“So you have a love-hate relationship with love. You want intimacy, but you become overwhelmed with the work of love.” (13) This could characterize the struggle of just about every marriage client I’ve ever had. Who can’t relate to this statement?
Paul Miller’s A Loving Life is a reflection on the Old Testament book of Ruth. Please read it for further context. My aim here is not to exposit that Biblical work, but to reflect on the central gospel themes Paul Miller draws from that book (and others in the Bible) as it relates to how to engage in relationship as a follower of Jesus.
Miller says “Learning to love is inseparable from coming alive as a person, from seeing our own hearts, and how the siren song of the age seduces us.” (15) The “siren song” of the age could mean many things. Here, Miller means prioritizing self-comfort and personal satisfaction above covenant love.
What would have happened to all of us if God decided to wait for us to be good enough to love?
Miller says “Suffering is the crucible for love. We don’t learn how to love anywhere else. Don’t misunderstand; suffering doesn’t create love, but it is a hothouse where love can emerge. Why is that? The great barrier to love is ego, the life of the self. In long-term suffering, if you don’t give in to self-pity, slowly, almost imperceptibly, self dies.” (20)
Miller speaks throughout A Loving Life of “hesed” (pronounced heh-said), which is often translated as steadfast, covenant, faithful love. It is the love we profess to give our spouses in the Christian marriage ceremony. Miller says “Hesed is one-way love. Love without an exit strategy. When you love with hesed love, you bind yourself to the object of your love, no matter what the response is.” (27)
It is important to note that I am not commenting here on when or if it is (ever) Biblical to exit a marriage (or not). That isn’t the purpose of this essay. Plus, this is a nuanced and complex topic.
The purpose here is rather to (I hope) encourage a shift in the modern paradigm of what relationships are for, and to encourage the reader to reconsider their position in light of what they prayerfully realize the Gospel has to say about how we are to show up in relationship to the other person as followers of Jesus.
There is a direct application in the idea of steadfast “hesed” love within the context of marriage and relational conflict. Our natural tendency when experiencing disconnection in a marriage is to either attack (verbally, and sometimes, sadly, physically) or withdraw (go cold, withdraw love, connection, and friendship). Miller writes “But with hesed love, after an argument, even when tension is in the air, you don’t allow your spirit to pull away. You move toward the other person; you don’t allow an ugly space to grow.” (28)
Early in my work as a marriage therapist, I noticed a pattern that I have continued to notice over more than a decade of working with couples. When argument cycles increase, so does jumping to conclusions. There is a sad and deep connection between conflict and not-right thinking.
We come to conclusions too quickly about the other person’s motives, integrity, and even worth as a person. Think about the things that get said in a typical heated argument, e.g. “You’re so…” fill in the blank.
We tell the other person who and what they are, based on our experience of them. We have a hard time seeing that there is good in there along with the bad., that not everything is terrible because this present moment with the other person doesn’t happen to be working out.
Miller writes “Accepting ambiguity is immensely helpful in the work of love because when we encounter this strange mixture of good and bad in another person, we tend to lock onto the evil and miss the good. We don’t like ambiguity. We prefer the clarity of judging.” (36)
Later he says “Labeling returns us to the rigid world of paganism, which freezes everyone in a category: ethnic group, occupation, or social status.” (39) Ouch. In other words, when we judge others, we are acting more like pagans than Christians!
It should be obvious by now, if it wasn’t already, that loving the other person with a “hesed” faithful love isn’t easy! I’d go further and state right here that it is not just not easy, but impossible. We can’t do it without God.
“Your life energy needs to come from God, not the person you are loving. The more difficult the situation, the more you are forced into utter dependence on God. That is the crucible of love, where self-confidence and pride are stripped away because you simply do not have the power or wisdom, or ability in yourself to love. You know without a shadow of a doubt that you can’t love. That is the beginning of faith – knowing you can’t love.” (49)
In other words, “Our inability to sustain love drives us into dependence on God.” (50)
Later, toward the end of A Loving Life, Paul Miller says “Good lovers are good watchers, in tune with what God is doing. Otherwise, you’ll collapse under the weight of love.” (183) In the early stages of the work I do with conflicted couples, I encourage a Gospel-informed mindfulness practice. “Pay attention to what your mind is declaring to be true when you’re feeling at your worst.” This also works with individual clients, by the way.
This work is always highly individual at first. How can we change our relational conflict patterns without knowing what those patterns are? Change starts with what I would call “dependent watchfulness.” We must allow the Lord to “search my heart” as David pleads for God to do with him in Psalm 139. When we invite Him to show us what is “wayward” within us, he can then “lead me in your everlasting way.”
What a difference such an approach can make! Imagine how different would marriage conflict (or work relationship, or friendship) be if each participant began by asking God to work on them first, to increase awareness, and then give the ability to love out of what is learned?
Miller writes “Paying attention is the first step of incarnation, of going into someone else’s world.” (102) So, like Jesus, we may withdraw, but not to punish the other with our absence. Rather, it is to draw strength from the Father to love the other with hesed love, regardless of result. We leave the results of our loving to God, just as we are called to leave with him our vengeance.
“Hesed love loves in opposition to our feelings. Love like this strips us of self-will and purifies our motivations. It is surprisingly liberating because we’re not trapped by either our feelings or the other person’s response.” (75)
I highly recommend this book by Paul Miller. I also want to repeat what I wrote at the top of this article. If it’s been a while since you’ve read the book of Ruth, receiving the blessing of the wisdom that this word of God has to offer to you today.
One of the most transformative aspects of knowing Jesus, for those who know Him, is having been changed by Him. Notice how passive this is. God shows up at the right time, loving and intentional. Romans 5 tells us that “while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly,” and that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5: 6; 8).
Let us draw close to the Father, receive resurrection love, and power from him, and do likewise.
“Time with Grandpa”, Courtesy of Getty Images, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Happy Couple”, Courtesy of Getty Images, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Happy Family”, Courtesy of Brooke Cagle, Unsplash.com, Unsplash+ License; “Forehead Kiss”, Courtesy of Victoria Roman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License;