Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins! - Haggai 1:4
The Old Testament is filled with stories of how God’s people fall away from the Lord, lose fervor, and sometimes turn their back completely on God. This behavior is not surprising or even shocking if understood in the bigger picture of salvation history. God did not choose the Hebrew people so that they could demonstrate perfect moral behavior or a utopian society for the rest of the world. God chose them, as He could have chosen any group of human beings wounded by original sin, because He wanted to provide all of His children with an archetype of His love that they could refer to and learn from for millennia to come.
During the Babylonian exile the Jews were scattered throughout the land. Because the center of their faith was the Temple, they longed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple that Solomon had first built. God heard their prayers and in 538 BC, Cyrus, the King of Persia, issued a decree that allowed the Jews to return to their homeland. The decree not only allowed them to return but also explicitly told them to rebuild the Temple and ordered other citizens to aid them with money and supplies.
But, the Book of Haggai in the Old Testament tells us that the Jews’ initial fervor in rebuilding the Temple eventually fell off and was redirected to their own lives. God spoke to the prophet Haggai and told him to encourage the Jews to continue building the Temple. God also spoke words of reproach to them through Haggai for beginning with such zeal and then being distracted by concerns for their own needs: “Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins!” (Hg 1:4).
Every human being most likely relates to this picture. Problem arises and we lose focus or life gets easy and we do not find the need to turn to God and to work for holiness. We build our own paneled houses (mine is red) and make our own plans while our relationship with God continues to be neglected.
This happens to me, even when my life in the convent is supposedly centered on God all day every day. During my short time so far, I have recognized days and even months where I put prayer time as my last priority. I always get to it but it is not the first thing I get to and sometimes even if I am there, my mind is running in a thousand different directions and I make no attempt to reel it in.
And the worst part of it all is that I already know that this kind of life bears no fruit. Eventually, without real prayer, a person loses steam; the "oil of gladness" runs out and you begin to feel less hopeful and happy (Ps 45:7). When we do not pray, we have nothing to share with others. We become dry wells.
The prophet Haggai describes similar consequences for the people of God. They labor for their own benefit but none of their hard work comes to fruition: “You expected much but it came to little; and what you brought home, I blew away” (Hg 1: 9). Bad consequences result when one does not put God first in his or her life. God does not even have to interfere most of the time; consequences happen automatically when a person begins to take steps away from God.
Yet despite the fact that we behave like the Israelites, turning away from God at different junctures in our lives, God does not respond like a human being would. Rather, our bad behavior gives God the opportunity to show His mercy and to help us to understand His very nature. In the Book of Haggai, despite the people’s lack of fervor and their self-centered focus on their own lives, the Lord encourages them and tells them that His spirit is with them: “My spirit continues in your midst, do not fear!” (Hg 2:5).
In the same way in our own lives, God is constantly forgiving us and calling us to conversion. He’s calling us to tear down our paneled walls and start building within ourselves a proper Temple for the Lord.