Cat Burglars, Pancakes, and Hand Mirrors

“Put first things first and second things are thrown in. Put second things first and you lose both first and second things.”  C. S. Lewis

Bill McDonald writes our article this week. Bill has a PhD in Old Testament and Hebrew (2005, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary), and he is a Ruling Elder at Highlands. 

Cat Burglars, Pancakes, and Hand Mirrors

What on earth do these things have in common? Stay tuned.

The Old Testament prophets were masters of metaphor, or word pictures. And tucked away in the pages of Hosea are some of the most effective word pictures in the Bible. Here’s how they work: The prophet will start with an object from everyday life to create an image in the mind’s eye. He then reveals a spiritual condition illustrated by the particular image. The idea is to get the reader (or listener) to identify with and engage in the circumstance evoked by the picture and then ‘uncover’ the spiritual truth behind it.

The Book of Hosea is addressed to Israelites who are completely out of touch with reality. The prophet makes this point through images of thieves lurking around the house (7:1); a cake burning on the griddle unturned (7:8); and gray hairs popping up unnoticed in the mirror (7:9). As the reader, we are drawn into the pictures and want to shout, ‘Hey, there’s a thief in your house! . . . It’s time to flip the pancakes! . . . Your hair is turning gray!’ And then, Hosea turns back the cover and reveals the spiritual truth –

  • “you have forgotten the law of your God” (4:6)
  • “you have strayed from me . . . rebelled against me . . . spoken lies against me” (7:13)
  • “you have turned away from me” (7:14)“you

Now, there’s nothing wrong with gray hair. But here we see a person who looks in the mirror and does not notice that their hair is changing at all. They think conditions are one way when they are another.

Oscar Wilde depicts such a situation in his insightful novel on the human condition, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Dorian was a young man whose ageless beauty was captured in an exquisite portrait. On first seeing the finished painting, Dorian is at once overwhelmed by his own beauty and horrified to realize that it will not last. The knowledge that the image in the painting will appear forever youthful, while he himself will deteriorate from the effects of age and sinful living is too much for Dorian to bear. In desperation he cries out that he might always remain as youthful as the image in the portrait; and, to his delight, over time his prayer seems to be answered. The problem is that with every vile thought and secret sin, the once beautiful portrait grows more and more hideous, reflecting the true nature of Dorian’s soul. As the years pass, though he remains outwardly youthful, he is oblivious to how destructive his behavior has become to himself and others.

Just like the character Dorian Gray, Hosea’s word pictures depict the people of God going about their daily lives unaware of the clear and present destruction around them. Why? Because little by little, day by day, they had become more enamored with themselves and less devoted to the LORD. They were more comfortable in their circumstances and less dependent on God’s provision, and they no longer needed to depend on Him. Consequently, they were desensitized to their true condition. What foolish Israelites! I know, right?

But is that not the true character of sin, to distract and mislead our attention? Our human natures and the culture around us encourage us to paint self-portraits that portray something other than reality, because we do not believe that if others saw us as we are, they would like us quite as much. In fact, when we catch a glimpse of our true selves, we often don’t like what we see. That’s because God himself is our source of truth; he is our reality. When we focus too much on our circumstances, good or bad, our point of reference begins to shift from a reality grounded in eternal truth to a false reality grounded on temporal things that disappear “like a morning cloud and like the dew which goes away early” (Hos. 6:4). And like the Israelites, we lose sight of what’s really going on around us.

But there’s hope in the rest of the book of Hosea. His message, indeed the gospel message is that God pursues us and redeems us out of our own false reality. “All his compassions are kindled” toward us in Christ (11:8); “there is no savior besides him” (13:4). Christ understands us the way we really are; he sees the true darkness of our soul, and he is not intimidated by what he sees. Jesus’s birth, life, crucifixion, and resurrection all demonstrate his great work to come alongside us, accept us just as we are and bear the burden of our sin. When God looks at you and me, he sees right past the deceptive self-portraits that we create, and he sees the beauty and perfection of Christ.

So take courage; the gospel calls us back to reality. The solution is twofold:

  1. Regain our connection with reality. “Return to the LORD your God . . . say to him, ‘take away all iniquity, and receive us graciously’” (14:1). We do this by asking God to uncover our false self-portraits and expose them to the light of Christ’s truth, and to enable us to turn our attention away from ourselves and back to Him. This is an ongoing process, and Christ never gives up on us.
  2. Maintain our touch with reality. How? Through the daily disciplines of the Christian life. Or, in good Presbyterian jargon, the means of grace. The Word – We absorb the Scriptures into our life through reading, studying, memorizing, meditating, and hearing. Find a few minutes every day and devote yourself to knowing and doing God’s word. Prayer – confession, praise, thanksgiving, intercession for others, expressing our anxieties to God. These all are ways that we can pray, alone or with others, anytime, anywhere. The Sacraments – It’s a little challenging to observe communion and baptism together in this current environment, but one day soon, we’ll be present again as a community of faith. In the meantime, we can huddle with those in our home; we can reach out to a fellow believer by phone; and we can connect virtually to the larger community of faith through online worship. Let’s be the church to one another and let others be the church to us.