Translating Ancient Hebrew Into Modern Marriages

A couple weeks ago, here on ESI, my husband Warren wrote a blog in response to our reading of Paul Miller‘s new book, A Loving Life (Loving in a Self-Focused World: The Pursuit of Hesed). In that book, Miller takes the reader through the short Old Testament Book of Ruth and walks us through “a real-life view” of what hesed love might look like. Hesed is an ancient Hebrew word for sacrificial, selfless, and unbalanced loving. It is the precise kind of love that God shows to us. While all of us will fall woefully short of Christ’s perfect example, we are nonetheless called to “more and more” love people with this same kind of self-forgetfulness.

Hebrew: Chesed, or Hesed

Hebrew: Chesed, or Hesed

Ruth – a Moabitess listed in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:5) – made selfless choices out of love for Naomi that reflected a “death” to herself. She chose to go with her mother-in-law to a land where it was unlikely anyone would ever want to marry her and give her the opportunity to have children. Particularly in that culture, marriage and children meant life, protection and provision. As Ruth chose what was best for Naomi, she denied what was best for herself.

I have to think that must have felt like she was denying a core part of who she was for the good of another. This is at the heart of hesed.

Since we finished reading Miller, I’ve been watching for hesed love in my own life. I found Miller’s patient retelling of the book of Ruth helpful and immediately useful in its application to my life, as it has helped me see where I fail to love others in the way God calls us…but it has also helped me to identify areas where God has been working to grow the kind of selfless, sacrificial, unbalanced love that glorifies Him…even in a marriage like mine, between two hopelessly-selfish people.

A little background: I am a dyed-in-the-wool multi-tasker. I was raised by a hard-working, high-energy multi-tasker, so I learned at an early age to get a lot done with whatever time I had. Rarely do I work on “just one thing” at a time. Presented with 10-15 minutes of “spare” time, I don’t typically pause to take a breather. Rather, my mind starts whirring with the question, “What can I get done in this small amount of time?” My situation is probably nearing pathological; I very likely need to set up an appointment to discuss it with a professional. But it’s also, on some level, truly who I am. Sure, I can relax with friends or run away with my husband for a weekend and give myself over to “doing nothing” for finite periods, but by and large, I like to be busy.

My husband, however, is German and methodical. He’s a linear thinker. A deep, linear thinker. (Very deep.) It takes time to think as deeply as he does. When approaching a project (building shelves, for example) he is detail-oriented and sure-footed in his approach. “Measure twice, cut once” is a common rule of thumb among carpenters, or so I have heard. Warren, mindful of the cost of lumber, measures five or six times prior to that first cut. “You just can’t be too careful.” On the plus side, I will say that he builds shelves that will probably still be standing 200 years from now, long after the rest of the house has fallen down.

So Warren is all about quality, not quantity. His priority is getting one thing done well – very well, if possible – and completely, before moving on to the next task. I am all about quantity, as I said, and I really don’t see why anyone can’t have five or six things going at the same time.

So by now you can probably imagine the arguments we had early in our marriage when we tried to work together to do something “simple,” say, clean out the storage room. My approach would be to get through 10 or 12 boxes in a few hours on a Saturday morning, then move on to laundry, grocery shopping and cleaning in the afternoon, with a home-cooked dinner in the evening. Two hours into our “cleaning,” German Boy had gone through about one-third of one box. He needed to be absolutely certain there was nothing in there worth saving.

I felt like I was watching grass grow.

"A Loving Life"

“A Loving Life”

I also know I stretched him in those early years. (More accurately, I exhausted him.) My definition of what the weekend would look like was often significantly different from his. Warren routinely told me I was “trying to put 10 pounds into a 5-pound bag” and would beg me to consider putting a little “margin” – down time – into my plans for our Saturday. He wanted to relax and catch his breath from a work week that included caring for five kids. I had a to-do list as long as my arm and was determined we would knock everything out in one weekend.

All too often, it was not pretty. Neither of us were much interested in “dying to our own agendas” to serve the other. We were far too interested in serving ourselves. As a result, we butted heads fairly regularly those first couple of years of marriage over the most mundane, ridiculous things.

Having finished reading A Loving Life, I was reflecting back on our ten years together and realized that we really don’t fight about storage boxes or the number of items on our Saturday afternoon agenda anymore. You might think it’s because we’ve matured over the years. Trust me, that’s not it. The core aspects of our personalities haven’t changed, either. I am still a multi-tasker, and Warren is still a linear thinker who loves his margin.

The difference is that, somewhere along the line, I prioritized loving my “one thing at a time” husband over completing my own agenda, and Warren chose to love his high-energy wife more than he loved his “margin.” Our modern culture might say we’ve successfully learned how to compromise and live peacefully together. I believe it’s far more than that. I think this is what the ancient Hebrews meant, at least somewhat, by hesed love. We didn’t simply figure out how to balance opposing desires and live together in a way that is “fair,” given our different personalities. We began to move toward each other at the expense of our own lives; over time, we changed who we wanted to love more.

Hesed love calls us to love others more than ourselves. By its sacrificial nature, it calls us to say no to our own desires in favor of another’s. It’s a small dying to self.

That’s a hard thing to do! It’s easy to say that we’re going to love someone else sacrificially. It’s far harder to actually do that in the day-to-day. I know that when Warren agrees to attend several events in a single weekend with me – as we are probably going to be called to do this holiday season – he has to make a concerted effort to turn from his own desires and to embrace mine, with no assurance that doing so will “get him” anything. That sounds like a pretty small movement toward living out hesed love until you realize that my husband would probably rather hide in our basement than be in a room with more than 20 people at a time: “Too much going on – too many people talking at the same time – must run away now.”

Hesed love can be lived out in the big choices we make – like moving to a foreign country where we will likely be treated poorly and live a spinster’s life. But more often, I would think, it’s lived out in the small choices. Consistently preferring your spouse over yourself in the decisions you make about your day, your finances, your priorities…these things can all add up to a way of life that expresses a self-forgetful love.

We’re all such a mixed bag of good intentions and selfish motives; I think it’s encouraging to find that despite not having intentionally and thoughtfully chosen to love more sacrificially, I can still see the work of the Holy Spirit in my marriage, slowly moving each of us toward a more selfless love for each other.

Where do you see hesed love being expressed in your marriage? Where do you see room for a greater dying to self? Imagine what might happen if Christians actually thought more deeply about how to show hesed love to each other. I’d for sure come out ahead if that happens…remember, it’s Warren who is the deep thinker in our family.  🙂

Lord God, may You work in all our marriages and relationships so that we more and more reflect the kind of selfless, sacrificial, unbalanced love You show toward your weak, flawed, bickering and helpless children. May we all seek to pursue the intentional decision of hesed love, the kind of love that is entirely consistent with Who You are but is utterly alien to us in our fallen hearts and minds. Grant that we might move closer to hesed love and Your desire for shalom even as we live and breathe in a broken world.

Romans 5:8 (ESV)
but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Matthew 16:24
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

We ought not weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.
Brother Lawrence
The Practice of The Presence of God

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