Love Without an Exit Strategy
by Paul E. Miller
As the three women walk down to the Jordan River Valley, the full weight of the implications of Naomi’s daughters-in-law returning with her dawns on her. The first words of a biblical character are often a clue to his or her character, and Naomi’s first words are filled with a thoughtful love: “But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, ‘Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me’” (Ruth 1:8).
Naomi begins by blessing Ruth and Orpah, by thinking about their futures. She blesses them twice. First she asks that the Lord would “deal kindly” with them. The phrase translated “deal kindly” is actually hesed, a word unique to Hebrew that combines “love” and “loyalty.” She wants God to do hesed love with them.
Understanding Hesed Love
Sometimes hesed is translated “steadfast love.” It combines commitment with sacrifice. 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. So if the object of your love snaps at you, you still love that person. If you’ve had an argument with your spouse in which you were slighted or not heard, you refuse to retaliate through silence or withholding your affection. Your response to the other person is entirely independent of how that person has treated you. Hesed is a stubborn love.
Love like this eliminates moodiness, the touchiness that is increasingly common in people today. When my father, Jack Miller, began to observe this phenomena in the 1970s, he said, “It is like people don’t have any skin. They are all nerve endings.” Moodiness often begins with accumulated slights or the day just not working. Our inner spirits momentarily give up on life, and we stop caring how we affect people around us. Self is set on hair trigger. If we do hesed, that is no longer the case. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have moments and days when we have the cranks or share how fragile our spirit is; we just refuse to let it affect us. Hesed is opposite of the spirit of our age, which says we have to act on our feelings. Hesed says, “No, you act on your commitments. The feelings will follow.” Love like this is unbalanced, uneven. There is nothing fair about this kind of love. But commitment-love lies at the heart of Christianity. It is Jesus’s love for us at the cross, and it is to be our love for one another.
When feelings are the standard, we are left adrift on a turbulent sea. Every good feeling becomes a new path, so we become good at starting to love, but bad at finishing. Soon we are lost and alone in a maze of relationships.
When we get lost, we hunt for an escape. It is easy to appear to be doing hesed, when in fact you’ve exited a relationship emotionally. If someone has hurt you, you may slip into emotional revenge, hunting for bad news about that person or just running a magnifying glass over his or her character. Or you exit in your mind by creating or nourishing a world that doesn’t exist. Guys can be drawn to porn; women to romance novels.
Because hesed love isn’t centered on the fairness, it can reset quickly. For instance, if you’ve had an argument with a spouse or friend, you may be tempted to pull away, to distance yourself. Sometimes that distancing is appropriate, but more often it is a silent mini-revenge, a way of punishing the person for hurting you. 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.
Why is hesed love so important? Because life is moody. Feelings come and go. Pressures rise and fall. Passions ebb and flow. Hesed is a stake in the heart of the changing seasons of life. Words of commitment create a bond that stands against life’s moodiness.
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