Malachi, we have seen, is a book about worship. It is no surprise, then, that the book begins with an affirmation of God’s love for his people, for worship flows from love. We worship God when we love him, and we love him when we understand his deep, abiding love for us.

Too often, we think of love in terms of emotion. We feel love for people, which makes it possible for people to “fall in” and “fall out” of love. So long as we feel a strong emotional attachment to someone, we are confident that we love them. When the emotional lines are blurred, we no longer consider ourselves to love that person.

Malachi’s first dispute shows us that God’s understanding of love is radically different to ours. God’s love is based on election rather than emotion. God loves his people because he chose to love them and made a commitment to doing so. Even in times when his emotional attraction to his people might fade, he can still rightly claim to love them. His elect are never unelected; his love, therefore, never abates.

The Jews in Malachi’s time had difficulty understanding this. They had returned to a desolate land after seventy years of exile and had not fallen into immediate, overwhelming, unending prosperity. The land was still desolate, the walls still broken, and the city still unfinished. Enemies opposed them on every side. Life was difficult. Surely it should not be that way, they reasoned, if God loved them. And so they openly challenged God’s assertion that he loved them.

To cement his claim to love, God pointed to election. As observed above, love in this section has little to do with emotion and everything to do with election. The same can be said of hate. God “hated” Esau not with an emotional loathing but because Esau was outside the covenant with his people. God dealt with Esau in his own right, but Esau was not the one with whom God chose to establish his covenant. Jacob was the one favoured with covenant blessings and, in that way, God showed him love. And since God cannot lie, but always keeps covenant, his people should be sure that he loved them. He loved them when he chose them and he continued to love them even when they violated covenant and thereby showed no love to him.

This understanding of love is crucial for us as Christians. Far too often, weighed down by sin and temptation, we wonder how God can possibly love us. As understandable as that question is (given our misconception of love), it displays a grave misunderstanding of biblical love. God does not love you because you resist temptation or overcome sin. He is pleased when you do those things, but your performance is not the basis of his love. If you are a Christian, he loves you because he chose you in Christ and made a covenant with you in Christ’s blood. In your best moment, when you rejoice in the victory you have achieved over your besetting sin, God loves you. In your worst moment, when you cave to that temptation once again, God loves you.

God might have used any number of ways to describe his covenant relationship with his people. He might have chosen the image of a contract, or of a king and a vassal, or power and coercion. He didn’t. He chose to describe his covenant relationship with his people in terms of love. That should encourage you this morning.

God’s people in the Old Testament regularly broke covenant with him. They “unchose” and “hated” him by trampling on their covenant obligations. Yet God continued to love them. And since his love for his people is the model of his people’s love for one another, this understanding of love should transform the way we think about the commands to love one another. Christian love, says David Baker, is not “a vapid, fickle sentimentality, since that is fleeting and self-centered at its foundation.” Instead, Christian love perseveres because it is rooted in God’s unchanging character and unassailable covenant to his people, sealed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

As you meditate on Malachi 1:1–5 this morning, be encouraged that, if you are in Christ, God loves you—whether you feel it or not. Then ask for grace to show that same kind of love to others.