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.

Vital Signs: Five Ways To Assess Your Spiritual Health (Part 2)

In this series, we’re taking a look at five ways to see how you’re ‘really doing’ in your walk with God from Malachi 1.  You can see the first post here.

  • 2. Do you want to do Christianity your way?

“Then you ask, ‘How have we defiled the sacrifices?’  You defile them by saying the altar of the Lord deserves no respect. When you give blind animals as sacrifices, isn’t that wrong?”  (verses 7-8)

If you’re unfamiliar with the Old Testament, this may need a little explaining.  As part of their worship, Israel was supposed to offer animal sacrifices.  Through these sacrifices, God was teaching them some important truths: that he was perfect, they were flawed, and, that the appropriate penalty for not responding to God’s love was death.  Kindly, though, in the sacrificial system God allowed the animal to die in the worshipper’s place. (This also provided a vivid picture of what Jesus, the ‘lamb of God’, would one day do on the cross).

With that background in place, let’s get back to our main point.  The Israelites were supposed to offer some of their best animals for their sacrifices – ones without defects – because God is ‘a great King’ (verse 14).  However, they were bringing him their leftovers – diseased, blind, and lame animals they couldn’t otherwise sell.

This is where the application gets interesting for us.  We don’t offer sacrifices anymore because Jesus did that, once and for all, on the cross.  However, we’re supposed to give him our very best in all that we do (see Rom. 12:1-2Col. 3:23).

If I look at my life, I’ve got to be honest: so many times I give God my leftovers.  Waiting to pray until the end of the day, when I barely have any energy.  Staying up late the night before worship and finding myself zombie-like in the pew.  Giving my money grudgingly, wishing I could spend it on other things.  Letting my work dominate my life to the exclusion of other things – and people – he’s called me to.  And just generally living as though he were an addition to my life rather than the center.

How about you?  Where do you find yourself giving God the leftovers?  The good news is that God is gracious.  If you’ve put your trust in Jesus, through his life and death, Jesus put you first and now God accepts you as if you had never sinned.  (Let that sink in).  Helping us get over ourselves and put him in his rightful is nothing compared to that!

Why not take a moment right now and ask him for the help he’s ready to give?  ‘But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from [= give us power to overcome] all wickedness.’  (1 John 1:9)

Vital Signs: Five Ways To Assess Your Spiritual Health (Part 1)

Ah, summer.  Everything slows down just a little, if only on account of the heat (at least here in Philadelphia).  It’s also a good time to take spiritual inventory and see how we’re ‘really’ doing so that we can make adjustments that will help us love God and others well.

Here are five ways to see how you’re doing from Malachi 1:

  • 1. Do you find yourself getting defensive with God?

“I have always loved you,” says the Lord.  But you retort, “Really? How have you loved us?” (verse 2)

It’s easy to ‘know’ something – like God’s love for us – but to find ourselves not really believing that when life gets tough.  We can find ourselves getting defensive with God, adopting a ‘prove it!’ attitude when life doesn’t go our way.

In Malachi’s time, Israel had largely correct, ‘orthodox’ beliefs about God.  They would have done just fine in Sunday School class.

The problem, though, is that they didn’t really believe what they (said they) believed.

About 80 years before Malachi’s prophecy, the prophets Zechariah and Haggai wrote that times of rich blessings were coming.  In Malachi’s day, though, none of these blessings seemed to be true: the second temple was a shadow of the first, Israel was small (think Rhode Island) and still ruled by a foreign king, and miraculous signs were in short supply.

The people had grown cynical and jaded.  If God really loved them, why would He let all this happen?

This is where the application comes home for us.  All of us wrestle with the gap between what we expected and what life is actually like.  Maybe we…

… thought we’d be in a relationship by now;

… didn’t fully understand how costly (economically and otherwise) the path to becoming a healthcare professional would be;

… anticipated it would be easier to stay connected to God and others.

Where are you struggling with the difference between life as it is and as you wish it would be?  To put it differently, where do you find yourself doubting God’s love?  (Before reading ahead, take a moment and really think about this).

Now that you’ve answered this question, here’s a closing application:

Malachi shows us that it’s critical to our spiritual health to be aware of our disappointments and bring them to God. If we don’t, we’ll grow hardened and cynical like the Israelites did, finding less and less motivation to serve a God who doesn’t seem to love us.  If we do, we may still not understand fully what we’re going through, but at least be in relationship with the One who wants to help.

I want to encourage you to take just a few moments and bring your disappointments to God.  Be really honest!  But don’t stop there: ask him to help you see his love for you, to experience what you already know to be true.  Meditating on passages like Psalm 34:4-10 and Romans 8:18-39 and asking God to make them come alive to you again may be one helpful starting point.