Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Harlotry was in my blood

{A review of Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, sort of}

When we were house-hunting, we came across a house that was described in the listings as having "good bones." Seeing that it was within our price-range, we went and had a look.

As we walked through the door, stench of urine hit us without warning. Strong and concentrated. The carpet was blackened with grease and mud. I could see where the couch had been. There was a time when the carpet was not black. I heard water dripping somewhere behind the walls of the moldy bathtub, covered in thick black slime. But I can't be too sure because none of the lights were working.

Then, my heart sank. Along the walls, I saw the familiar scribbles of crayon and markers. Children lived here. Babies crawled on this carpet. Good bones or not, my children will not step foot in this place. It's not worth it. Forget this.

But I couldn't.

Weeks later, the scribbles along the walls and the crawling darkness stayed with me. My mind was staring the chaos of my heart when the Lord found me, devastated and lost. That godless place I thought I had forgotten, or try to not remember. There was nothing desirable or beautiful there. Certainly nothing that was worth his death on the cross, the atonement of his blood.

There was a time when I loved historical fictions. I probably still do, but reading fiction is a luxury I cannot afford with two little boys running around. Years ago, when I was in my teens, I read a retelling of the story of Hosea, Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. A few of girls at church read it recently and asked for my thoughts. I am revisiting it for their sake. Because it is my (delightful) duty to teach them the Bible, I am primarily going to comment on whether this book is drawing us nearer or further away from the original story.

As I scrolled through the reviews on Amazon and elsewhere, I was most concerned to find that so many (women) identify themselves with Gomer and see God as the husband who continues to love and pursue them. Though there are some things to say about the depiction of Hosea, for the sake of your time, we are just going to focus on Gomer for now.

In Rivers' retelling of the story, Gomer is depicted as an exclusive, upscale prostitute. In fact, she is the most desired prostitute among lustful men. A victim of a horrifying childhood, she is raised by a pedophile, and knows nothing else except bad, bad men who take advantage of her. The rest of the story is about how she fears happiness and distrusts his husband's love, runs away from him again and again, and how her husband continues to pursue her.

Unlike Redeeming Love, the book of Hosea does not tell us very much about Gomer's background except that she was the daughter of Diblaim. But one thing is certain: Gomer is not a victim. Gomer loves being a prostitute. She adorns herself and pursues after her lovers. It concerns me whenever we give excuses for our sins and put the blame on our lot in life. I would know, I am the queen of excuses. Just ask Hans. Or, maybe not.

True, we are all victims of deceits in one way or another, but we are also fully culpable. We want to believe in these lies. We love our idols more than we love God. It's not that we are incapable of being happy, it's that we seek after happiness in things other than God. And other things can never fulfill.

Secondly, the book of Hosea does not say much about Gomer's looks. The Bible is not incapable describing fine-looking women (think Genesis). However, it is silent in this story precisely because it doesn't matter. In Redeeming Love, however, Gomer's beauty is emphasized again and again. She is described as the desire of every man, the most beautiful woman, a frozen heart behind a "flawless veil." Men are enthralled, they get lost looking into her eyes, etc. Though it may not be historically inaccurate, emphasizing her beauty changes the story.

Imagining Gomer as a beautiful victimized woman changes the story. Women lust after the desire of men. We want to be desired and rescued. This is what women daydream about. The story sells. But in the original story, Gomer is despicable in her unfaithfulness. She pursues and loves other men. We should be disgusted with Gomer. We should not desire to be like Gomer in any way.

When Nathan tells King David the story of the rich man who killed the poor man's beloved sheep, King David is disgusted with the rich man. He does not identify with rich man, or try to see things from his perspective. No, David finds the rich man to be revolting. In fact, it is his abhorrence toward the rich man that propels him to see his own sin, and repent.

To emphasize a fictional detail that Gomer is beautiful is like saying, the house that we saw had some good features, but it had a pungent odor. That's not the same story! The house now sounds as though it has desirable quality that is worth saving. In such imaginings, we de-emphasize God's grace, his mercy, his compassion, his steadfast love -- which is the essence of the story of Hosea.

God loved Israel. He chose Israel not because she was better than the other nations. In fact, Israel was powerless and her people were slaves. She was rebellious and ungrateful, unworthy in every way. She continued in her unfaithful ways and pursued other gods. There was nothing desirable or beautiful there. Certainly nothing that was worth his death on the cross, the atonement of his blood.

I find John Piper's narrative poem on Hosea to be a more faithful rendition of the original story. In it, the old woman Gomer tells her husband at the end of their years together,
Your love for me
Was like a mountain waterfall,
And I the jagged stone. Of all
The knives and hammers once applied
None made me smooth or clean. They tried,
But harlotry was in my blood,
Until your love became a flood
Cascading over my crude life
And kept me as your only wife.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Now, I must fight

I love my mom.

While I was growing up, one thing I loved about her was that I could tell her anything -- infatuations, bad decisions... well, almost anything. Now that I am a mom, I cannot imagine how much self-control it took for her to not completely flip out and smack me around. Probably because she was wise enough to know that it would not work.

When I fell apart, (oh, how I fell apart) she knelt with me, and searched for all the broken pieces. She never said "I told you so." Instead, she took up the sword and fought with me through the brambles of my foolishness and pain (oh, the pain). She was awesome.

I love my mom. I want to be just like her when I grow up.

The year I turned fifteen, I remember telling her about one particular infatuation, a bad one (I had a lot of bad ones). I told her I had it under control. And that I wasn't going to do anything stupid (riiight). To this day, I remember her words so clearly.

Ling, pride comes before a fall,
ni dong bu dong? (do you understand?)
Pride comes before a fall.

During these recent months, I long for her counsel and her sword, fighting beside me, fighting for me. I want to be a child again and curl up next to her, in the dark.

Crushes are no longer what they used to be, but they are as foolish as ever. Teenage boys no longer  appeal to me (thankfully). But once in a while, I find myself ambushed by new infatuations with the world. With things that I used to turn my nose up at. With things that I thought could never-ever-in-a-million-years tempt me. I have it under control. I would never do, or want, or think anything that stupid.

But again, I was wrong.

Instead of fleeing, I dance on the edge like a two-year-old (or a fifteen-year-old). I take a stroll under the forbidden tree. I gaze at the forbidden fruit. I have a little chat with the serpent. What's the harm in a little...education? Instead of crushing the daydreams in my mind, I treat the monster like a pet. He is so cute, so interesting. So I put him in my pocket. I take him out and admire him once in a while. Thinking, no body would know, he is my little secret.

All the while, the idolatry grows. Its foul smell eats me up inside. The monster peers its ugly head, ready to kill and devour.

Ma, you have given me the sword.
Thank you for preparing me.
Now, I must fight.


Here are six ways that pride often manifest itself. I found them to be quite instructive. I am learning to be self-aware. I must say, though, having Hans around is great because he catches me before (and after) I fall.

This excerpt is taken from The Gospel-Centered Life,
Six Ways of Minimizing Sin.

I find it difficult to receive feedback about weaknesses or sin. When confronted, my tendency is to explain things away, talk about my successes, or to justify my decisions. As a result, I rarely have conversations about difficult things in my life.

I strive to keep up appearances, maintain a respectable image. My behavior, to some degree, is driven by what I think others think of me. I also do not like to think reflectively about my life. As a result, not very many people know the real me (I may not even know the real me).

I tend to conceal as much as I can about my life, especially the “bad stuff”. This is different than pretending in that pretending is about impressing. Hiding is more about shame. I don’t think people will accept the real me.

I am quick to blame others for sin or circumstances. I have a difficult time “owning” my contributions to sin or conflict. There is an element of pride that assumes it’s not my fault AND/OR an element of fear of rejection if it is my fault.

I tend to downplay sin or circumstances in my life, as if they are “normal” or “not that bad." As a result, things often don’t get the attention they deserve, and have a way of mounting up to the point of being overwhelming.

I tend to think (and talk) more highly of myself than I ought to. I make things (good and bad) out to be much bigger than they are (usually to get attention). As a result, things often get more attention than they deserve, and have a way of making me stressed or anxious.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Seven habits of miserable people

1. Count your troubles, name them one by one. Begin at the breakfast table, to anyone who would listen, and as soon as possible thereafter.

2. Worry about something everyday. Do not let yourself get out of practice!

3. Pity yourself. You are not a bad person, but why do bad things always happen to you? If you pity yourself enough, nobody else will have to do it for you.

4. Devise clever and subtle ways to serve God and money, think of ways to gain the approval of God and the world. Why not have both?

5. Always covet. Always desire what is not yours, yet. Always compare yourself to others and want what you don't have, and show off what you do have.

6. Think of yourself first. Put your needs and troubles before thinking of others. Make sure you get your rights. Your deserve the best, and other people can just... well, you don't need to think about other people.

7. Do NOT let eternal things get in the way of what matters now. Make sure you check your email and Facebook now. Make sure you watch that movie, and finish that drama series today. Bible reading and prayer get you nothing in this world. So, stick to the things you can see, that's where it's at.

Adapted from Elisabeth Elliot's "Several Ways to Make Yourself Miserable" in Keep a Quiet Heart, page 93. I pretty much just described myself.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Singing in the dark

My children cry, a lot. We tell them to stop. Big boys don't cry. But --

Jesus cried. The manliest man wept. The king of glory groaned over his lost sheep. The divine warrior mourned in the garden.

So what are we to teach the boys?

On Sundays, we sing praises to God in the congregation. We sing about his greatness, what he has done, what he will do, and we make petitions for grace. We sing songs that lift our souls out of the miry bogs of the week.

Nothing wrong with singing happy songs. Sundays are happy days. But praises are not enough. They cover only part of the Psalms. Remember the laments, chaos, disorientation, hopelessness, meaninglessness. They, too, are part of God's Word. This is the story of God's people, from the beginning. This is the story of the Psalms. This is our story. We move from lament to praise, chaos to order, again and again and again.

So, cry, weep, groan.

The shepherd is listening, and he suffered. He cried, and he died for his lost sheep, for you.

So, in time, we will teach our boys to weep, for the right reasons, in the right way -- to God. For this, too, is worship. Let the tears fall, little ones. And remember his tears thick like blood that washed away our sins.

Let God's people mourn. Let us weep together, and weep over sins and meaningless suffering. Give us songs to sing in the dark.

A reflection on Psalm 42
I have lost my appetite
And a flood is welling up behind my eyes
So I eat the tears I cry
And if that were not enough
They know just the words to cut and tear and prod
When they ask me “Where's your God?”

Why are you downcast, oh my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
I can remember when you showed your face to me

As a deer pants for water, so my soul thirsts for you
And when I behold Your glory, You so faithfully renew
Like a bed of rest for my fainting flesh

I am satisfied in You.

When I'm staring at the ground
It's an inbred feedback loop that brings me down
So it's time to lift my brow
And remember better days
When I loved to worship you in all your ways
with the sweetest songs of praise

Why are you downcast, oh my soul?
Why so disturbed within me?
I can remember when you showed your grace to me

As a deer pants for water, so my soul thirsts for you
And when I survey Your splendor, You so faithfully renew
Like a bed of rest for my fainting flesh

I am satisfied in You.

Let my sighs give way to songs that sing about your faithfulness
Let my pain reveal your glory as my only real rest
Let my losses show me all I truly have is you

So when I'm drowning out at sea
And your breakers and your waves crash down on me
I'll recall your safety scheme
You're the one who made the waves
And your Son went out to suffer in my place
And to tell me that I'm safe

Why am I down?
Why so disturbed?
I am satisfied in you