Comedian W.C. Fields was reading the Bible one afternoon when a friend asked him what he was doing. The actor responded wryly, “Looking for loopholes.”
Somewhere within the intended humor of this statement probably lies a revealing glimpse of our often-ironic approach to God. That is, if God is real, there is something irrational about thinking in terms of an entity that can be manipulated; if there is such a thing as truth, there is something ridiculous about defining it to suit ourselves. But we do this regularly.
Author A.J. Jacobs always assumed that religion “would just wither away and we’d live in a neo-Enlightenment world.” When this did not happen, he figured he should examine whether he was missing something essential to being a human or whether half the human population was simply deluded by the existence of God. So he decided to follow literally every command in the Bible for a year—including not trimming his beard and making tassels on the corners of his garments. In his book A Year of Living Biblically, he describes his experiment, which he admits held a bit of irreverence. In the end, nonetheless, he draws the conclusion, “I now believe that whether or not there’s a God, there is such a thing as sacredness.”
Many, including Jacobs, point out the irony of his experiment—namely, deciding to follow the Bible literally is hardly the same thing as deciding to follow God. Yet the popular approach to theological inquiry is not much different and is often equally suited to our own interests, the difference perhaps being that we rarely point out our own incongruous thinking. Truth is comfortably understood in terms of preference, and God is readily comprehended as one who must prepare a defense for our own thunderous line of questioning, even as we question this God’s very existence. Somehow we have arrived at a state of mind where we can live in anger with God for existing, where we can each choose our own brand of reasoning and be frustrated with life for being unreasonable—and see none of the contradictions in our words. Or else we simply choose to overlook them—along with the desperate love of the one crouched at our feet.
The prophet Malachi screamed of crisis during a time when people were asleep to their own incongruous thoughts. Malachi’s message came at the end of a thousand year period of God’s revelation to the people of Israel. The next voice to be heard centuries later was that of John the Baptist preparing the way for the Messiah. Yet historically, the people of Malachi’s day were standing in a period of almost eerie stillness. There was no looming threat to be addressed, no extraordinary prospering to be consumed by, no real reason to be moved by much of anything. Whether for lack of excitement or for excess of ease, the hearts of the people had grown cold and weary. Their worship was tired. Their complaints had no end. It was Malachi who pointedly voiced the irrationality of their half-hearted approach to God, the sheer irony of finding the almighty God wearisome.
Through Malachi, we hear a series of distinctive questions and answers in a dialogical fashion, and we get an eye-opening glimpse of the often-cynical, often-illogical cries of humanity in light of the cries of a Father’s heart in response to his children.
The opening lines of the closing book read powerfully, “I have loved you, says the Lord. Yet you say, ‘In what way have you loved us?’… A son honors his father, and a servant his master. But if I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” The inquiry is both direct and personal, referencing a great story of pursuit and belonging, embrace and subtle or not-so-subtle rejection. If I am Father, why am I the one being questioned? While you have grown cold and weary, I have loved you. Yet you ask, “In what way?”
If I am Father… In these words, in the midst of whatever inconsistency we may or may not see in ourselves, I believe a loving Father still beckons. This declaration of love, which could easily be spoken in anger, voiced as one taking back the words and years of care, is not spoken in terms of retreat. On the contrary, spoken in perfect tense, the phrase “I have loved you” signals past actions, but present implications. The immense history of God’s pursuit and care is indeed called to mind, but the sentiment remains unscathed, present and active. It is as if God is saying through a crippling lament that remembers every costly act on our behalf, and yet still hopes to assure: You don’t know what you’re saying or doing. I have loved you. I have loved you. I have loved you.
Similar words would be spoken even closer centuries later as God stood among humanity as one of us. “And when they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. But Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’”
What if God is dissatisfied by empty worship, not out of greed or arrogance or self-preoccupation, but because God’s love is so far from empty itself? What if God is grieved by barren, distant images of abstract religion, not out of legalism or fastidiousness, but because God lives so much nearer than we know? What if God laments our self-consumed inquiries as to divine love and character simply because the statement is far truer than we have imagined: “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord.”
How do we respond to this love? For one, there is really no need for loopholes. And if we will remember the immense demonstration of this love in history, there is also no reason to ask “in what way?”