Haggai wrote about the challenges faced by the nation of Israel in rebuilding its holy temple nearly 2,500 years ago. Yet his insights are directly relevant for today. They speak to both our liberal and conservative impulses. Chapter one calls us to leave the distractions of individualistic materialism; chapter two instructs us to set aside the enervating longing for a mythical golden age. Then, we can engage in consecrated, sustained effort to advance the kingdom of God through the building up of his church. Let us look a little more closely at both of these sections.
Personal profit v. public pride
We sometimes feel that the elevation of the individual and personal over the communal and corporate is a particularly modern affliction. Materialism also is frequently identified as a peculiarly modern ideology, a byproduct of enlightenment-fueled capitalism. Some critics of modernity leave the impression that premodern man lived in an idyllic communal world under a sacred heaven.
But Haggai reminds us that selfishness and materialism is a recurring affliction of human nature:
Thus speaketh Jehovah of hosts, saying, This people say,
It is not the time for us to come,
the time for Jehovah's house to be built.
Then came the word of Jehovah by Haggai the prophet,
saying, Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell
in your ceiled houses, while this house lieth waste? (1:2-4)
The irony of the situation, of course, is that a people who focus entirely on material goods and comforts, at the expense of their spiritual development, will have neither. Obtaining things without a life purpose, guided by spiritual insights, will never satisfy. Rather, such accumulation will merely produce a desire for more things. These things, however, will never satisfy. Rather, there will be a constant sense of material lack.
5 Now therefore thus saith Jehovah of hosts:
Consider your ways.
6 Ye have sown much, and bring in little;
ye eat, but ye have not enough;
ye drink, but ye are not filled with drink;
ye clothe you, but there is none warm;
and he that earneth wages earneth wages
to put it into a bag with holes.
Haggai references the lack of the blessings of God, as one expends efforts that are not rewarded. But his comments speak also to the heart that has many things, but its deepest longings are untouched, and thus its experience is of never having enough. This creates a constant “need” for more.
One hardly need comment on our modern condition to see the parallel. With those in the West living at increasingly high standards both historically and with comparison to the rest of the world, we still feel both increasingly pressured and strapped financially, as well as isolated from others in our spacious homes and luxury cars.
What’s more, that portion of the church that is best off financially tends to be weakest spiritually. It is well known among leadership circles that the church is only growing in the West due to immigration. All ethnic groups in North America beyond the first generation of immigrants show negative growth. This means that all groups touched by Western influence in lifestyle, culture and affluence no longer experience growth.
Can the rich man go through the eye of the needle, asked Jesus. Well, with God, all things are possible, but humans need to seek that possibility to find it. Can we find the capacity for a healthy pride in the public community of faith, shown in support for the well-being of our shared spiritual institution, the church?
But this issue is more than financial, and the sickness is not just that of materialistic liberals (or conservatives). While the left and right wings of the church seem miles apart on many issues, from creation, to homosexuality, to scriptural interpretation, to ordination, they all too often seem to be united in their criticism of, and disrespect for, the church and its leadership.
Supporting the church with our finances is only part of the equation of building the temple of God. Equally important is a heightened respect for the institution itself, and a willingness to work for its health and uplift, not just as a local or regional body, but as an undivided, worldwide body of believers. The commitment of both groups to the fundamental concept of the undivided body of Christ is presently being tested on a number of issues.
Living in the shadow of glory
The disrespect on the right for church institutions and their leadership is driven less by apathetic affluence, and more by a misguided sense of the glories of the past. As Haggai, in chapter two, said to the Jews of his day:
Who is left among you that saw this house
in its former glory?
and how do ye see it now? is it not in your eyes
as nothing? (2:4)
It seems that most communities have some sense of a glorious past from which they have descended. I know this from my own Anglo-Irish heritage: Americans have the venerable founding fathers; the English have the British empire on which the sun never set; Ireland, my father insists, was the land of saints and scholars. These stories gloss over the failings of the past: the slavery of our founders, the imperialistic oppression of the British, and alcohol-fueled, clan-feuds of the Irish.
For the conservative, who values highly the past, one can tend to live in the shadows of this past glory. Religious communities are no different, and perhaps have even more of this tendency. Things were always purer nearer the founding. I first came across this as a teenager with an encounter with the “historic Adventists.” This group held up the past as the standard measure for our experiences today; there was a firm foundation, on which we were to build, and from which pretty much everyone had fallen away. Back to the distinctive understandings of the past, was the call.
As a historian, I view an assessment of the past as an important part of understanding one’s present, and for building to the future. But one cannot go back to the past, nor would one want to. We should live with appreciation and even awe of our founder’s dedication and commitment, and we should engage Bible study with an eye to their insights. But do we really want to return to the semi-Arianism that characterized many of them? Or the pervasive legalism that Ellen White herself noted? Or the racial insensitivities and outright discrimination that existed at the level of intentional policy in many of our institutions?
Insights from the past can help guide, but it is not a time of greater glory to which we should return. Rather, that greater glory lies in the future. As Haggai said:
I will fill this house with glory, saith Jehovah of hosts.
The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith Jehovah of hosts.
The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, saith Jehovah of hosts; and in this place will I give peace, saith Jehovah of hosts. (2:7-9)
But this blessing will only be realized by those who sacrifice for the building of the church. In words that sound harsh to our Western, individualistic, action-oriented psyches, Haggai proclaims that good work done for ourselves and our families will not excuse or cleanse our apathy towards the church. “Unclean,” he declares, “every work of their hands; and what they offer there is unclean” while the temple lays in ruins (2:14-15). These are sobering words indeed for a generation of liberals and conservatives marinated in Western materialistic, hyper-individualism.
Questions to consider:
1. How has individualism and materialism impacted my willingness to build up my local church?
2. Do I feel a responsibility to the larger world church, even as I raise issues of concern to my region?
3. Do both liberals and conservatives have their own “golden ages” that serve to unfairly enhance criticisms of the present?
4. Am I sufficiently optimistic about my church in light of the promises of future glory and peace?
Nicholas Miller is the director of the International Religious Liberty Institute at Andrews University, and the author of "The Religious Roots of the First Amendment: Dissenting Protestants and the Separation of Church and State" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5312