Think of the person you love most in the world. Maybe it’s your spouse, your mom, you brother, your child. Maybe it’s your best friend, or the person who stepped in and became your home when your family abandoned you. You’d make sacrifices, go broke, maybe even die for this person.
What would it take to make you stop loving them?
For many people, that threshold occurs when the object of their love does something that fundamentally changes their character. If you look you can find plenty of stories of parents who love and forgive their children even after discovering they’re criminals, terrorists, rapists or serial killers. If my brother blew up a building or started eating people, though, I wouldn’t blame my parents for turning their backs on him.
For others, that line may be crossed when your beloved hurts an innocent in their effort to reach you. Message boards and advice columns are full of families torn apart by controlling in-laws, divorced parents, and sibling rivalries. I’ve seen funerals where siblings weren’t speaking to each other over decades-old feud, even as they buried their parents.
One evening as we were discussing our future together, I asked my boyfriend what it would take for him to leave me if we were married. “You hurting our kids,” he said without hesitation. “If you cheat on me or shut me out we can work through that, but if you ever hurt our kids I’m out the door.”
This raises some serious questions about our ideas of "unconditional love." The idea is appealing as long as we don't think about the implications. In fact, we like to think about "unconditional love" as long as we don't have to think about specific conditions. Abuse? Constant fear? Broken trust? These things affect us more deeply than we might admit in the more comfortable moments of life when these things are just ideas. Talk about "unconditional love" with people who have suffered mistreatment from their loved ones, and there's bound to be some confusion, disillusionment, and uncertainty mixed in. Could truly unconditional love keep someone in a harmful, dangerous situation?
In the book of Hosea, we find an illustration of the pain, madness, and enduring power of unconditional love displayed by the life of the prophet Hosea himself. As we have discussed elsewhere, God puts his prophets through some pretty extreme stunts as objects lessons, and Hosea is no exception. God commands that he “marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord” (1:2 NIV). Hosea’s wife, Gomer, gives birth to three children with deeply symbolic names: Jezreel (the site of a massacre); Lo-Ruhamah (“not loved”), and Lo-Ammi (“not my people”).
I can’t help but feel sorry for everyone in this story – Gomer and Hosea, forced into a loveless marriage, and their children, born with names that today would merit years of therapy.
After the children are weaned, Gomer strays again, and God commands Hosea to find her, and bring her back home (ch. 3). Hosea may seem unfeeling, even harsh in this scene, but remember that in Mosaic Law he has every right to stone her and the man she is sleeping with as punishment for her adultery. After Gomer’s return, God essentially monologues for eleven chapters in what may be the longest and most tempestuous declaration of love in the Bible. He rages at Israel’s betrayal (4:6), mourns their absence (6:4), and reminisces tenderly (11:4). He forgives them and promises his love to them again and again: “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion” (2:19 NIV).
God’s unconditional love, as expressed in Hosea, is what Max Scheler calls “an outburst of tempestuous love and tempestuous compassion for all men who are felt as one, indeed for the universe as a whole; a love which makes it seem frightful that only some should be ‘good’ while others are ‘bad’ and ‘reprobate.’” God’s love is tempestuous – it’s as overwhelming, irrational outpouring.1
In the song “How He Loves,” by John Mark McMillan, the singer uses this same image of a storm: “He is jealous for me, loves like a hurricane, I am a tree, bending beneath the weight of his wind and mercy.”
Twice, this song has moved me to tears. The first time was during a week of summer camp devoted to people with visually impairment, when dozens of people rejected or overlooked by society swayed and grinned as they belted out the chorus - "He loves us, oh how He loves us" - so secure in their knowledge of God’s love and acceptance. The second was after a panel of LGBTQ+ students told their Christian friends and family about the pain, rejection, depression, and death they faced as they tried to reconcile their sexuality with their faith. After hours of heated debate and difficult questions, the singers were tear-stained instead of smiling, but the chorus remained the same: “Oh, how He loves us.”
The issues that separate people from God and each other will always be complex, and often painful. But the book of Hosea shows that God is in the business of reconciling sinners to himself.
I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. They shall go after the Lord; he will roar like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west; they shall come trembling like birds from Egypt, and like doves from the land of Assyria, and I will return them to their homes, declares the Lord. (Hosea 11:9-11 ESV)
“For I am convinced,” Paul writes, “that neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, enither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39 NIV).
Related texts or passages to consider: John 8:3-11; John 3:16-17; 1 John 4:18; 1 Peter 4:8; Jeremiah 31:3
• What do you think it would take for you to stop loving the person you love the most? If you think this isn't possible, what makes you confident?
• The story of Hosea and Gomer's children can raise some distressing questions. Read Hosea 1:2-11. Is the text clear as to whether these children are Hosea's biological descendants or not? How might this affect your understanding of the story? How do verses 10 and 11 add hope to this situation?
• Read all of Hosea 3. How do you feel about the way Hosea and Gomer's relationship is restored? What do you think about 3:2, where Hosea buys Gomer back? What do you think this reflects about the society they lived in?
• Read Hosea 2 entirely. Do you think the emotions expressed here are just God's, or just Hosea's, or maybe a mixture of both of their experiences? How does that affect how you feel about this story?
• What hope can you find in Hosea 2:14-23? How does God reverse the judgments given in Hosea 1?
• Read Hosea 1:10 and compare it to Genesis 22:17 and Genesis 26:4. What do God's actions in Hosea have to do with his promises in Genesis?
• In Hosea 3:1 there is a strange statement: "[...] even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins." What do you think is wrong with raisin cakes? Many of us have probably eaten some pastry that has raisins in it. Is this a universal wrong, or a cultural, contextual problem? What does this mean for our understanding of what sin is?
Scheler, Max. Ressentiment. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1994. 68. Print. ↩