“I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6, NLT).
The Old Testament used to be taught in schools as a regular part of the curriculum. Children grew up knowing the names and order of the books, the characters and their stories. Now it’s rare to learn the Bible in school and almost as rare for people to know much about it. Watch Jeopardy! and you’ll see—when a category is about the Bible, most of the contestants don’t even ring in. Consequently, what people have heard or believe about the Old Testament is that it’s filled with accounts of a mean, angry God who kills thousands at the drop of a hat.
While it’s true a lot of people died for reasons we don’t quite understand, God is not the ogre some infer from the more violent parts of the Bible. Tucked away in the little book of Hosea we see what is really going on in God’s heart and what has been there all along. From the beginning, he has been more interested in love and mercy. He wants us to acknowledge him as God and know him. It has always been more important to him that we share in his life, enjoy his company and walk and talk with him. In his son Jesus and through the Holy Spirit, he has made sure we see the big picture and know the truth of who he is.
“So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired” (Romans 1:24a, NLT).
Reading the Bible is easy, right? Except when we read things into it that it doesn’t really say. We have to be careful to remember the context, audience, culture, language, which is constantly changing, and other factors we may not even be aware of. We also have to remember our own culture, context, upbringing, experiences and prejudices, all of which color how we perceive what’s being said. It’s good to keep in mind the famous words of Inigo Montoya (Princess Bride): “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
When we read this verse, we think it means God writes off anyone who commits a sin. That’s it, I’ve had it with you, out of my sight, you filthy rotten scoundrel. Or words to that effect. But God is not like us and verses like this are not an excuse to judge, belittle or arrogantly feel superior to anyone. We have all sinned. Christ died for everyone. No one is better than anyone else, because at the foot of the cross we are equal. God doesn’t automatically abandon sinners—if he did, we’ll all be out on the street. He does give us a lot of room to exercise our freedom to do what we want, but he still loves us, still works in our lives and I believe, never gives up on anyone. We don’t know all the answers, but if you believe God is love and believe in his grace and mercy, you must believe he won’t abandon any of his children, but will do anything in his power (and that’s a lot of power!) to bring them home.
“Where is another God like you, who pardons the guilt of the remnant, overlooking the sins of his special people? You will not stay angry with your people forever, because you delight in showing unfailing love” (Micah 7:18, NLT).
Movies often portray scenes of torture, which is difficult to watch. I always wonder how the torturer would feel if the tables were turned. Sometimes they are and the audience expresses pleasure that the one inflicting the pain gets some back. Torturing people for one reason or another is a practice as old as time and it seems in a twisted way, delights the one responsible. Humans are good at inflicting all kinds of pain, without thinking of how it affects others.
Some think God enjoys punishing us when we take wrong turns in life and make bad choices. Stories of hell-fire and eternal torture used to be popular and those ideas have stuck with us in our modern day. This verse tells us God takes no delight in our pain, rather the opposite is true. Any anger he feels is because of the horrible consequences of sin and how much it hurts us. He is actually slow to anger and doesn’t hold a sword over our heads or fire under our feet. He takes great delight in showing love and mercy and is eager to forgive. His love and mercy are unfailing and eternal.
“‘I’m in a desperate situation!’ David replied to Gad. ‘But let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is very great. Do not let me fall into human hands’” (1 Chronicles 21:13, NLT).
Not too long ago, stories of man’s inhumanity to man shocked people. Now, books, movies and video games depicting cruel acts are so common and ubiquitous we’ve become insensitive to pain and even death. Studies are showing that kids growing up today will have seen so much violence by the time they’re adults, they will be rather indifferent to it and might even have trouble distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not.
When David found himself between a rock and a hard place (due to his own stupidity), he knew he’d be better off in the hands of God than man. He knew how cruel people could be to each other and decided to take his chances with God. Actually, he knew it wasn’t much of a risk because he had already experienced God’s love and mercy. If you read the whole chapter, you’ll see what looks like a cruel act on God’s part and no, I don’t really understand it either. But David trusted God to be merciful and understood grace even then. We can put ourselves in his merciful hands too—it’s better than the alternative!
“So it is God who decides to show mercy. We can neither choose it nor work for it” (Romans 9:16, NLT).
When I was a little girl, I watched the TV show “Bewitched” and wished I could wiggle my nose and make magic. Not only could I not make anything happen, I couldn’t even wiggle my nose without using my fingers. So much for magic. Unfortunately some see God as a sort of magical being whom we can manipulate or use spells to get him to do our bidding (insert legalistic works or special prayers). This simply makes Christians look stupid, God look silly or helpless and makes detractors laugh and jeer.
The truth is God is all powerful. He won’t be manipulated, coerced or influenced by anything we do to get on his “good side.” Our machinations on God have the same effect as wiggling our noses to make our vacuum cleaners move across the carpet. He loves all equally, showers his grace and kindness on all and shows mercy as he chooses, not capriciously or whimsically, but in his great wisdom and love. No nose wiggling—or any other kind of effort on our part—required.
“He saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” Titus 3:5a, NLT).
Many people, both inside and outside church, believe the only way to be in God’s favor is to be good and to do good things for others. Even some who believe in grace often hold fears deep inside that it might not be enough. Or they think grace and forgiveness are God’s side of the deal, and we still have to do our part, including racking up points for a reward in heaven.
All we know is the system of works and rewards, so we mistakenly think God’s system is the same. God could have set it up that way, much the way things work on earth, but he didn’t. He doesn’t practice noblesse oblige, which is “the moral obligation of those of high birth, powerful social position, etc., to act with honor, kindliness, generosity, etc.” (dictionary.com). He saves out of his incredible mercy, pure and simple. It’s mercy that extends from the most evil of sinners to the sweetest grandmas, high, wide and deep enough for the whole world. And there is no “our part.” He’s done it all.
“The Lord is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love” (Psalm 145:8, NLT).
I once watched a man climb on his coffee table, shake his fist in the air and yell, “Come on God, if you’re there, hit me with lightning!” Fortunately for him, nothing happened, but I was shaking in my shoes. I had never seen anything like it except perhaps in a movie. I marveled, thinking he just didn’t know what he was doing.
God didn’t strike him with proverbial lightning that day. He is slow to get angry and filled with love that never fails. God loved the man on the coffee table that day, just as he loves everyone who shakes a fist in his face, not realizing who he is or how much he loves them. I’d love to see the look on his face when he meets God and gets a hug instead of the death sentence he was expecting. I’m sure he’ll see the mercy and compassion in the eyes of his Savior and accept the forgiveness he already has in Christ. Who knows—they might even have a laugh about the whole fist-shaking business. God does have a sense of humor!