Vital Signs: 5 Ways To Assess Your Spiritual Health (Part 4)

paper-heartAh, winter.  Here in Philadelphia, we’re feeling a little frosty as we’re enduring our ninth snow storm of the season and an unusually cold winter.  (With apologies to real Northerners).  I’m not sure if there’s any correlation to the weather, but a number of us have also felt spiritually sluggish at times.

In that spirit, here’s Part 4 of my ‘Vital Signs’ series where we’re taking a look at 5 ways to see whether you’re spiritually healthy from Malachi chapter 1.  (Here are the links for Parts 12, and 3).

4. You miss God’s love in your life.

Before we look at our lives, let’s back track and take a look at how things are going in Israel during Malachi’s day.  (After all, we can’t apply it faithfully without understanding it).  You can get a quick recap in Part 3, but in a nutshell, Israel is ruled by a foreign power, and, disillusioned at the huge gap between their expectations of God and their everyday lives.  Their disillusionment has led to a spiritual apathy where they aren’t committing heinous sins, but, they aren’t excited about God, either.

So how does God respond?

It’s interesting. He doesn’t crack the whip, but instead starts off by simply saying, ‘I love you’ (Malachi 1:2).

But Israel isn’t buying it and lets God know by essentially asking him to prove it: ‘How have you loved us?’

Again, God’s response is intriguing.  He doesn’t rattle off a bunch of the obvious answers I’d probably come up with.  ‘Hey, you’ve turned your back on me, but you’ve still got food, clothing and houses to live in.  And, I’ve given you all these amazing promises.  Calm down and repent, OK?!’

Instead, God brings up a lesson from Israel’s distant history:

“Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert’.”

Without getting into all of the details, yes, Esau and Jacob were brothers – twins, in fact.  Esau was born moments before Jacob, and under Israel’s tradition at the time, should have received the lion’s share of the family benefits.  More importantly, God had promised to do great things through their family and their father Isaac had expectations that Esau (as the oldest) would be central to that.

None of this happened.  Part of this centers around poor choices Esau made (see Gen. 25:29-34, for example), but also more deeply around God’s choice to bless Jacob – and not Esau – apart from anything they would do or not do (see Gen. 25:23; Rom. 9:10-13).

So, what’s the point?  Why does God bring that up as proof of his love?

The point is that ‘Jacob’ (symbolic of the nation of Israel) is no better than ‘Esau’ (symbolic of nations that did not worship the God of the bible), yet he had been treated much better.  Although the Israelites had turned their back on God almost constantly, God had not turned his love away as he had with other nations.  That fact alone is massive proof of God’s love, despite the reality that not everything is peachy keen.

With that background, we’re ready to think about God’s love in our own lives.  The truth is that we, too, tend to evaluate God’s love for us depending on how closely our real lives mesh with our expectations.  In a fallen world, there’s always a pretty big gap between what we have and what we want, which usually means we’re not all that convinced of God’s love.

That’s where Malachi gives us a reality check, the proverbial cooler of Gatorade over our unsuspecting heads.

Malachi reminds us that we can’t judge God’s love for us by looking at our circumstances.  By what kind of grades we’re receiving.  Or whether we’re dating someone.  Or whether there’s significant conflict in our lives.  Or… fill in the blank.

We have to look beyond what we see to what God tells us is always, always true for anyone who names Jesus as Savior and Lord.  The truth is that, even though we consistently wander away from God, he loves us anyway.  Not more on a ‘good day’, not less on a ‘bad day’.  The apostle Paul put it like this:

‘For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’.  (Romans 8:38-39)

That’s pretty comprehensive… ‘nor anything else in all creation.’  Anything we can come up with is categorically excluded.  If you’re a Christian, God loves you.  And because his love is based on what Jesus did, your performance can never add to, or take away, from it.

Let’s make this more personal as we close.  Are there things in your life right now that are tempting you to doubt God’s goodness and love?  Do you find yourself, in effect, demanding that he prove it to you?  What would make his love feel more real to you?

If that’s where you are, it may be a good time to remind yourself that God has proven it through Christ.  After all, ‘He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?’  (Romans 8:32)

But while God can’t do anything else, sometimes we need him to help us experience his love again.  Reacquainting ourselves with what he says in the bible, admitting we don’t trust him fully, and, praying for him to renew us are good places to begin again.

Jacob, Capitol Hill, & You

I spent this past week in DC.  Whenever I go somewhere, I always try to ask questions and get a “feel” for it.  Of all the people I spoke to about DC, one of my friends captured well whatever everyone was saying:

“If you’re ambitious, you come here.”

Obviously, the government and government contracts form the epicenter of DC, but the theme beneath the theme is ambition.  People trying to prove themselves, climb the ladder, and, in many cases, find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  That’s way too simple, but still fair.

As I listened, it reminded me a lot of our medical culture here in Philly.  Healthcare defines Philly like the government defines DC.  There are some obvious differences, but for many (Christians included), medicine can be a way of validating yourself and making a lot of money (even if it’s not as lucrative as it used to be).

Politics and medicine, both legitimate in their proper place, can also serve as false pathways to “blessing”, pathways to meaning and value apart from God. Many times, our good and less noble motives can oddly co-exist alongside one another in ways that are subtle, but real.

As I’ve been processing this, I was reminded of the story where Jacob wrestles with God (Genesis 32:22-32).  In many ways, Jacob’s entire life was about finding blessing – affirmation, validation, for who he was and what he did.  Sadly, he never really received that from his father, who favored his older, tough-guy brother Esau (Genesis 25:27-28).  He tried finding meaning in wealth (see 25:29-34; 27:27-29) and women (see 29:16-18), but that didn’t satisfy him.  Ultimately, he needed something much bigger and more stable.

It’s similar for us.  The things we tend to trust in can never fulfill us.  Every relationship will eventually be disappointing, however wonderful it is.  No matter how respected and proficient we become in our work, it will never be enough.  Eventually, we’ll hurt patients we’re trying to help, and even the ones we heal will ultimately die.  We need a better, more permanent “blessing.”

Jacob finally finds his the night before he was to meet his brother Esau after 20 years of separation.  The last time they saw each other, Esau was (literally) ready to kill him for taking away the blessing of their father through trickery.  This time, God pursues Jacob in the form of a man who wrestles with him (Gen. 32:24).  They wrestle all night, but the match reaches a stalemate.  Strangely, Jacob’s opponent merely touches Jacob’s hip, resulting in its dislocation (v. 25).  At that point, the man asks Jacob to let him go, probably because the dawning day will reveal his face, which could be deadly for Jacob (see Exodus 33:20: “You cannot see My face, for man shall not see me and live.”).

After his injury, though, Jacob senses this is no ordinary man.  And so, faced with the prospect of God leaving him, he insists on the blessing he’s always needed.  “I will not let you go until you bless me” (v. 26).  He’d rather risk death than leave without a blessing.

This is the place God where God wants to bring each one of us.  The place where we’ll want him so much that we’d rather die with him than live without him.

Often, he does this through confronting us through pain.  Like Jacob, sometimes we need to ‘limp’, to have something stripped away, to “get it” in a deeper way.  For our family, it was our son’s autism.  Matthew is a daily reminder that we can’t solve our own problems, and that we need God to truly live.

Through this passage, God is inviting you, too, to take a look at your life.  Is there something, or someone, you’re looking to for “blessing” more than him?  How would you know anyway?

One of the ways you can tell is by identifying those places where you’re willing to take foolish risks.  For Jacob, his father’s approval was so important that he was willing to risk Esau’s wrath for it, and almost died.  Where are you taking risks that, on some level, you know are not worth it?

Another way to uncover the imitation blessings in your life is by looking at those areas where you’re spending resources that are disproportionate to what you’re getting.  Jacob, for example, was willing to pay a bridal price for Rachel of seven years’ work, way higher than the typical prices of the time.  She was too important to him.  Where are you spending time or money in ways that don’t fit what you’re receiving in return?

We all have these things we’re looking to for the blessing only God can give.  The good news is that God is committed to pursuing us and giving us his blessing.  Although this process of renewal and blessing may hurt, it will leave us satisfied beyond belief.