Nate cautiously approached his pastor one day and admitted, "I'm not sure what the problem is. I feel empty inside."
This confession concerned his pastor considerably since Nate was one of her most faithful laypersons. Whenever the pastor called a meeting or needed something done around the church, Nate and Nancy always showed up. "Tell me about it," the pastor said.
"Well, I just feel like I am going through motions. Doing church work, helping people, and even attending worship do not energize me anymore," moaned Nate. "I'm tired of doing stuff. I'm living a lifeless religion."
This is an imagined conversation. But it is one that could take place if more people were honest. God's very best grow weary at times. Their enthusiasm evaporates. Their zest is zapped. Their energy is gone.
Why? What causes this lack of energy and enthusiasm around the church? We could ask the last prophet of the Old Testament, Malachi. The people he pastored had the same problem. They were tired of religious routines. Their faith exhausted them.
A Lifeless Religion
The people in Malachi's congregation complained that God?s work felt like a burden. Though they regularly attended services, gave offerings, and sang songs, nothing seemed to make any difference. They said, "It is futile to serve God" (Malachi 3:14).
Unfortunately their religious leaders had led the way in lifeless religion. The priests offered second-rate sacrifices, worship that was "good enough" for them, but it was not good enough for God.
Of course the people followed their leaders. They imitated what they saw. They cut back on their tithes and offerings, allowed family relationships to grow cold, and complained. Their religion grew less interesting and more mundane every day.
They liked to argue with the preacher, too. Nearly every time Malachi pointed out a problem the people challenged it. "What have we said against you?" they asked (Malachi 3:13). That's another thing about lifeless religion. People get defensive. Hearts become dull. People can no longer see the truth about themselves.
So what did Malachi say to people drudging through life? How do you enliven lifeless religion? Inspired by God, Malachi called his people to two things: renewed commitment and renewed love.
A Renewed Commitment
Lack of commitment saps energy from life. If we do not care enough to commit, faith will falter. So God challenged Malachi's congregation, "set your heart to honor my name" (Malachi 2:1).
When we decide God is first, religion comes alive. God must become priority number one for faith to flourish. The first and most foundational commandment tells us this. It says, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3). This sets the course for a vibrant relationship with God. That is why God listed it first. Honoring God enlivens all of life.
Lack of commitment to God affects other commitments as well, Malachi reminds us. Within his congregation concern for others, even those closest to them, diminished. Families suffered. Malachi urged, "Do not break faith with the wife of your youth" (Malachi 2:15). But men were unfaithful and marriages dissolved. They demonstrated that our ability to remain loyal to another person starts with our loyalty to God.
A Renewed Love
Renewed commitment alone is not the only key to revitalizing religion. A vital element exists that is even more basic. It is the unfailing love of God. If our faith ever comes alive, it will be because we embrace the gift of God's commitment to us.
Lack of love saps energy from life. So God initiates His messages to Malachi's struggling congregation with the bold statement of a caring father. "I have always loved you," he says (Malachi 1:2 NLT). Here is the foundation for vital faith: the love of our heavenly Father. Biblical faith is first and foremost about a loving relationship with God.
Religion without relationship kills life. Apart from genuine connection to God, religion becomes just another plan for self-improvement. Worship becomes just another show. Church becomes just another thing to do. Our energy and enthusiasm for God's work is drained when we forget the Father's love.
A Vibrant Faith
Malachi's remedy for lifeless religion can be illustrated in the process of nourishment for plants. God's love is the essential nutrient for life. Commitment is the root that draws it into our lives. When we set our hearts to honor God as Malachi urged, God?s love infuses faith. The love of our heavenly Father nourishes a genuine relationship with Him.
God challenged the people of Malachi's time to jump in with both feet and see this for themselves. "Test me in this," God urged, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it" (Malachi 3:10). Here is God's invitation to all the weary Nates and Nancys out there. Embrace His unfailing love and determine to honor God above all else. This will enliven lifeless religion.
Jim Edlin is professor of biblical literature and languages in the School of Christian Ministry and Formation at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Olathe, Kansas.
Holiness Today, September/October 2011
Think About It
The little book of Malachi occupies an important place at the end of the Old Testament. Following the many powerful stories and testimonies of dramatic encounters with God, it reminds us that vibrant faith can lose its luster. Our religion can become lifeless. Real relationship with a real God can be replaced with religious rites and rules.
The very next pages in our Bible, however, show us just how far God will go to have a genuine relationship with people. The Gospels tell us about God putting on human skin and walking among us so that we could come alive in Him.