Most people know me as a New Testament scholar. To keep my reading of Scripture balanced, however, I do most of my devotions from the Old Testament. Indeed, I have encountered God especially deeply in prophetic books such as Hosea and Jeremiah, where God laments over his people who have wandered far from him. God intended for his people to have an intimate relationship with him, a covenant relationship that the Bible compares with marriage.
In Hosea, we hear God’s broken heart, his longing for his covenant people, who were so often unfaithful to him. And they actually turned against him, the very one who helped them (Hos. 13:9). God later lamented through the prophet Jeremiah, “My people have committed two wrongs: They abandoned me, the spring of flowing waters, and have dug out for themselves water pits—broken water pits that cannot hold water” (Jer. 2:13).
Yet God, even in his anger, remained faithful to Israel. In his jealous love, God declared that he would strip them of what they valued, the gifts they wrongly attributed to false gods, so they could learn to depend solely on him (Hos. 2:8–13).
Gripped by God’s love, I preached one of my first sermons—as a college student—on Hosea 11:8. Here, in the midst of pronouncing judgment on his people, God’s voice breaks with his love for them: “How can I do to you like I did to Admah and Zeboiim?” Admah and Zeboyim were, like Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that God had overturned in his anger and burned (Deut. 29:23). Not wanting to treat Israel like he had treated these cities, God cries, “My heart is overturned within me; all my compassion grows warm!” God chooses to endure the overturning and burning within himself and eventually promises to lead his people out of exile (Hos. 11:8–11).
God’s love for his unfaithful people is demonstrated concretely in Hosea’s marriage to an unfaithful woman (1:2). Hosea eventually divorces her for her unfaithfulness, signifying God’s judgment on Israel (2:1–3). Though scholars debate whether Hosea took back his unfaithful wife in chapter 3, I believe he did, in order to portend Israel’s restoration.
After finishing college, I performed a one-person play based on the story of Hosea, which I did time and again in subsequent years when teaching on the book. What I never expected, however, was that part of Hosea’s story would eventually become my own.
Rejected by My Lover
In my last semester of seminary, my wife began to talk of turning away from God, and her entire behavior quickly changed. In prayer, I sensed God telling me that she was being unfaithful. I took that to mean she was being unfaithful to him. But when she and her best friend’s husband both disappeared one weekend, I realized the awful truth. Upon returning a few days later, she announced that she was going to leave me and marry her best friend’s husband.
The two things that mattered most to me were my marriage and my ministry. Now it seemed that both were shattered beyond hope. At the time, my denomination offered little hope of ministry for those whose marriages had ended. (Thankfully, they have since changed their policy.)
I was devastated. I no longer felt God’s presence. I couldn’t pray, except only to utter Jesus’s name repeatedly. For years I had secretly feared that if my faith and sense of God’s presence were shattered, I would lapse back into my youthful atheism. Now I was too broken and numb to feel anything. I needed to be around other people to feed off their will to live. Yet somehow I could doubt neither God nor his presence.
Unable to sleep one night, I went outside for a walk. A police officer stopped me, noting that someone had reported a strange man walking around the neighborhood. I apologized and told him that I could not sleep because my wife was leaving me. A look of compassion crossed the officer’s face, and he said, “Oh, I went through that last year. You go ahead and walk.”
As I walked and prayed, I felt God cut through the numbness of my heart and say, “My child, your wife has not done anything to you—as Hosea’s wife did not do anything to him—that my people have not done to me. Day and night, I call to them in my love. And day and night, most of them are wrapped up in things they love more than me.”
My own pain helped me to see more clearly the heart of God. He loves us more than we could ever imagine, and his heart is broken for those who have rejected him, who have pursued fleeting pleasures rather than the everlasting pleasure found in knowing him. His just anger that thunders through the prophets is something like the anguish of a betrayed and deeply wounded spouse (Hos. 1:6–3:5).
One day I visited an evangelical Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation, and the preacher was teaching from the Book of Hosea. I shared with him my hope that my story would end like Hosea’s. But the minister rightly warned me that God might not write such an ending for me.
After two and a half years, my wife procured the divorce, on grounds of physical separation. She then married her friend’s husband, and I had to surrender my hope of her return. I emphasized to both of them that I loved them and forgave them. How could I not forgive, when I myself have often forgotten and neglected God’s faithful, unrelenting love, yet have been forgiven by him?
Lessons of a Broken Heart
Until she secured the divorce, I did whatever I could to prevent it. Desperate for our marriage to heal and fearful for my wife’s spiritual welfare, I was ready to do anything to seek restoration. As long as I had hope that my beloved might return, I was willing to endure the pain of rejection. But I was not always hopeful, and sometimes I just wanted my anguish to end.
I realized that God is far more patient than I could ever be. Yet the Bible suggests that even for God there is a point of no return. In his infinite love, God chose to send his Son to suffer the pain of the cross, rather than endure the pain of our eternal alienation from him. Yet if, despite God’s faithful endurance, people continue to reject his redeeming love, God eventually gives them over to the separation that they have chosen.
As believers, we have not rejected the cross. But sometimes even we are unfaithful to God. He desires our intimate trust in him. And too often we pursue what the world values instead of pursing God with our whole being. Sometimes we are more like infants than mature children. We call on God when we need him but forget that he passionately loves us, and that he wants to have a dynamic, marriage-like relationship with us. And sometimes even in pursuing all our religious activities, we forget what matters most. As a result, we fail to love him in return and to love other people the way he does.
God’s Faithful Love
God is patient and faithful. He nurtures us as we grow. But sometimes, like ancient Israel, we need his discipline so that our affection might be redirected toward him. If God chooses to strip us of things that we value, it is because he loves us and wants us to learn to value what ultimately matters.
In the season of my separation and divorce, I feared that my own life was over. I felt useless for God’s kingdom. One Christian couple even broke fellowship with me, declaring that my wife’s leaving me must be a sign of God’s judgment on me.
Yet my sense that God was urging me to serve him always burned within my heart, despite my doubt that God could ever use me again. I kept leading people to Christ, discipling students, and preparing for the calling that I sensed God had given me. And God kept meeting my needs, often in unexpected ways.
Now, three decades later, I thank God for preserving me through that difficult time. He has been so kind to use me, sometimes in church ministry but especially in teaching and in writing books.
I still neglect God’s love at times. Yet he reminds me of his love and draws me back to himself. It is difficult to understand why anyone could experience God’s love and not begin to fall madly in love with him. Even in the midst of our brokenness—perhaps especially in the midst of our brokenness—his faithful love is present. That, too, is a message Hosea shows us. The God with the broken heart, whose love is everlasting, pursued us as far as the cross.
Craig Keener is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and co-author of the forthcoming book Impossible Love (Chosen Books, 2016).