Sincerity does not define truth.

If it did, then should I come back from Japan and in all sincerity make the mistake of driving on the left-hand side of the road, neither I nor any of the drivers in oncoming traffic would be harmed.

If it did, then we could not call the terrorist attack at the world trade centre, that murdered thousands of people, wrong.

If it did, the Nazi members who made it their mission to eradicate millions of Jews should not be judged too harshly.

We can sincerely believe in something and be sincerely wrong.

There is a grim warning in the book of Malachi.  The whole thing is written to a people who think they are honouring and serving God when in fact they’re doing the exact opposite.  When God rebukes them, they keep asking, “How have we dishonoured You?  How have we disobeyed You?”

Here are some examples.

God: Sons respect their parents, and servants respect their masters. Where is the respect that I deserve?

People of God: How have we shown contempt for You?

God: You offer me defiled sacrifices.

People of God: How have we defiled Your sacrifices?

God: I gave you specific instructions on how to offer sacrifices, but you do the exact opposite. Try giving gifts like this to your governors, and see how much they appreciate it!

(Mal 1:6-8)

God: You weary Me with your words.

People of God: How have we wearied You?

God: You say that everyone who does evil is good in My sight.

(Mal 2:17)

God: Your words have been arrogant against Me.

People of God: What have we spoken against You?

God: You have said that it is useless to serve Me.

(Mal 3:13-14)

Reading this, I can’t help thinking that the people of God were speaking in sincerity. If they weren’t, they would have known exactly what God was talking about. Yet they were so blinded by their own arrogance and disobedience that they couldn’t even distinguish between righteousness and wickedness.  Their consciences were so jaded that they thought they were clear.  

Chapter 3 ends with God looking to the future and speaking to His people. “So you will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked,” He says, “between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him.”[1]

“Now wait a minute,” we might say. “How could the Israelites be sincere? How could they not have known that they weren’t serving God properly? It’s so obvious!”

The answer requires us to look back at the spiritual practices common to that time.

In ancient times, idolatry was rampant. The nations around Israel had gods for everything: for harvest, for fertility, for war, for healing illness. They were everywhere, and no one could trade or otherwise interact with foreign nations without running into idolatry in some way. The Israelites were surrounded on all sides, and peer pressure was high. Not very much time passed before idolatry became a very attractive option for them too.

You see, it guaranteed the presence of the god or goddess in question. The people believed that an idol captured the essence of a god and brought it into their midst. When they gave offerings to their gods, those gods were indebted to the people and obligated to answer their prayers. The people expected that offerings engendered answered prayer. There was no other requirement. There was no obligation of morality or obedience. Historians tell us that this guaranteed, materialistic type of religion was practiced without exception through the entire ancient world. [2]

These cultures had so many gods that they developed a tiered religious system. Each person would worship:

  • A national god, to whom they would pray for national crises, such as war;
  • Familial gods, often their ancestors; and
  • Personal gods, to whom they would pray for healing from illnesses, and so on. [3]

It’s not surprising, then, that the Israelites thought they could have it all. They could continue to worship Jehovah, as their national god, while also integrating these foreign practices into their belief system. Or so they thought.

We can see these principles at work in the story of Micah [4]. His mother dedicated some money to the Lord, and proceeded to have those coins cast into an idol. Micah worshipped the idol in his house and hired a Levite to live with him as his personal priest. “I know the Lord will bless me now,” he said, “because I have a Levite serving as my priest.” [5]

Perhaps Micah thought he would receive a double blessing because he’d decided to worship Jehovah not only as his national God, but also as one of his personal ones—he’d hired a personal priest, after all. Yet in Exodus 34:14, God says, “You shall not worship any other god.” Micah, while thinking he was honouring God, was blatantly dishonouring Him.

The ancient Israelites are not the only people who have warped their worship into something that contradicts God’s express desires. When I was a girl, my parents invited a lady over to dinner who once practiced witchcraft. She had encountered Jesus in a vision, become a Christian, and later became a missionary. At one point in our conversation, her face grew wistful. “The Devil is so crafty, you know. I didn’t think I was serving Satan when I was practicing demonic things. I thought I was serving Jesus.”

Our sinful natures are easily tricked into thinking wrong is right and right is wrong. That’s why, in the words of our missionary mentors, “You can become a missionary and miss Jesus.” [6] I would extend that to say, “You can call yourself Christian and not know Christ.”

That’s because the act of truly following Jesus has nothing to do with the cultural Christianity of the West. We cannot delude ourselves into thinking that just because we’ve stamped ourselves with the label “Christian”, the ways we choose to serve Christ are automatically pleasing to Him.

The stark truth is:

I may be serving God, but that doesn’t mean I’m actually doing what He wants.

Sometimes we build our service on shaky assumptions. Our work grows to mammoth importance in our minds, and we feel as though it all depends on us. But God doesn’t need us. He would get along just fine if we were not part of the equation.

Our chief aim should not be to serve God, but to be in communion with Him. King David recorded God’s exhortation: “Be still and know that I am God” [7]. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t serve, but our service should flow out of our relationship with Jesus.

In Western culture, we often hear:

“How are you?”


—as if being busy lends value to our existence. This stems from our capitalist supply-and-demand mentality. If there is great demand for a commodity in little supply, its value increases. In the West, we become the commodity, and our busyness is the demand. The more things pulling at us and our time, the more precious we are.

Yet Jesus commended serene Mary, not busy Martha, during His visit to Bethany. [8]

This does not apply only to the issue of work versus rest, but to the ways in which we choose to work for the kingdom of God. We cannot afford to assume that “anytime we are doing something with the intent of bringing glory to God, our actions are pleasing to God.” [9]

The culture we live in can have a profound impact on the ways we understand—and misunderstand—God. So let’s resolve to look past our sincerity and recognize that it may be blinding us to what God really wants of us. Let’s ask and re-ask the humble questions that should be steadfast companions throughout our lives:

“God, I love you. I want to serve You. I have certain abilities and talents, but I am certainly sinful. My greatest ability lies in twisting the truth. What You want me to do? How You want me to follow You? Please give me the courage to obey, and remind me to keep asking these questions in the months and years ahead. Please don’t let me become complacent or arrogant in thinking that I entirely understand who You are and what You want of me.”

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.”[10]


[1] Malachi 3:18, NASB.

[2] Dr. Douglas Stuart, “A Vicious Cycle” (lecture, Dimensions of the Faith series, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, MA).

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Judges 17.

[5] Judges 17:13, NLT.

[6] Manfred & Beth Koehler, personal communication, 2008.

[7] Psalm 46:10

[8] See Luke 10:41-42.

[9] Marketing Christian Books, mailing list email message to author, September 21, 2018.

[10] Isaiah 55:8-9, NLT.

Note: On October 17, 2019, this post was updated to include a quote from Marketing Christian Books (see [9]).

(Picture source)