The Shame of Being Loved Unconditionally

Unconditional love is difficult to bear because paradoxically as it conjures up our hope it triggers our shame.

Returning home can be a bitter-sweet experience. Over the course of hours we transitioned last weekend from the traditional stone farmhouse in which we’d spent a month – unplugged and secluded among the vines and plum orchards of Loubes-Bernac on the border between Lot Et Garonne and Périgord-Dordogne. Let me take a short detour down memory lane.

Al and I first came to this region of Southwest France, 80 miles inland from Bordeaux some 30 years ago as very poor Church of England curates, grateful for  the offer of a free house for a couple of weeks. Over three decades we were regular visitors to the area. Following moving to the US in 2008, there was a break in our pattern for several years as we worked to reestablish our lives in a new country and culture. It’s a joy to now find we are able once again to return each year for the month of July, just before the explosion of the French holiday month of August.

This is a region not well known to Americans who seem to prefer the Loire with its grand chateaux and the more romantic sounding Provence and the Rhone Valley. However, if you want a feel for this region of Périgord-Dordogne, I recommend Martin Walker’s series featuring Bruno, a former soldier turned policeman, who as its Chief of Police has embraced the pleasures and slow rhythms of country life in the idyllic village of St. Denis.

Returning home can be a bitter-sweet experience, for going away enables a moment of fresh perspective on one’s everyday context. Driving into Providence last Sunday evening I was aware of two vying impressions. I felt gratitude for the good fortune of living in such a lovely place. But why did Providence have to be in a United States wracked with the political and social upheavals of 2019-20? I don’t mean to sound down on the US and actually, the thing that makes this slightly more bearable is a thankfulness that Providence is not situated in the United Kingdom at this time.

It seems wherever we live we find ourselves in uncertain times. We will need every ounce of the courage to keep faith and hope alive amidst unparalleled levels of domestic and international political turbulence unfolding against the backdrop of the relentless rise of the earth’s temperature and impending climate changes, that may prove irrevocable.

The Prophet Hosea also lived in challenging times -roughly between 786 and 721 BC. His prophecy ends with the destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721, an event preceded by 20 years of escalating crisis. Hosea is the first book of the 12 Minor Prophets, minor not because of the insignificance of their message but because of the shortness of the books that bear their names.

Hosea lived in a time of growing recklessness in foreign policy – Israel and her feckless rulers seeking to play off the two global powers of Egypt and Assyria against each other. Domestically, he lived in a time of increasing spiritual corruption and social degradation marked by the Israelite abandonment of the covenant with the Lord to worship at the feet of other gods. Hosea predicted God’s punishment; a punishment that finally came to pass in the crisis of 721-20. In 721 the Assyrians captured Samaria bringing the Northern Kingdom of Israel to a disastrous end.

This event represented the destruction of 10 of Israel’s 12 tribes, leaving only Judah and Benjamin inhabiting the Southern Kingdom as the remnant of the once mighty nation. The Assyrians sent the higher escallons of the 10 tribes into foreign captivity – from which they would never return. Into a largely vacant land they implanted foreign groups. Over time, intermarriage between these foreign populations with the remnants of the Hebrew population left behind created the mixed-race Samaritans much reviled by the Jews of Jesus’s day.

Hosea is unusual among the minor prophets in that it’s not just his words that form the core of his prophetic message. Hosea role plays his prophecies through the unhappy events in his domestic life. Hosea’s domestic life provides a role-play – symbolic of the unhappy dynamics between God and an unfaithful people.

Hosea had been marked out by God to be unhappy in love for God asked Hosea to marry a woman named Gomer with the promise that she would be unfaithful to him. Sure enough, after bearing him three children Gomer left him to become a prostitute. Hosea was reduced to the humiliation of nightly roaming the streets of Samaria in search of his wife only to find himself outside the door of her latest client.

His friends remonstrated with him, asking how could he debase his dignity in this way? Hosea replied that his unconditional love for Gomer was a representation of God’s love for an adulterous people, Israel.

Hosea takes his wife back, pays off her debts, and prophesizes the destruction and ruin of the kingdom as a punishment for foreign misadventures and the people’s infidelity. Through prophecies of doom and gloom Hosea works his way through to a remarkable ending. Because Hosea will not abandon Gomer, neither will God abandon his people. Despite punishment, God resolutely refuses to stop loving Israel, for his love is long suffering and unconditional.

God’s unconditional love holds a promise that we can be better than we are, that we can become liberated from the isolation of self, and so mourn the enormities of our infidelities.

We are a people who like Israel also worship at the feet of other gods. But it’s God’s unconditional love the holds the promise that we can be better than we are. This is not an invitation to a process of self improvement on our part, it’s an invitation that requires submission to the searchlight of God’s love for us. The promise is that we can be loved into becoming better than we currently are. As we face the challenges of the times in which we live, will we agree to the terms of this promise, I wonder?

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