“I have loved you.”

The first chapter of Malachi is a relentless barrage of accusation coming from God, hammering his audience with his contempt for their hypocrisy. It’s tough stuff, and the easily offended would be, well, offended. But it’s stuff that they needed to hear, because the church leaders and church-going Israelites to whom God is speaking were abysmal in their worship life.

Look at the laundry list of God’s frustrations with them:

  • They don’t show him respect and honor (v. 6)
  • They offer defiled food (v. 7)
  • They offer blind, lame, and sick animals for sacrifice (v. 8)
  • They dishonor his name (v. 12)
  • They complain about God’s commands (v. 13)
  • And the list goes on through the next two chapters! “I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord (v. 10).

God wants the very best from us. He wants us to come to him with the best of what we have. So when the people were bringing their leftovers, bringing their garbage, bringing their least valuable property and offering that to God, he is offended at them. And rightly so! “Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” says the Lord (Malachi 1:8, NLT).

And to top it all off, the priests then complain about all of it. “The food we get isn’t good enough. Serving God is a burden. Living by God’s commands is too hard.”

Does any of this sound familiar? It does to me. It sounds like all the times I’ve shown up to church and realized that I forgot the offering envelope – not a conscious decision to plan when and how to give, but a simple lack of attention to that part of my spiritual life. It sounds like all the times I’ve sat in church and gone through the motions, but my head and heart are somewhere else entirely. It sounds like the “Junk for Jesus” concept that leads us to pat ourselves on the back whenever we give a worn out, old, or ugly thing to church because we think someone might find a use for it, even though we can’t.

And then we complain about God. We gripe about the service times, about the length of the sermons, about the content of the sermons, about the music or the people or the temperature of the sanctuary. We gripe that the pastor talks too much about giving. We complain about our fellow Christians. We make excuses for our disobedience, reasoning that while maybe God’s law applies to other people, my situation gives me a reason not to obey that particular thing. We whine along with the Israelites, “It’s too hard to serve the Lord.”

What does God say to all of this? Back up to the beginning of Malachi. What does God say in the second verse? “I have loved you.” Yes, God has some hard things to say to his people. He has hard things to say to us. But he starts with a reminder that his love is sure. That he has always loved us. That he always will.

The book of Malachi ends with the promise that the Savior will come. God bookends this difficult, accusatory, condemning message with a reminder that he loves us, and that his love is found in Jesus. When we repent of all of this half-hearted worship and whining disobedience, we can be sure that God’s response is grace, forgiveness, reassurance, and love. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. “And I always will.”

The Meaning of Repentance – an Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Remember that you are dust.” Year after year on Ash Wednesday my pastor would say those words as he marked my forehead with ashes. Silently I and my fellow worshipers would walk away, thoughts heavy contemplating the sins and failures that weigh us down, and the great mercy of a God who would forgive one such as me. In the years since, I have only come to appreciate that sentiment all the more, as year after year I see more clearly that no effort on my part can ever satisfy the Law’s righteous demands.

When I was young I didn’t really understand repentance. I don’t know if it’s just an immature understanding, or a consequence of how we teach it, but I had this impression that repentance was about making sure I said I was sorry for my sins and trying really hard to not do them again. And if I didn’t repent, I thought, God would not forgive me.

That line of thinking can only lead to the misguided belief that I actually can do it, that I’m actually capable of being sorry enough and doing it right. Such self-righteous sentiments. The reality is far more grim – I fail completely, both at my false notion of repentance, and at accomplishing true repentance. My sorrow over my sin will always be tainted with self-absorption, be it feeling good about how bad I feel about myself, or feeling bad about how not really sorry I am, or feeling regretful at the idea of giving up my pet sin. And my best attempts at doing better will never amount to anything.

I’ve learned this – true repentance is not something I do. Yes, I want to confess my sins to God, with sorrow over them. Yes, I want to ask his help to amend my life. Those are the marks of repentance, the way it manifests in my life. But the essence of true repentance is simply this – to know that I am dust. To acknowledge that I am completely hopeless. To admit my absolute brokenness. To understand that even in my brokenness, some part of me still grasps feebly at self-righteousness not because I can succeed, but because I fear the truth that I cannot. True repentance is to see that fear for what it is – the natural state of the soul separate from God by sin.

True repentance is to remember that I am dust. That I am ashes. That I am a sinner. That I need Jesus.

I can’t even summon up true repentance on my own. It is granted to me as a gift of mercy by the one before whom I must bow. He grants it so that I will no longer rely on my own efforts, but fall completely on him.

This is where I find the meaning of repentance. It is rest for my soul. I can do nothing, so I look to the one who has done everything. Jesus has done it right where I did it wrong. Jesus has taken my guilt, where no amount of apology to God could have relieved it. Jesus’ blood has washed me clean, and in repentance I find peace as I kneel before his cross and let his blood cover me.

On this day of ashes, I bow before him and acknowledge that I am dust, and seek his mercy.