Until last week, most people hearing the phrase "Runaway Bride" would probably have first thought of the Gary Marshall movie that debuted in 1999 and starred Richard Gere and Julia Roberts. Now of course, that phrase is reflective of a real-life situation, and all of Gwinett County Georgia is up in arms about Jennifer Wilbanks' decision to go AWOL and then lie about it.
But there is in this story a powerful example of true, Biblical grace. Perhaps this is why most in our culture simply cannot begin to understand why her fiance John Mason is still committed to her.
Let's face it: Our culture knows little, if anything, of true commitment. Pundits and talk-show callers have all weighed in on this situation already, with most speaking in favor of severe retribution for what this obviouslly confused woman has done. Personally, I see many paralells between this story and another one, which took place about 2800 years ago.
The story of Hosea is much more tragic than last week's tale. Here, God tells this prophet to the Northern Kingdom to marry Gomer, and predicts that she will, in a very short time, become a "woman of harlotry." Can you imagine being in ministry with a slut for a wife? Probably not, as most churches would fire you on the spot the moment something like this was found out! But this was God's plan for Hosea, principally because He wanted to demonstrate the more offensive adultery that was taking place each day in Israel, as God's people "stepped out" on Him to court and worship idols.
In other words, 8th century B.C. Israel wasn't much different from 21st Century America. We are a culture adrift in relativism and self-centered individualism. And these worldly values are as present inside the church as they are anywhere else! As a result, commitment is not something we value. . . . .
. . . . . .This church didn't do what I wanted, or someone offended me, or someone made me angry, so I'll just leave . . . . .
. . . . . . .This person isn't who I thought he/she was. I'm just not as happy and fulfilled as I thought I would be, so I'll just get a divorce and move on . . . . . . .
Is it any wonder that in the middle of this cultural environment so many would look at the "runaway bride" situation and wonder if John Mason had lost his mind?
But this story, like the story of Hosea, serves as something of a modern-day narrative example of grace. In fact, there are several realities this story teaches that become apparent when one looks beneath the surface:
1. Human beings are prone to do illogical, even stupid things, for no apparent reason. According to those who know Jennifer Willbanks best, this was not at all in her character. Her father has recently been heard on the radio, making known his wishes that the public would get to know the "real Jennifer." Everyone blows it!
2. There are (and will be in this case, I'm sure) consequences to wrong behavior. Gomer's loose sexual living eventually caused her to end up on the auction block as a slave. And in this case, Miss Willbanks is probably looking at legal consequences for lying about her supposed "kidnapping" and costing the Alberquerque, NM and Gwinnett County, GA residents to the tune of $100,000. It is, therefore, appropriate that she answer for what she has done, not only to her family and future husband, but also to the public at large.
Understanding and forgiveness does not preclude the natural, and sometimes legal, consequences that come as a result of our mistakes. The repentant homosexual who is freely forgiven in Christ may still die of AIDS. The recovering alcoholic who has been sober for 12 years may still have to live with liver problems, and the glutton who loses weight may still have to pay years later with heart disease. Sin, by default, brings trouble, and when we make our proverbial bed, we sometimes have to lie in it.
3. Even Christian people are incomplete people. Those of us who are among the "redeemed" and still live on earth are unfinished works of God. No doubt the media will make a huge issue of the fact that these were both strong Christian families. Stories like this one remind us that while justification is instantaneous, salvation as a whole is a process that is worked out over the course of our lives as children of God. God is still working on Jennifer Willbanks, as well as the rest of us.
4. God's love is truly unconditional, and was illustrated beautifully this week by John Mason. Mason will be touted as a love-sick, desparate, and foolish husband-to-be. I'm sure Hosea was looked at with the same degree of cynicism. Again, our culture, including many inside the visible church, knows next to nothing of commitment, but this man has lived it, even before saying "I do." In an interview with Sean Hannity on FOX News, Mason testified that even though they were not yet married, "I believe in God's eyes, when I put that engagement ring on her finger, my lifetime commitment to her started then."
No one would deny that this woman deserves to face pretty tough consequences for her actions. But reflecting on this story, it's parallel to Hosea, and subsequent illustration of our relationship with God has reminded me that I too, deserve the most severe of consequences for my rebellion against the One who created me.
Just like Israel, our culture doesn't understand this husband's love because it doesn't understand commitment. But God is faithful, even when we are faithless.