Hosea is one of my favorite books of the Bible. It’s difficult to read because of the heavy content, and I probably don’t read it often enough because of that, but the message is so important. In case it’s been a while, the gist of Hosea’s story is this: God instructs him to marry a prostitute and be a father to the children born out of her profession.
Hosea participates in this strange undertaking in order to be a living, breathing, visible example of God’s own relationship with His adulterous wife, Israel. My heart just sinks. I wish I wasn’t like that adulterous wife, but I am her more often than I’d like to admit. God says to Israel, to us, “I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings,” (Hosea 6:6).
Like a bad re-run though, they and we keep asking God over and over again, “Can’t you see what we just did?” They pointed to their animal sacrifices to show Him how good their behavior was, when behind His back they were showing some serious love to their idols as well. They put on a show of obedience and religion, but their hearts were far from God.
This has been me. I’ve served in ministry on and off for almost 20 years. I pray, read my bible, have my “quiet time,” and all too often call it a day to get on to the stuff I can see (and let’s be honest, the stuff other people can see too). And, there’s nothing wrong with the stuff — worship team, Bible studies, soup kitchen, Sunday school teacher. The stuff is good.
The problem in my life (and yours) is when I’m tempted to show it off to God. To make sure I point out everything I’ve done for Him lately, like He’s going to be impressed by my “spiritual” resume that doesn’t actually have much to do with spirituality at all. It’s taken me a long time to realize what He sent Hosea to proclaim to His people — He doesn’t want my empty religious works, He wants me. He’s much less interested in my “doing for” Him than my “being with” Him.
Centuries later, Jesus looked over the crowds of religious people in Israel and lamented, crushed that so many of them still didn’t understand after all those years since the prophets’ words, including Hosea’s. He declared over Israel what they already knew in their hearts knew to be true. That so many of them, the ones in leadership especially, cared more about doing all the things, trying to maintain their reputations, than they cared about the people they were supposed to be serving and the weighty matters affecting them like justice and mercy and faith.
You can almost hear the pain in His voice when He says:
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,’” (Matthew 23:37-39, RSV).
But this is far from one sided. Yes He wants to be with us, but Jesus also knows our contentment in life can come only from Him. The problem is not just our wanting to “please” Him with our sacrifices and offerings. The problem is we think those things feed us as well, but the truth is they’re empty calories. Doing all of the things for God feels good and looks good, but it acts like fast-food for the soul. We drive through, scratch our itch to serve, gratify our craving to do good, but without Jesus at the center, there’s no nutrients for us or the people we’re trying to reach. Jesus is the only one who can make us truly content. We find our very life in Him.
You can hear it there at the end of Jesus’s proclamation. He longs for the day when they, when we, will sincerely proclaim our love for Him. What He wants is for us to be satisfied in Him. We won’t get there by doing mere duties of religion while placing our affections elsewhere. The One who came to free us from bondage and forgive our sins can’t wait for the day when we give up our pretenses and shamelessly sit with Him, uninhibited by our own need for achievement.
No act of ours will ever stand up in comparison to His perfect act, so He calls us to quit putting on and bear our hearts toward Him. No more prostituting ourselves. He wants us to reach for knowledge of Him, not quest for our contribution. Because He loves us, He also knows it’s best for us. He knows only His Spirit can satisfy, not our stuff. Just being loved by Him, showing love in return, and seeking with all our hearts to know Him more. He desires our steadfast love over our sacrifices. He’ll take our being over our doing every time.