There are a lot of ways to apologize badly. You can, for example, say “I’m sorry”, but then immediately include the word but. Or you could say the words of an apology with sarcasm and anger in your voice. Or you could delay the apology as long as possible until it becomes necessary. All three are great ways to ruin a perfectly good apology.
Similarly, though, there are great ways to receive an apology badly. You might, for example, communicate something about your reception with your body language – arms crossed, face impassive. Or you might interrupt the person speaking because you don’t think they are contrite or specific enough. Or you might put them on probation after they apologize and ask for forgiveness.
I’ve done both. And I’ve ruined both sides of the apology – the giving and receiving of it. And because I have, it makes me thankful today that God knows how to not ruin an apology in the way He receives it, even when we do our best to ruin it in the way we are giving it. The Book of Malachi is a case study in each.
In this last book of the Old Testament, we find a people that are going through the rituals of religion but without hearts that are full of love and devotion to God. The actions might be in place, but the motivation is all wrong, and you see it come out in the dialogue that happens between God and His people. From the very beginning of the book, we find God reminding His people of His devotion to them:
“I have loved you,” says the Lord (Malachi 1:2).
Then, like a group of petulant teenagers, Israel answers back something like this:
“Oh yeah? How? How have you loved us?” And thus the pattern of the book is set, with God making a statement and the people responding in kind. God tells them that the priests have despised Him. That they are robbing Him. That what is presented is defiled. And each time, rather than receiving the rebuke with humility, the people ask for specifics. For clarifications.
They argue instead of repent.
Now it’s at this point, as a parent who has been in similar conversations with teenagers, that I would somewhat understand if the Lord of Hosts lost His temper, and yet He does not. He is asking them for an acknowledgement of their sin, and then repentance. It’s that simple. But again, as someone who has ruined many apologies that have been made to me, I am acutely aware of how I might receive such an acknowledgement – with crossed arms, or a demand for more emotion, or even with a trite, “We’ll see if you’re really sorry.” But again, not God. God knows how not to ruin an apology. Behold the amazing statement He makes in chapter 3 of this book, after all this back and forth:
“Since the days of your fathers, you have turned from my statutes; you have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord of Armies (Malachi 3:7).
Take in for a minute what God is saying here. He is saying to this obstinate people, the ones who cannot admit they are in the wrong, that all they have to do is turn and take a step back to Him and He will meet them on the way. He will not wait with His arms crossed; He will not put them on spiritual probation; He will not wait to see if they can prove themselves genuine. Instead, He desires their repentance and the restoration of relationship so much that He’s only waiting for the slightest sign of return and He will come the rest of the way.
“Return to me, and I will return to you.”
God is, as Jesus story would tell us, like the father whose son disgraced him and took his inheritance off to squander it in a foreign country. And yet there he sits, on his porch, with the hope that the son would come to his senses. He is ready at a moment to spring from his place and run to the returning child, not even waiting for him to get all the way home.
If we are the people who nearly constantly find ourselves wandering, God is the father waiting to meet us on the way back. Be encouraged today, friend, if you feel the gentle voice of conviction from the Holy Spirit. Know that the voice is beckoning you to turn not into the void but instead into the arms of a Father who is just waiting for it to happen.