by Daniel Harrell
I’d say that with this being Super Bowl Sunday, most of your minds are on football. But if that were true you wouldn’t be here. So rather than thinking about whether the Saints can slow down Peyton Manning and the Colts tonight, imagine this scenario instead: A man walks into my office and informs me that the Lord told him to marry a woman with a pretty shady past. OK, she has a pretty shady present too. She’ll sleep with anybody. Stays faithful to nobody. Still, he loves her. God told him she’s the one. So he married her. Had three kids with her—though he’s not sure that the third one is his. She cheated on him―he doesn’t know how many times. And then she left him―left him with the kids but without the credit cards. She took them and maxed those out. And now the creditors are calling, and even the police. He took her to court. For all practical purposes they are divorced. He hasn’t seen her in months. The whole thing has been utterly humiliating and hurtful. Horrible, basically. But now he hears that she’s broke and homeless. So he’s thinking of taking her back. Despite everything, he still loves her. He wants to know what I think. I think he’s crazy. The woman is clearly messed up and needs professional help. Why he would want to open himself up to more hurt? And what about the children? But then he says that God told him to take her back. God told him to pay off all her debts. I tell him he’d better get some professional help too. There’s no way that God would ever tell him to do that. But then he tells me his name is Hosea.
You might wonder how a loving God could ever make a blameless man go through such misery, but then you already know the reason. The Lord commanded Hosea to marry this slatternly woman because he wanted Hosea to know how it felt for God to be married to Israel. Only then could Hosea prophesy with the pathos and the passion of God himself. Hosea had to suffer what God suffered so that he could speak for the Lord. Bad enough that Hosea had to endure adultery and abandonment from his wife―but now in chapter 3 God commands Hosea to take her back and do it all over again. Why? Because God still loves his people. He can’t help it. And no matter how horrible they behave toward him, he always takes them back. And make no mistake―they have treated him horribly. Hosea’s wife, Gomer, may have dumped him for other men. But the Israelites dumped God for what amounted to snack food. Verse 1; “…they turn to other gods and love their sacred raisin cakes.” Your NIV adds the word “sacred” to try and make Israel’s rejection not seem so unseemly. But there’s nothing sacred in the Hebrew text. Israel dumps God for a Twinkie.
How do you get over such rejection? How do you forgive such betrayal? Love is the answer―but love is what got you into the mess to begin with. Isn’t it better to move on? Cut your losses? Lick your wounds? Guard your heart? Live to love another day? Not here. God commands Hosea to “show your love to your wife again,” though the command is actually more forceful than that. The Hebrew literally says “go love that adulterous woman.” How does Hosea do that? Where does he get the strength and the love to suffer more humiliation and more hurt? He gets it from God who suffers humiliation out of his love for Israel. It’s as the apostle John wrote in the New Testament: “We love because God first loved us.” Or as the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “The love of Christ compels us.” Likewise, God’s love compels Hosea’s love. And it compels our love and makes us able to forgive. Now mercifully, in some cases, love and forgiveness are made easier because the ones who’ve hurt you confess their wrong and ask for forgiveness. But this is not one of those cases. There is nothing approaching repentance on Gomer’s part. Still, Hosea must love and forgive her? Why? Because God loves and forgives her. God loves and forgives Gomer and he loves and forgives Israel―which means that he loves and forgives Hosea too. Just as he loves and forgives you and me.
But isn’t this all a little dangerous? Unconditional forgiveness is so easily taken for granted and abused. How will Gomer learn her lesson if Hosea just lets her off the hook? Where’s the justice? I think it is important first to remember that to forgive is not to abandon justice. If anything, to forgive is to indict, to accuse. You only forgive people who’ve done something wrong. To forgive is to blame. Secondly, I think it’s important to remember the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is necessary for reconciliation to occur, but forgiveness is not dependent on reconciliation. It is a free gift given, even if reconciliation never happens. You do have to repent to receive forgiveness―you can’t be forgiven if you never confess your wrong. But repentance does not cause forgiveness. Forgiveness does not wait on the offender to repent or apologize. Forgiveness does not wait for the hurt to diminish or the scars to heal. It was while we were still sinners and enemies of God that Christ died for us. It is while your enemies are still your enemies that Jesus commands you love them. Is this hard to do? It is unbearably hard to do. It kills you. But it killed Jesus more. And it’s because he died for us that we can die to him. “Christ’s love compels us,” Paul wrote, “He died for all that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” It is Christ’s suffering for the sake of forgiveness that makes our suffering doable. Christ’s love in us forgives through us, and that is why and how we forgive.
I was out in Minneapolis last weekend speaking at a church where I retold the story of a man I knew who was in a serious financial mess. He had delayed the sale of a house he owned for several years so that he wouldn’t have to evict two tenants, both of them professing Christians―brothers and sisters in Christ. Nevertheless, these Christian tenants put off paying their rent to this brother, offering one excuse after another, month after month, until they’d run up a back-rent of more than $30,000. Still willing to help, this man refinanced his mortgage in order to lessen their financial obligation. Eventually however, unable to sustain two mortgages on his own, he ended up having to sell the house and evict the tenants anyway. He called me because he wasn’t sure what to do about the back rent. It was causing him a ton of stress. My initial advice was to suggest he seek legal assistance and get what was rightfully owed him. It wouldn’t have been an unbiblical route, especially given that it was a last resort. But as a follower of Jesus I couldn’t help but also ask, albeit hesitantly, whether he’d considered just forgiving the debt. I hesitated because I knew most people would consider such a move enormously irresponsible, unfair and as far as the tenants were concerned, totally underserved. But I noted an immediate lightness in his voice at my suggestion. He sheepishly asked, “Would that be OK?” See, he also knew that to forgive such an enormous debt was irresponsible, unjust and clearly undeserved—which was precisely what made it feel so much like grace. I assured him that, yes, grace is always OK.
Afterwards, someone from the congregation walked up shaking his head. He told me his story about a trusted friend who swindled him not out of back rent, but of out of his entire life savings in Bernie Madoff fashion. He went to his minister who, like me, advised that he take his friend to court and get what was rightfully owed him. And doing so saved his life―though he obviously lost the friendship. Not that there was much of a friendship to lose. What kind of friend cheats you out of everything you own? I’m thinking, probably one like the wife who leaves you and the kids, runs up your credit cards and runs off with the snack food vendor. The good news is that God takes Israel to court. We read about that back in chapter 2. The hard news is that he does it in order to take her back. The Lord courts Israel in both senses of that word. His indictment is an invitation. He accuses in order to spur repentance. He forgives in order to invite reconciliation. God uses every art and tool to win a response that will make for a genuine reunion. He can’t help it. He loves his people. So he does whatever it takes. Even though it kills him. On a cross.
It’s Christ’s love in us that forgives us. It’s what makes forgiving others possible. “So I bought her back,” Hosea says, verse 2. “I paid off her debts with my own money even though I didn’t have to. I took her back into my home. I loved her. And I forgave her.” But again, to forgive is not to pretend as if nothing happened. To forgive someone implies that he or she is not a good person. There would need to be ground rules. Verse 3: Hosea told her, “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you.” A better translation has Hosea saying to Gomer, “you must have no sex with any man, nor I with you.” In other words, for this promiscuous woman it was time to go without. Cold fish. Cold turkey. A clean break. In Israel’s case: idolatry detox. Verse 4: No idols, no ephods, no sacred stones, no sacrifices, no princes, no kings. Ephods are liturgical vestments. Sacred stones are like monuments. Along with sacrifices, these were all parts of proper Israelite worship. But they had become corrupted by Israel using them in pagan worship. Princes and kings would have been fine, except that these were leaders of pagan nations whom Israel ran to instead of God for help. They had rejected the Lord and his gifts, turning his good gifts toxic. Sin does that. It gets all its power from the good things it perverts. It’s why we describe it with words like injustice or iniquity or ingratitude, disorder, disobedience, unfaithfulness, lawlessness and ungodliness.
But Israel’s deprivation was not an end in itself. Like all detox, its purpose is intended for good. A clean break was needed—deep enough and long enough to make a new beginning possible: a pure return, in all humility, to the Lord himself; a renewal of marriage that had seemed beyond all repair. God’s harsh indictment turns out to be an open invitation. He ferociously accuses in order to ferociously embrace. He unfairly and unconditionally forgives in order to spur repentance and pave the way for reconciliation. God’s mercy is as severe as it is generous. It killed Jesus, and it kills the sinner too. “Christ’s love compels us,” Paul wrote, “because we have concluded this: that Christ died for all; therefore all have died.” This would be Israel’s come-to-Jesus moment. Where is the Jesus they come to? Verse 5: “The Israelites will return and seek the LORD their God and David their king. They will come trembling to the LORD and to his blessings in the last days.” The reference to “David their king” is a reference to the one who ultimately would inherit King David’s throne and crown, the one before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess as Lord, Jesus Christ the risen king.
So what’s the takeaway for you and me? If you’re like me, you read chapter 3 and immediately identify with Hosea. You think of all the people in your life who have humiliated you and hurt you like Gomer hurt him. How do you forgive them? How can God ask you to do that? Even if to forgive is to indict and detoxify for the sake of repentance and reconciliation, it’s exhausting. Who’s got time for all that? Isn’t it better to move on? Cut your losses? Lick your wounds? Guard your heart? Live to love another day? Besides, what are the chances that forgiveness would work anyway? Most likely you’d just end up humiliated and hurt all over again, and how does that help anybody? Good for Hosea. But I’m not Hosea.
I’m Gomer. That’s the takeaway. Inasmuch as Israel’s story is our story too, we’re the adulterous wife, the unfaithful bride of Christ, the ones too willing to put everything else before our husband. We refuse to love, we take no time to care and take God’s grace for granted. We deliberately choose to do the same stupid things over and over again with little regard for the hurt we cause. It is me and you whom God indicts. You and me whom he blames. You and me whom he accuses. You and me whom he loves. He can’t help it. No matter how horribly we behave toward him―and make no mistake, we behave badly―God always takes us back. He spreads a table before us even though we act like his enemies. He forgives us and overflows our cup so that we might spill his grace even onto our own enemies. The only remaining question is whether his grace is enough to spur your repentance and return you to the Lord to fix the marriage. His indictment is an invitation. Come to Jesus and his table, confess your sins and receive his grace.