That great philosopher, Plato, said, “The worst of all deceptions is self-deception.” The prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9) At one time or another we have all fallen prey to self-deception. The problem is we don’t know we are being self-deceived until it is too late. However, there are some warning signs. What are they? Here are a few of the things we often tell ourselves that can lead to self-deception:
- Other people have prejudices, but I have convictions.
- Other people are conceited, but in me it’s self-respect.
- If you spend time on your personal appearance, it’s vanity. If I do it, I’m just trying to be my best and live my best life.
- In you, it’s touchiness or moodiness. In me, it’s sensitivity.
- For you, it’s worry. But for me, it’s just concern.
In 1978, Jim Fixx wrote a book called, The Complete Book of Running. Jim was a runners runner. For 15 years he ran 80 miles a week. He appeared to be in tip-top shape. It didn’t seem possible that a man could be in better condition. Yet at age 52, Mr. Fixx died of a massive heart attack, while running. His wife, Alice, later said she was certain that Jim had no idea he suffered from a heart problem. Why? Because he refused to get regular checkups. He thought he was in perfect shape. After his death, doctors speculated that his heart was so strong he may not have had the telltale chest pains or shortness of breath that usually signal arterial heart disease!
Self-deception can be a deadly curse, especially when it is steeped in religious ritual.
The Prophet Malachi
In today’s text we come to the sixth of Malachi’s seven sermons. Thus far, among other things, the people have accused God of inconsistency. They have doubted God’s love. They have become complacent in their worship, offering inadequate sacrifices, inadequate ministry, faithlessness in marriage, distrust of God’s rule, and general injustice in the community. Furthermore, they blame God for their problems with God. They blame God, and do not see their own sin. They blame God, and do not accept His words. Malachi’s fifth sermon ended with a word about justice. The theme of justice continues through sermon six.
Through His prophet Malachi, God says, “I the LORD do not change…” (Malachi 3:6a). Remember, the people had questioned God’s consistency and asked, “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17). Now, God says, “I am right here. I have not gone anywhere. I do not change.”
Malachi continues, “So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” (Malachi 3:6b). In other words, God is saying, “I have not gone anywhere. I have not changed. I have not broken my covenant with you. You have broken your covenant with me. Even though I would have every right to destroy you, I have not and will not.” This verse shows the tremendous grace and mercy of God. The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassion never fails. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).
The problem is, the people had left God, but they were so self-deceived they did not even realize it. Malachi writes, “Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them” (Malachi 3:7a). In context, they did not leave God to return to a sinful life. Quite the opposite! They were still worshiping Him, still going to the temple, still offering sacrifices. The people thought things were great! But God says, “You have left me.” The hardest people in the world to reach for Christ, are church people. People who have deceived themselves into thinking that because they go to church and worship and serve and give, they are alright, when in reality they may be far from God.
Mike Yaconelli writes in The Wittenburg Door: “I live in a small, rural community. There are lots of cattle ranches around here, and every once in a while a cow wanders off and gets lost…‘Ask a rancher how a cow gets lost, and chances are he will reply, ‘Well, the cow starts nibbling on a tuft of green grass, and when it finishes, it looks ahead to the next tuft of green grass and starts nibbling on that one, and then it nibbles on a tuft of grass right next to a hole in the fence. It then sees another tuft of green grass on the other side of the fence, so it nibbles on that one and then goes on to the next tuft. The next thing you know, the cow has nibbled itself into being lost.’”
That’s how it is for most people. We don’t usually run away from God, but we walk, slowly, with our heads down, just going to the next thing that looks good. Before you know it, we have strayed from the very One who loves us.
What is the solution? What is the cure for self-deception? God says, “Return to me, and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7b). The only answer to our predicament is to repent! There is no other way. To “repent” means to turn around. It means to stop doing what you are doing and make a change in both your attitude and your action. To “repent” means to change your mind, and to admit you were wrong and God is right.
The next question the people asks seems obvious. God has just told them to “return” to Him, and so they ask, “How are we to return?” (Malachi 3:7c). Instead of answering the question, God gives an example to show just how far they have strayed, and just how self-deceived they are.
Malachi’s sermon continues, “‘Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.’ But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings” (Malachi 3:8). Remember, one of the things God criticized the people about was that they were offering inferior sacrifices and giving to God that which costs them nothing. Instead of giving God their best, they were giving Him their leftovers. Now He says they have strayed from Him, and the example He gives is in “tithes and offerings.” A “tithe” is the amount, prescribed by the Law of Moses, based on a percentage, that was to be giving to the temple on a regular basis. We usually think of a “tithe” as 10% of a person’s income, but tithing in the Old Testament was more complicated than that. An “offering” referred to the “first-fruits,” of the harvest. This was given before the tithe, and was at least one-sixtieth of corn, wine, and oil (see Deuteronomy 18:4).
According to the Law of Moses, there were several kinds of “tithes.” After the “first-fruit” offering was given, a tenth of the remainder was to be given to the temple to take care of the Levites (see Leviticus 27:30-33). The Levites were set apart by God to serve in the Temple, and it was from the tribe of Levites that the priests came. The Levites, who were not priests, were then to give a tenth of what they were given to the priests (see Numbers 18:26-28). A second tenth was then paid by the congregation for the needs of the Levites and their families (see Deuteronomy 12:18). Finally, once every three years another tithe (another tenth) was given to take care of the poor (see Deuteronomy 14:28-29). It was through “tithes and offerings” that the people provided financial support to the temple, the ministers, and the poor and the needy. Not paying “tithes and offerings” was the same thing as robbing from the temple, robbing from the poor, and thus, robbing from God.
How does this apply to the church today? Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament Law, and so we are not under that complicated tithing system. While I personally believe in tithing 10% to your church, I don’t think you can make it a rule. Why? Because some people can give more than 10%, while others cannot give 10%. Here is the application: In the church, everyone can give something and everyone should give something. To not give anything is to rob God. Furthermore, the principle of tithing is not about how much you gave, but did you give sacrificially. A second important principle of tithing is not how much you gave, but what did you do with what you kept?
While this is an important part of what Malachi is saying, it is not the main point he is making. He continues, “You are under a curse—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house” (Malachi 3:9-10). These are two of most overused and abused verses in the Bible. Pastors and churches will use these verses to increase giving in their churches so they can build a new building or renovate an existing one. In reality, however, if you read the verse closely, it has nothing to do with building campaigns and everything to do with helping the poor, or in the case of the Israelites, not helping the poor. The “storehouse” was built, maintained, and used to make sure everyone in the community, especially the poor, had plenty to eat.
In context, God, through His prophet Malachi, God has been talking about justice (see Malachi 3:5). He has mentioned liars and cheaters and covenant breakers and people who oppress and take advantage of the most vulnerable people in society. Thus, Malachi has the poor in mind when he talks about robbing God and bringing your tithe to the storehouse. Listen carefully: As a church, and as the people of God, we will pay a steep price if we rob God by neglecting the poor. Listen to these words from Moses, “If there is a poor man among your brothers in any of the towns of the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward your poor brothers. Rather be openhanded and freely lend him whatever he needs” (Deuteronomy 15:7). We are not to judge the poor, blame the poor, or ignore the poor. Rather, we are to give sacrificially to help the poor. I don’t think God could have made His intentions for us any clearer. Yet, we are so self-deceived, we don’t even realize how far we have strayed from Him.
God is so serious about giving to help the poor, He says something here He doesn’t say anywhere else in all of Scripture. He says, “Test me in this…” (Malachi 3:10b). You don’t think you can afford to give. WRONG! You can’t afford not to give! You give and watch God work. He continues, “…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 3:10c). The writer of Proverbs put it this way, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done” (Proverbs 19:17). Are you following the financial advice given here? When you don’t give to the poor you are robbing from God. When you give to the poor you are actually lending to God, and He always pays back with interest.
The Israelites were under a curse (see v. 9). But God says to test Him by giving and you will be blessed beyond measure. God says, “‘I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit…Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Malachi 3:11-12).
Self-deception is the worse type of deception. The Bible says, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7). Whatever you think you are getting away with, you are not. There are no short-cuts in following Jesus. But in case you missed it, maybe you dosed off for a little while, let me summarize five main lessons from Malachi’s sixth sermon: (1) God never changes. (2) You have left God. God hasn’t left you. (3) Repentance is the only solution. (4) Test God by giving to the poor. (5) Watch God bless you beyond your imagination.