“Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.”
- Hosea 6:1
Has anyone ever mentioned to you how God seems to be brutally vicious in the Old Testament, but then we have Jesus who is loving and kind in the New Testament? I mean, except for Revelations. We’ll just discount that because look, it’s a lot of symbolism to unravel. Why bother with that mess when we can just act like an ostrich instead, right?
Honestly, both those perceptions are wrong. It’s so wrong that it collides with the truth like a child run amok in a bumper car arena at the state fair. When they run into you, it's repeatedly done, it's on purpose, and neither of you generally get anywhere at all.
Regardless, that’s one of the subjects pastors face from not only non-believers but also people struggling to wrap their head around a God that you cannot actually wrap your head around. Grasping the concept of God is impossible for a variety of reasons regardless of what Paul might have wished for us. We still try, though, because there are contrasts in God that we seem stuck on trying to reconcile. Why we choose to do it from our decidedly non-God viewpoint is puzzling to me, though. It’s sort of like trying to drive a car from the back bumper. You can’t see anything and you can’t reach the steering wheel or the pedals, but for some reason, we still think we’re fully justified in getting mad when we run over a stop sign.
Or at least we hope it was a stop sign.
There's a reason for this, and it has to do with how we are built for harmony. Think about life being like a bank statement. On one side of the ledger, you have deposits and on the other side, you have withdrawals. Somewhere in between those, we want to come to a zero-sum truth. Neither side loses or gains more than the other side loses or gains. Right there, we know we’re at a point of equilibrium in between the balance of negative and positive. We know where we stand.
But let me tell you, I hate balancing my checkbook sometimes. Somewhere along the line I missed something, or added wrong, or hit a decimal point where it shouldn’t have been, or forgot to add in a fee or a withdrawal for ice cream or another cool pastoral book or something like that. Then I’m trying to figure out just where that extra $4.67 came from and why these silly numbers aren't adding up perfectly. Math used to drive me nuts when I was a kid, especially when the answers just didn’t add up. There was no equilibrium in anything, let alone an equation when that happened and I really wound up blaming those "stupid numbers" instead of looking at the real issue. Me. That contrast of positive and negative, that equation that should have led to equilibrium led to pretty much anything except a feeling of being balanced. I may have gotten high marks for mathematical skills when I was younger, but I’ll tell you this. Numbers and I have an uneasy truce. Maybe that’s why I have yet to do a Bible study on the book of Numbers. Too much numerical trauma?
Anyway. The point is that we’re in this quest for equilibrium in our lives. Balance helps us feel like we’re in a good place because we were built for harmony like the Trinity is in harmony. When we get off-kilter slightly, we try to balance back to level and right ourselves in any way we can. When we get way off-kilter, we begin to panic, which leads to a whole host of other issues.
Those issues can contrastingly lead us farther from God, or closer to God depending on the choices we choose to make.
The Replacement Factor
The whole of this scripture passage is about God replacing one thing with another. Predatorially tearing prey to pieces is replaced by skillfully and surgically healing those tears. Violent injury is replaced with meticulous binding. Even the Hebrew idea of "come" means to travel to a place as a group, and that is contrasted by a return to a previous state or position. You see, we have an ebb and flow here. A give and a take.
A call, and a response.
A call to return is very much at the heart of the book of Hosea, putting God's incredibly passionate love for His creation on full display. Hosea was a prophet who was a contemporary of Amos, Isaiah, and Micah in the early to late 700’s BCE. He became a prophet right before the Assyrian conquest of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah. He had a 60-year ministry that we believe was in the northern part of the two kingdoms because he appears to know a lot about the geography and the customs of the people there. Hosea's ministry here is often seen as a prophet of doom and gloom, but he also prophesied how great God’s love is in recovering who we are as His children. His relationship with Gomer is what many people remember about Hosea, with the contrast of estrangement and return running throughout the entire book. It’s literally a study on those contrasts we find so perplexing about God.
For example, there's a contrast in Hosea's children. We know children are supposed to be a blessing, but they had names based on anything but blessings. We are shown a contrast of God deserving the very best, receiving the worst, but loving us nonetheless when we return. It’s a contrast of us deserving death, but God giving us life and loving us all the same when we return. At one point, Hosea bought Gomer back for 15 shekels and some barley. That contrast of unworthiness still fetching a price that was paid is vital here. It mirrors the price Christ would pay “just to win you,” and that he would “surrender his good life for bad.” He “called that a bargain, the best he ever had.” And while it might be strange to some that I just quoted The Who here, what is stranger than all that, is our desire to identify with Hosea’s holiness in this contrast, when it’s more appropriate for us to be identified with Gomer.
Black white right left
It’s important to look for the contrasts like that in our spiritual walk. One of the spiritual disciplines we have, fasting holds a strong contrast for us. At the heart of fasting is turning from an attitude of idolatry to one of true worship. Fasting is about submitting things that we love over to God, in order to more fully receive His investment of His love in our lives. That requires not just a heart change, but a response that is caused by that heart change, just like I broke out from Romans 10:10 recently. In Wesleyan history, we are a people who are very attuned to the fact that faith demands a response of action, just as grace demands the response of faith in Romans. It is literally the pinpoint pinnacle of our turning from sin to salvation and likewise from our perspective to our purpose. The gift of faith is at the center of all of this.
As Methodists, we’re not justified in ur salvation by our actions, but rather we’re motivated to action by our faith whigh was instilled in us at our salvation. When we fast, we are giving up a relationship with something that doesn’t serve us for a relationship with something that does. Through it, we can go beyond it and step from fasting as an act of piety to fasting as an instigator of acts of mercy. James 2:18 says, “But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds." Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.”
In the Bible, fasting often is about food, which is where we get the notion that to fast, we simply just don't eat and that makes us magically holy. But food isn’t it. Food was what sustained the people in the Bible, so they would replace food with God as a way of sustaining themselves. That’s the very heart of Jesus saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God.” What fasting is basically saying is, I’d rather have something in my life that glorifies and builds up God inside of me, than something in my life that glorifies and builds up my flesh. Isaiah talks about this with a great deal of simplicity in Isaiah 58:6. “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” In order to get to that kind of fasting-based act of mercy, we need to undergo a fasting-based act of piety. By engaging in a fasting-based act of piety first, the Holy Spirit builds our faith to a point where the acts of mercy are reachable, achievable and sustainable. All this stems from God’s greatness, and not ours because it comes through, and builds up, our faith. Remember, faith is something we can possess as a gift from God, but only God can build it.
Noted blogger Rachel Myers said, “Here’s the thing I’ve learned about fasting: it’s really only ever for one thing. Fasting is for God’s glory. And so, we fast to know Him. Because that gives Him glory. We fast to become like Christ. Because this glorifies the Father. We fast—whatever it is we’re fasting from—because He is God and we are not.”
Just like God is a God who can tear us apart and just like God is a God who can slay, kill, beat, slaughter and strike us, He’s also a God who can bind us securely from the wounds our selfishness can give us. We're not God and we can't do that for ourselves, but He can. It still depends entirely on what we want, and what we place first. God moves everything forward in our lives out of that choice.
The purpose is found in emptying our hands
The point here isn’t that God is a bully. It’s that God is just and fair, and He actually leaves the choice up to us as to what we do. Do we place God ahead of our own natures? Do we receive the blessing He has for us in it? Do we, in turn, bless other people through that blessing? Because let’s be real, that blessing we give to others carries a blessing for us as well. Remember the blessing the poor hold for us that I spoke of a few weeks back? When Phillip Yancey said that, it was to motivate us to seek God in that promise so that we might be blessed. We have to put God first in fasting as an act of piety before we can put God first in the act of mercy that is reaching out to the poor.
I’m not going to lie to you. This is going to bring your fleshly nature into direct conflict with the work the Holy Spirit is doing inside of you to create your new authority. It's going to get ugly and it will be difficult. We’re going to be exposed to our selfish nature because we are iso-centric beings. We think about ourselves and our own comforts. It’s the reason our churches are in such a pickle across the board, to begin with. Fasting is exactly how we become exo-centric as not only individuals but as an entire church. To be clear, I’m not talking about anonymous Eco-centric giving where we aren’t in contact with the people out there. I’m talking about removal of fear through the renewal of our spirits in a return to our missional call that will find us at ground zero of church revival.
There is always the possibility that something in our lives is being held up higher than God. While it’s OK for things to be important to us, we can’t allow them to surpass God in their importance. The challenge I am issuing to you, as a man who fasts regularly already, is this. Find something that either is already, or has the potential to eclipse God’s impact on your life, and then pick an amount of time to give it up. Replace it instead with spending time with God. Whether that is a time in worship or communion with God, which is an act of piety, or in service to Him, possibly as a volunteer somewhere, which is an act of mercy.
This is how we all grow. Just like I said last week, this is how our faith is grown by God, through the practice of our spiritual disciplines. It draws us closer to God. Closer to Christ. That is how we step into the renewal of our inner authority so that we can be effective in our purpose of reaching those outside our churches with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Crash bang boom
You know, speaking of Phillip Yancy, he told a story once about just this sort of thing in a book he wrote about spiritual discipline. “Experiences of God cannot be planned or achieved. ‘They are spontaneous moments of grace, almost accidental,’ a rabbi said. His student asked, “If God-realization is just accidental, why do we work so hard doing all these spiritual practices?” “To be as accident-prone as possible,” said the teacher.”
I genuinely hope you spend so much time in fasting and the other spiritual disciplines that you crash into God like that child in a bumper car at the state fair. At least then you’ll actually be going somewhere because God will be right in your path.
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.