of the most morally revealing statements of recent times. Playboy has outlived its ability to transgress and to push the moral boundaries. As a matter of fact, it was a victim of its own sad success. Pornography is such a pervasive part of modern society that Playboy is now a commercial victim of the very moral revolution it symbolized and promoted for decades.” Phil Cooke, on My Christian Daily, wrote, “this has happened because of the growing amount of extreme, dark, and violent pornography online. Today, children have easy access – not only through computers, but social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram.” In Fortune, Neil Powell wrote, “To those of us over the age of say, 40, Playboy once held an almost mystical, forbidden fascination. It was something to be coveted, hidden away, and with any luck, occasionally stumbled upon under your dad’s bed or in some older kid’s secluded hangout. This is almost laughable now, as we live in a world where porn is so widely available for free on the net and produced so widely for free by ‘amateur’ companies.” In other words, there is really not any good news in all of this.

In February 2014, in Psychology Today, Dr. David Ley wrote that common sense would seem to indicate that pornography is not good, that something like Playboy can be a gateway to more serious, more extreme forms of porn because of the tolerance effect, but that such assumptions and presumptions don’t hold up. “But, porn exposure in kids doesn’t have a life-altering, warping effect on children,” Ley wrote. “In fact, recent research in the Netherlands showed that exposure to pornography explained less than 4% of the variance in adolescents behavior. This means that 96% of the reasons why these kids do the things they do have NOTHING to do with the fact that they saw pornography. But, from the hyperbole and panic that we all hear on a regular basis, we are paying a lot more attention to porn than it deserves.” With all due respect to Dr. Ley’s PhD, I think that’s a bunch of boloney.

Stephen Arterburn is the author of the well-known book Every Man’s Battle and the subsequent version for teens. Writing on Huffington Post in February 2014 he wrote the following:

For the regular pornography user, sex becomes an act of relief or release while lusting after a photograph, a video, or a live webcam performance by an object called a woman. In this act, the man is all about his penis, his needs; whatever makes him feel good instantly–and with no regard for anyone else. He views the pornographic woman who demands nothing, does not judge his performance, or require anything other than that he look at her, and he most likely never forgets the image.

Perhaps it is tempting, for those like Dr. Ley, to suggest that Arterburn’s position is based on something other than scientific evidence and driven largely by a sense of puritanical ethics that ought not be forced on the rest of society. Truth be told, though, there is a multiplicity of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that Arterburn is right. In 1994 Tim Allen had the number one television show and movie in America along with a bestselling book, Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man. In it, he recounts his first exposure to nudity, which came in the form of a poster he saw in his friend’s brother’s bedroom. Allen described how after that exposure he looked for reasons to go into that room every time he was at the house. He described how, decades later, he could still vividly recall that image. In November 2013, Scott Christian, on, wrote a piece entitled “10 Reasons Why You Should Stop Watching Porn.” After listing his ten reasons he sums it up this way: “So there it is men. While the evidence may not be scientifically thorough, there’s certainly enough to suggest that porn has a negative impact on our lives.” According to Britain’s Independent, a Cambridge University study found that men “who are addicted to pornography show similar brain activity to alcoholics or drug addicts.”

An anonymous piece published in March 2010 on NPR included the following, after a personal recounting of how internet pornography had cost the author her husband:

In a study published in Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity, Schneider found that among the 68 percent of couples in which one person was addicted to Internet porn, one or both had lost interest in sex. Results of the same study, published in 2000, indicated that porn use was a major contributing factor to increased risk of separation and divorce. This finding is substantiated by results of a 2002 meeting of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, during which surveyed lawyers claimed that “an obsessive interest in Internet pornography” was a significant factor in 56 percent of their divorce cases the prior year.

Porn use creates the impression that aberrant sexual practices are more common than they really are, and that promiscuous behavior is normal. For example, in a 2000 meta-analysis of 46 published studies put out by the National Foundation for Family Research and Education at the University of Calgary, regular exposure to pornography increased risk of sexual deviancy (including lower age of first intercourse and excessive masturbation), increased belief in the “rape myth” (that women cause rape and rapists are normal), and was associated with negative attitudes regarding intimate relationships (e.g., rejecting the need for courtship and viewing persons as sexual objects). Indeed, neurological imaging confirms the latter finding. Susan Fiske, professor of psychology at Princeton University, used MRI scans to analyze the brain activity of men viewing pornography. She found that after viewing porn, men looked at women more as objects than as human beings.

To the best of my knowledge, Tim Allen, GQ, the Independent and NPR are not bastions of puritanical morality. So there must be something to the reports and accounts that are so readily available. In Britain’s The Telegraph, Radhika Sanghani wrote last month about the impact of pornography on her peers–young, professional women in the UK: “The consequences have been severe. These porn videos showed a one-sided, male perspective of sex – with overly-eager girls and absolutely no emphasis on female pleasure. A number of my peers now have sexual issues they directly relate to porn…. As scientists have previously suggested, many can also struggle with intimacy. But this is not the end of porn’s influence. While girls of my generation would watch porn simply to learn what third base was, now a new generation of girls is watching it for career advice. Seriously.” Sanghani describes how young women, even teenagers, are attracted to the seemingly-glamorous life of being a porn star only to be shocked by the realities of the industry that kicks them to the curb after a few months because they are old news.

The good news is that Sanghani also reported that Marriott, Hilton and Hyatt hotel chains have recently banned on-demand porn and adult entertainment in their guest rooms. This is a welcome development. Far more has to be done though to address the root cause of the problems of porn–both for the users of it and the makers and actors in it. Those roots can be found tracing back to a rejection of God and His design for humanity in general and intimacy in particular. Even if you are not swayed by biblical arguments, though, the roots can be traced to the decline of the family, to a redefinition of love and sexuality, to a destruction of the idea that sex is more than a physical act.

So Playboy’s decision to stop printing nudity is news, but it is, sadly, not-so-good news. I am sure I am not the only one who would gladly go back to the days of Playboy and Penthouse appearing behind opaque panels on convenience store and news stand shelves if it meant we no longer had millions of pages of porn on the internet. The internet is going away, though, and neither is pornography, which is all the more reason for parents to be diligent in monitoring their children’s use of the internet and digital devices. The reason porn is not going anywhere is that there is a market for it. Legislation and litigation will not change that; only a heart change can cause someone to realize that genuine relationships with real people are more meaningful and more satisfying than the fake interactions made possible through porn. Only a heart change can cause someone to recognize that her real worth is not in her body and that any pleasure she thinks she is deriving from the attention she receives in displaying and offering her body is temporary. So let’s not celebrate the Playboy announcement. There is still much work to be done.

Genuine Worship

When is the last time you read through Malachi, the short book at the end of the Old Testament? If it has been a while, or if you have not pondered what Malachi’s prophecy is really all about and how it applies to Christians today as well, let me encourage you to read it, meditate on it and examine your heart and life in its light. I trust that this will serve as an introduction to what Malachi is getting at in those four chapters.

Malachi begins with an emphasis on the greatness of God as seen in His love for His people. The people, however, question that love. When God says, in verse 2, “I have loved you,” that indicates that He had loved them in the past and He still loved them now. The people, incredibly, asked, “How have you loved us?” When the Israelites questioned His love for them, God reminded them that He chose their forefather Jacob and his descendants–not Esau and his descendants–to be His servant-people. The Israelites’ faith, however, had given way to doubt and skepticism. They were ignoring God’s commands. They were neglecting worship or they were offering unacceptable sacrifices when they did go to the temple.

Now let me ask you, how often do we question God’s love today when we face hardships? This is the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude.

The priests were the first to be accused of abandoning God. God said, through Malachi, that they despised His name. They did not give Him the respect He deserved. They did not even act in the way that a good child or servant would act toward a father or master. A faithful son honors his father, but the priests were not honoring their heavenly Father. A faithful servant has reverent respect for his master, but the priests despised the name of the Lord.

Beginning in verse 7, God points to the defiled food they were offering on the altar to Him—-food they never would have offered their governor. These actions reveal an attitude of contempt toward God and they dishonor His greatness and holiness. By bringing lame, blind and sick animals to the priests to be offered to God, the people were revealing exactly how much God mattered to them. In Leviticus 22, God declared that the sacrificial animals were to be perfect, not sick or deficient in any way. Yet the people were bringing inferior animals—-the ones that were leftover or rejected and for which they had no other use-—and thinking that would be sufficient. Really this is mocking God! And the priests were just as bad, because they had the nerve to ask for God’s favor on those sacrifices!

What are we expressing about our love for God if we do not give Him our best? Sadly, many who profess Christianity today are the same way. They give God their leftovers-—whatever is easy or convenient or painless or superfluous. After all of their bills are paid and they have done all the things they want to do, if there is some money left over they might give God some. If there is nothing else going on on Sunday morning that they would rather do they might go to church. This is not what God deserves, expects or requires. Instead, we are to honor God and His greatness by offering Him the very best of our time, energy, talent, service and resources. The quality of our offerings will reveal the intent of our heart, and that is what God cares about and wants-—our hearts. God does not need our money, our time, our talents or anything else we could possibly give Him. And God is not really concerned with the quantity of our gifts. This is what Jesus was teaching His followers in the case of the widow’s mite.

In Luke 21:1-4, Jesus said, “these”—-the rich, who were putting in exponentially more money than the widow put in-—were giving out of their abundance. In other words, what they were giving did not cost them anything. There was no sacrifice involved. The widow, on the other hand, gave all that she had, which demonstrates two important things. First, her love for God exceeded everything else in her life; He was the most important thing to her. Second, she trusted that God would provide for her needs. Too often our temptation is to think of the expenses we have, all the things we need to do, and rationalize that if we give God a tithe, or more, then we will not have what we need to meet our obligations. The widow demonstrated that she trusted God. Now does this mean that we should all give everything that we have to the Lord? When I get my next paycheck should I sign the entire thing over to the church? No. There is such a thing as being foolish and prevailing upon God—-testing Him, really—-and that is a sin, too.

In Malachi 1:12, after declaring that His name would be exalted in the sacrifices of sincere believers in the future, God told the Israelites that they were profaning His name through their attitudes toward the required temple sacrifices. To profane something means to treat it as insignificant. God is holy; to treat Him as insignificant demonstrates contempt and extreme arrogance. The people were scorning the sacrifices, treating them as contemptible. They did not see any need to follow God’s instructions or to bring anything special for their offerings. They believed that offering any animal was fine as long as they offered one. They went beyond that, though, and even expressed doubts about the validity or need for the entire sacrificial system. The people either no longer believed in the system or they were so far from God that they did not even care. When God said to them that they were treating the process as a nuisance He uses a word that basically meant “a whole lot of trouble for nothing.” The people were just going through the motions; they had no conviction about what they were doing. Their heart was not in it. They were completing an activity purely out of habit. It was an empty ritual to them.

This will probably remind you of Genesis 4 when Cain and Abel brought their sacrifices to God. Abel brought what God required. Cain, however, did his own thing, thinking that should be good enough. It tells us that for Cain’s offering God had no regard, and that should be a lesson to us, as well.

Now in chapter 2, verses 1-9, God announced that He was turning from the people and bringing His curse on them. Not only were the people mocking God through their sacrifices, they were not honoring Him in their lives. They were marrying pagan wives and husbands who worshiped idols. Verse 1 reveals that the priests’ actions demonstrated contempt for God, for His temple and the entire sacrificial system. So God says, in verse 2, that He is going to curse them. Verse 8 tells us that they had turned away from God and what He had prescribed for them. We addressed much of this already in chapter 1. Now in verses 10-12, Malachi turns from addressing the priests to addressing the people. God called them to live honorable lives, fulfilling obligations to one another-—especially in their marriage relationships. The ESV uses the word “faithlessly” in verses 10 and following but the KJV and HCSB and some others use the word “treacherously.” That word occurs five times on verses 10-16 and its root meaning is “to cover” or “to act covertly.” The idea is acting falsely or deceitfully and trying to get away with it.

Verse 11 tells us that a detestable thing has been done. That is a strong word, meaning disgusting or loathsome. What had the people done? They had profaned the sanctuary of God by marrying daughters of a foreign God who worshiped pagan deities. When they came into the temple their presence defiled the temple. They were unclean. Even some of the priests were marrying unbelievers according to Ezra 9. Early in their history the Israelites had been instructed to marry within their own nation of worshipers because God wanted them to be uniquely His, not worshiping any other gods. God, through Malachi, was condemning marriages of Jews to idolaters or those outside of the Jewish faith, and the reason was purely to maintain religious purity. This had nothing to do with race or nationality. This was all about the relationship with God. This is akin to the New Testament instruction in 2 Corinthians 6 not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. This is an important reminder of the necessity in choosing carefully ones spouse and of living a faithful and committed marriage. Later in this chapter it talks about husbands who were divorcing their wives so they could marry younger, pagan wives.

In an earlier post I addressed the topic of integrity in worship. That is the same thing here. God is telling the people that they cannot say they love Him and worship or live the way they are living. James 2:14 asks what good it is to say we have faith if we do not have works that demonstrate that faith. That is what Malachi is getting at here. The people of Jerusalem may have said they had faith, but they were not living it out. Their worship was ritualistic and hollow. Their lives were not demonstrating a sincere faith or even that they cared about how God wanted them to live. God is not interested in our professions. Neither is He interested in our hollow “acts of worship.” What He is interested in, what He wants, is our hearts. When our hearts are right with Him, our worship will automatically result. A heart that is right with God cannot help but worship Him.