Loving in a Self-Focused World: The Pursuit of Hesed

“Our world panics at the idea of having to remain in a relationship that is uneven.”
Paul Miller

Several years ago, I entered into a harsh, protracted season of personal and relational suffering. Though I didn’t see this clearly at the time, God’s providence was already preparing me for it by taking me back to His Word through the faithful preaching of John Piper on the book of Ruth (Ruth: Sweet & Bitter Providence). The lesson taken to heart back then was more or less an amazing extrapolation of Romans 8:28: In every season of suffering, God is working for our ultimate good, even though we very often do not see it…and complain against Him bitterly.

Hebrew: Chesed, or Hesed

Hebrew: Chesed, or Hesed

A few years later, Paul Miller forever changed my understanding of prayer with A Praying Life. Miller’s book is extremely popular within our church, and for good reason. Many readers walk away with a forever-changed perspective on prayer, one that acknowledges more deeply that God is actually interested in the things that trouble our heart. For me, this book freed me from feeling like my prayers had to be “right” or “theologically sound.” Miller helped liberate my heart and mind such that I could simply open up my mouth and begin speaking to God as I would to a loving Father – which, of course, He always had been.

The recent publication of A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships by Miller feels as though these two theological shoelaces have finally met in the middle and been securely tied, and the implications are far deeper and wide-reaching than “merely” theology. As another Christian who struggles with close relationships in various stages of messiness, I found Miller’s book eminently practical in terms of approach and on-the-ground realism.

Unsurprisingly, Miller calls us to seek first a love that is pleasing to God…and to stop worrying quite so much about how those around us will respond to our loving efforts, e.g. “I don’t have to be shaped by how badly you receive my love.”

Paul Miller

Paul Miller

Miller defines hesed love as “covenant love, committed love; an act of the will to love another regardless of response.” In our culture, the actual practice of love is often quite different from this biblical definition. Most often, “loving someone” has more to do with what the other person does to meet our needs, to make us happy, and to fill those empty places we have. In this way, our cultural practice of love is often more a form of self-love than love-of-other.

Hesed love, bucking conventional wisdom, calls us to live out a reality that is truly the opposite of much of our culture’s ideology:

  • Hesed involves far more sacrifice than any of us are really comfortable with, dying to our own needs – sometimes even legitimate needs – in order to meet the needs of another.
  • Hesed calls us to be far more vulnerable than we typically want to be as we give away our (false) sense of security for the sake of another. Hesed calls us to consider not which boundaries we should put up, but rather “How many can we tear down?” While the very-real need for boundaries in this broken world is acknowledged, hesed reminds us that we are to enter into boundary-building only with regret…and with an eye toward one day demolishing them if/when circumstances change.
  • Hesed calls us to far more humility than many of us are used to, particularly in the midst of a culture that is constantly fostering pride, self-exaltation, independence and the idea that individual self-esteem is the highest of all values. Hesed counters this self-interested cultural fog by maintaining that only through humility can we set aside any sense that relationships should be “balanced” or “fair.”
  • Hesed calls us to more of a commitment than most of us are willing to make. Hesed is a lifelong vow to keep sacrificing, stay vulnerable, and continue to respond in humility, no matter what. In the dark times, hesed does not run away. In the hard times, hesed does not change tactics. Hesed plods along, faithfully staying present…even when the people you are loving don’t.
  • Hesed love takes into account not just one other individual, but sometimes calls us to die to our needs for the good of the community around us. Often that “community” is our own families. What is best for a family to thrive is very often not what seems best for one individual in the family – particularly in light of current-day values.
"A Loving Life"

“A Loving Life”

We are all very good at loving ourselves. No one needs to read another book calling us to improve our love of self. What we need instead is to simply believe that Jesus was being truthful when He told us that He would take care of our needs if we would seek first His Kingdom and righteousness (Matthew 6:33).

Jesus, ever the radical, calls us to love others as well as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). To do that, we actually have to love others “better” than we love ourselves. We cannot prefer ourselves and those we love at the same time. Someone must sacrifice. A practical living out of hesed love is making the choice to sacrifice your own agenda and joyfully applying your life toward the agenda of caring for others.

Extending that kind of committed love in a world that relentlessly seeks to inquire “What’s in it for you?” is extremely difficult. Indeed, Miller says that is impossible to sustain this kind of self-forgetful love apart from the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit in the heart of the Christian. It does not “make sense” to offer unconditional love in a world that always seeks to achieve and maintain parity, but neither does it make sense for God to leave His throne in Heaven because He wants to seek and save you; hesed love is precisely the type of love that enabled Jesus to endure the torture and separation from God that took place at His crucifixion.

Jesus led the way, and simply beckons us, “Follow me.” Committing to walk in hesed love is not optional.

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