Animal Crossing: My Virtual Life as a Bad Neighbor

Of all the challenges that have existed over the last few crazy years, Animal Crossing has been one of the few constant positives in a sea of trials and tribulations. The world of Animal Crossing is a bright, colorful, happy place where any player, regardless of skill level, can come to relax, unwind, and enjoy the simpler things in life like collecting insects, fishing, decorating, and stargazing. Even non-gamers or those who have never tried any of the previous releases in the series can jump right in with ease… the friendly villagers and local entrepreneurs gently guide newcomers through every second of the process… even if a few also happily charge a fairly exorbitant number of bells for their assistance (I’m looking at YOU, Tom Nook). For months I made a daily habit of checking in with my neighbors, performing my little list of chores and tasks, hunting seashells and catching butterflies… in the tough and often lonely times that we all faced during the pandemic, Animal Crossing provided an escape to a virtual world that made it a little easier to cope. No matter how gritty, lonely, and dark the outside world could be at any given time, the kindness of my virtual friends in Animal Crossing were always ready to push those feelings away, even if just for a short spell. It was an oasis that was always there for us whenever we needed it, whether it was to check on the value of turnips first thing in the morning or searching for rare insects during some long, sleepless hours at night.

I can’t pinpoint the exact moment this happened, but one day I didn’t stop to check in on my neighbors or collect my Nook miles… I didn’t even turn my Switch on. Maybe it was an unusually busy morning, or perhaps I just forgot. That one day turned into two. And then a week. After a few more weeks went by I realized I had missed some large seasonal events that I had previously been looking forward to. I suppose I could have done the whole “time-travel” thing and went back to see them… but to be honest, I didn’t really want to. And now here I sit, realizing that it has been MONTHS since I last played the game, and it is highly likely that many of the neighbors who had carried me through some of my most challenging and stressful days have probably moved on, left the game, and stopped waiting for me to ever return. I didn’t MEAN to simply use them and then discard them once I no longer needed them… it just HAPPENED.

This game and all of the characters that populate it were always faithful to me when I was at my lowest point… but I was less than faithful in return. I was the WORST kind of neighbor in a game that was built around being neighborly. Now sure, these are VIDEO GAME characters, so they aren’t REAL… but the truth is I find this pattern play out in my real life and my walk of faith more than I care to admit. I hate to say it, but there is a biblical character I can relate to here, and they aren’t someone that I am proud to identify with. Maybe you know her story, and maybe you don’t… it certainly isn’t the most popular or family-friendly story in the Bible. But that is what makes this individual’s story so important to understand, because as much as I enjoy hearing about the brave and heroic exploits accomplished by the heroines of our faith such as Esther, Deborah, and Ruth… the truth is I have a lot more in common with Gomer than I do any of these names I just mentioned. Don’t recognize her name? Well, we can find her challenging story in the book of Hosea…

Hosea 1:2-3 When the Lord began to speak by Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea: “Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land has committed great harlotry by departing from the Lord.” So he went and took Gomer the daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.

That’s a fine introduction, wouldn’t you say? As soon as we make our acquaintance with the prophet Hosea, we find out this his life is about to become an act of performance art for the Lord to send a message to the nation of Israel. We don’t get Hosea’s reaction, but I have a feeling that he wasn’t all that enthused about this unique mission. Either way, Hosea made his selection and chose the prostitute Gomer as his bride, and he began a little family with his new bride. Without knowing Gomer’s backstory, it is hard to have much to say about her except to hope that she is embracing this opportunity for a new start in life. She was pulled out of a life that didn’t present much of a future by a good and kind benefactor, and now she was given a fresh chance to explore some “New Horizons” of her own. Let’s see what she does with this opportunity.

Hosea 3:1-3 (The Message Bible) Then God ordered me, “Start all over: Love your wife again, your wife who’s in bed with her latest boyfriend, your cheating wife. Love her the way I, God, love the Israelite people, even as they flirt and party with every god that takes their fancy.” I did it. I paid good money to get her back. It cost me the price of a slave. Then I told her, “From now on you’re living with me. No more whoring, no more sleeping around. You’re living with me and I’m living with you.”

Poor Hosea just keeps drawing the short straw here… it had to be hard enough to be taken seriously as a prophet when your new wife is well-known in the community for all of the wrong reasons. But after giving Gomer a fresh chance at a new life that she had not earned, Hosea now has to go and BUY BACK his unfaithful bride as an example of the completely undeserving love that our Father has for us. After Gomer was given a second chance at life as the honorable wife of a good man, she fell right back into her old sins and demonstrated once again how unworthy she was of Hosea’s love and forgiveness. As a matter of fact, she didn’t even come to Hosea begging for forgiveness and reconciliation… he had to go out and find HER.

Here is a truth that is painful for me to admit… I would love to say that I can identify with Hosea in this story, but I don’t. MANY times in my life I have been Gomer… promising my life, love, and devotion to the Lord, only to eventually forget how good He has been to me and regress back into the old habits, sins, and self-serving lifestyle that He has delivered me from. Not because I intended to, but because I just slowly forgot about Him and all He has done for me. Just like my regression in Animal Crossing, one day turned to two…. then to a week… and next thing you know it has been months since I last truly connected. Animal Crossing wasn’t designed to be played and “finished”… it doesn’t even have an “ending”. It was designed to be played each day and through every season… an experience that only reveals all of its’ secrets to those who willingly invest their time into it on a consistent basis and remain committed to it.

Sadly, through my experience in the world of Animal Crossing I have realized that I am not a great virtual neighbor. And through the story of Gomer, I completely identify with her situation as the unworthy recipient of love from Someone who showered me with good gifts and brought me into His family, even though I have not consistently been a faithful follower in return. But here is the best part of the story… once Gomer was “bought back” by Hosea, we have no record of her ever leaving again. She finally made the decision to allow herself to be fully loved and to love in return. And I think that is why Gomer’s story is here in the Bible for us to read thousands of years later… to remind us that His faithfulness to us has NOTHING to do with our past or even our present faithlessness to Him. He loved us in our most UNLOVABLE state, and He remains committed to us regardless of our indiscretions and moral failures (Romans 5:8).

Just like Gomer, each of us were “bought back” after both being born into sin (Psalm 51:5) as well as making our own sinful choices (James 1:14). The Lord loves each and every one of His “Gomers”… not because we have a clean past, a pure heart, or because we chose Him first. He pulled us out of the miry clay we have fallen into (Psalm 40:2), and no matter how sordid our past has been or how we may have failed Him even AFTER our conversion… He is ready, willing, and able to wash ALL those sins away again and with permanence. And the Lord doesn’t bring us back as second-class citizens either… we are all equally unworthy neighbors receiving His gifts of grace and mercy that we never deserved in the first place. The moment I turned my Animal Crossing game back on, I was embraced with open arms by each character with my relationship fully restored… my access to my old house, my mailbox, and my accounts were ready and waiting for me to return to the place where I belonged. I didn’t have to do anything to “earn” my place back…. I just had to return home. And for all of us who have found ourselves acting as “bad neighbors” in our real world… He doesn’t care where we have been or what we have done. He just wants us to come back home and receive His endless forgiveness, love, mercy, and grace again… and this time He wants us to stay.

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