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Therefore, I will now persuade her,
and bring her into the wilderness,
and speak tenderly to her.
And I will take you for my wife for ever;
I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice,
in steadfast love, and in mercy.
I will take you for my wife in faithfulness;
and you shall know the Lord.
by Steven Rodriguez
“The contemplative is one who is forced to acknowledge the ‘messy entanglement’ of sexual desire and the desire for God.” –– Sarah Coakley
Augustine once wrote that the Holy Spirit “inflames” us for a love of God. This is not abstract, symbolic talk about fire. It is the language of love. Can we really use such passionate, intimate language for God? Is that okay? And yet, that is exactly what has happened with Hosea. He has encountered a love of God so passionate that the edges of his existence have started to melt a little bit, like sandals too close to a fire pit on a summer night.
We are uncomfortable with Hosea’s language because it is so unstable, so dangerous, so close to idolatry, so susceptible to misuse for violence and oppression. We might say that this language for God and on behalf of God is inadequate, that God should speak according to our own standards of ethical decorum. But our decorum is just that — decoration, facade, an edifice of do-goodery in desperate need of dismantling and holy erosion. There is no moral high ground from which we can judge Hosea. We are traveling up the same mountain that he is. Maybe we should pay attention to what he has seen on ahead of us.
Hosea also makes us uncomfortable because he has this mystical experience of God not as a “pure,” celibate monk alone in a cave, but as a man torn up by a broken marriage and misdirected sexual passion. One thing a modern reading of Hosea has given us is a new understanding that it is not just his wife Gomer who is sinful and broken. Hosea’s sexuality is also out of order and misdirected. And yet this is the person through whom God speaks. We are extremely uncomfortable with the thought that God would speak in and through such a messed up situation. But Hosea challenges us to take both God’s otherness and God’s nearness more seriously. Only a God who is wholly other would be able to offer us a true salvation beyond our broken sexualities. And yet, we are stunned by the depth of the incarnation, that God would reach down in the power of the Spirit and take up Hosea’s words, words about sex and desire and marriage, and use them to save us!
And what if this fiery condescending love of the Spirit actually breaks apart our sexuality and puts it back together, a long painful process of sanctification? What if we actually need the word of the Lord from Hosea to unseat our settled sexualities and set them on a new course of desire toward God and God’s beauty, goodness, and truth?
It’s no accident that Augustine spoke of the inflaming, disorienting love of God at the end of his massive book on the Trinity. After hundreds and hundreds of pages of wrestling with who God is, he ends not with the certainty of reason but the irresistibility of passion. The breakdown of our knowledge of God doesn’t leave us in despair, it leads us home to an ever more passionate knowing. Hosea says the same when he declares that “you shall know the Lord.” Shall we?
Steven Rodriguez is a minister of the Reformed Church in America, serving as the pastor of Lakeview Community Church (RCA) in Greece, New York. You can follow him on Twitter @smarcorodriguez.