In the Book of Hosea, shortly before Israel is captured by Assyria and its people carried into captivity, the Lord issues a poignant declaration through the mouth of His prophet. He says that when Israel returns to Him, He “will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope.” The Valley of Achor was the place where Achan, a member of Joshua’s army, was taken after he looted possessions from Jericho against the Lord’s command. He and his entire family were found guilty, then stoned, then burned. The valley is named in the aftermath of their executions. Valley of Achor translates as valley of trouble.
As Hosea speaks, Israel is collapsing and on the cusp of violent takeover by foreign powers, its integrity eroded by a line of corrupt kings, its people increasingly given to idolatry. The nation is walking into its valley of trouble, and in this context, Hosea makes a prophetic declaration of how the Lord will meet them there.
Through Hosea, the Lord references a place in Israel’s memory that must have been associated with physical and spiritual impasse: a valley, shadowed by mountains on every side, remembered as a place where guilt is found out and punished. And yet the Lord says that he will make this valley a door. On the other side of that door there will be hope. He identifies a site that Israel recognized as a place of despair and inverts its meaning, and foreshadows what he will do through the ministry of Jesus Christ, which is to make a way where there appears to be none.
America has its own valleys of trouble: institutionalized racism, entrenched misogyny, a growing class divide, a troubling disregard for the old and the unborn. The list goes on, and I don’t think I need God in order to identify the many ways in which our nation has dug itself into a hole. I begin to think that the test of my faith comes from whether or not I can orient myself toward the door He has placed in the valley.
Historically, I have excelled at finding and describing the valleys. When my Christianity morphs into self-righteousness and my passion for social justice turns every conversation into The Woke Olympics, I can hardly control my urge to critique everything I see. I am not against critique. I think it is essential to growth, and to protecting us from arrogance, but when critiques are all I have to offer, I find that I only lead people into despair. In those moments it is like I am giving an incomplete prophesy: I speak at length about the Valley of Achor and help my listeners assess it thoroughly, but at the end of my speech, they are still stuck. If I am long on assessment and short on revelation, I am not asking enough of the Lord.
There is still a clear need for the Church and for individual believers to expose wrongdoing, especially when other voices are silent. Hosea spent time enumerating the errors that Israel was called to repent for, and I believe that part of exercising our prophetic voice requires talking about our nation’s most persistent sins. We cannot be afraid of naming misogyny, white supremacy, racist immigration policy, the killing of the unborn, endemic poverty, the military industrial complex, for-profit prisons, our exploitation of the environment.
This is not an exhaustive list. There is plenty more for the Church to reckon with. But I think that like Hosea, the Church must also render a vision of restoration. Hosea gives voice to the Lord’s promise that He will respond to Israel’s repentance: “In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds in the sky and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” – Hosea 2:18
When I think about how often I have seen Christians berate one another or berate the world for various mistakes, and about how little this berating seems to accomplish, I feel strongly that rebuke cannot be all the Church has to offer. For example, having a youth group leader yell at me for flirting did not make me more pure. Being told during Bible study that I was rude and overly opinionated did not make me a more thoughtful communicator. At the time I simply rolled my eyes, and although the company I keep as an adult are too polite to respond in that way, I feel myself having the same effect when I lecture friends or colleagues about my causes. Purity, thoughtful communication, social justice are all important things, but no amount of impassioned finger-pointing will bring people to value them.
I thank God for the people who showed me a door of hope. Women in my college small group taught me to marvel at and celebrate the body God has given me. The pastor who mentored my transition into adulthood demonstrated a loving usage of words that changed the way I spoke. When Jesus preached His message, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand,” I believe He presented the door of hope that Hosea spoke of. A simple message of “repent” would have left the open question of what we could turn to after leaving our sin behind. Saying the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand meant that there was something else ahead. Like Jesus, the people who shaped my faith compelled me by painting a clear picture of what I could hope for on the other side of my brokenness. In conversations regarding our country’s opportunities for repentance and change, I hope the Church can compel in the same way.
It challenges me to imagine a complete prophetic message. I wrestle daily with how the Church can offer a visionary alternative in addition to identifying brokenness. However, I am thankful to see glimpses of the Church’s prophetic nature in the believers around me.
When I met my friend Gwen she was working in a legal clinic representing death row inmates. I asked why she was in her line of work. Gwen told me she was a survivor of multiple sexual assaults and had initially hoped to build a career as a prosecutor. Her goal had been to enforce maximum sentencing for men like the ones who wronged her. But she was moved by the Gospels, by the person of Jesus, and by the message of mercy triumphing over judgment. In response, she chose to focus her career on showing mercy to people in the most merciless places: prisons, courtrooms, death row. However broken the prison system, the justice system and the people they affect, I am grateful that Gwen knows the shape of the valley and has positioned herself to point to an open door.
Alongside Gwen’s example, the best summation of the Church’s prophetic calling comes from a conversation I had with my husband, David, years ago. He and I had both began our careers in the social sector, and were in the habit of discussing each other’s work in the evenings. At the time he was facing a prolonged challenge at his office, and as we analyzed the situation together night after night, I grew frustrated with what I saw as people’s unwillingness to just deal with the problem. I told him, half jokingly, that he should just tell everyone off and let the situation go to hell. I still think about how he responded. He said that he didn’t think it was his job to condemn anyone. He said his job was to keep finding ways for people to do the right thing, and to make it easier for them to choose righteousness.