Coty Pinckney is the senior pastor at Desiring God Community Church (DGCC) in Charlotte, NC. He also serves on the national leadership team for the TCT Network. This post originally appeared on DGCC’s blog.
Love, Suffering, Obedience, and Resurrection
What is love?
There are a thousand answers to that question, since we use the word “love” in so many different ways. So let’s narrow the question down:
What is God’s love? And what does it look like when we love with God’s love?
In a recent book – A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships – Paul Miller argues that this type of love is a one-way covenant; we step out in love without needing or even expecting a response. This makes us vulnerable, and often leads to suffering. We rightly cry out in lament over such suffering. But faith holds on to God’s covenant love in the midst of suffering, so that we continue to walk in obedience – we continue to love. In this we are following the path of Jesus’ life – love, suffering, death. But Jesus rose from the dead. And as God raised Jesus, He similarly will bring about a form of resurrection in us.
Miller masterfully brings out these truths from the book of Ruth, following Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz through their journeys of love, suffering, lament, obedience, and resurrection. Consider these selections – and may we follow the path of love.
Love and Covenant
[We learn through the storyline of Scripture that God’s love is a one-sided covenant, His determination to do good to His people, to redeem them, to make them His, despite their rebellion and disobedience. Thus, God’s love is also covenantal. Our love, if it is to be like God’s, must also be covenantal. The Hebrew word most often used of God’s love for His people is hesed. Paul Miller sometimes uses this word as an adjective to clarify that he is referring to that type of love.]
[There is a] modern myth that says, “Love is a feeling. If the feeling is gone, then love is gone.” Hollywood has no resources to endure in love when the feeling is gone. Actually, that’s the point when we are ready to learn how to love.
Ruth walks into the city ignored and, in effect, alone. One of the hardest parts of a hesed love is that you can love others, but there may be no one to love you. The very act of loving can make you lonely. . .
But that loneliness, that dying, instead of being the end of you, can display Jesus’s beauty in you. The moment when you think everything has gone wrong is exactly the moment when the beauty of God is shining through you. True glory is almost always hidden—when you are enduring quietly with no cheering crowd.
The question is not “How do I feel about this relationship?” but “Have I been faithful to my word, to the covenants I am in?” As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matt. 5:46). In other words, if I love only when I feel like it, then I’ve really not understood love.
[After Ruth goes to Boaz’s field:] If you are bent on pursuing personal freedom, you remain frozen hunting for the perfect field, the perfect person. You never land. You have to commit to make love work. We don’t love in general. We love someone, somewhere. Setting our affections on someone always means narrowing down. Election and love are inseparable. This goes against the spirit of our age, which prizes independence and perfection. . . . Often our difficulties with love are simply that we react to the constriction that accompanies love. But that constriction is inherent in love. To love is to limit. . . .
Ironically, the experience of love, of narrowing your life, broadens and deepens your life. The narrower your life, the broader your soul. . . . Love always involves a narrowing of the life, a selecting of imperfection.
Life is a path or pilgrimage. It is lived not in isolated moments, but in trajectories of reaping and sowing. Everything we do now creates the person we are becoming. We do not live in an impersonal, rigid world in which obedience mechanically dispenses reward; we live in our Father’s world, a richly textured world organized around invisible bonds that knit us together. All of life is covenant.
[Consider covenant as a kind of limitation:] Repentance often drives the journey of love. It moves the story forward. Because Naomi returned home, God’s grace will be unleashed in her life. Repentance involves a returning to the box, to the world of limits, that my Father has given me. I stop creating my own story and submit to the story that God is weaving. . . .
Life is like a beautiful garden with a tree whose fruit I can’t touch. That “no” defines and shapes my life in the garden. So my relationship with my wife is like a wonderful garden with a solitary “no”: I cannot touch or develop emotional intimacy with another woman. That “no” narrows and limits my life. It provides a frame for my love to Jill. I am keenly aware that I can destroy a forty-year marriage in five minutes. That limiting, instead of boxing us in, lets the story come alive.
Love and Suffering
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. This death of self offers ideal growing conditions for love.
Self-pity, [that is,] compassion turned inward, drives this downward spiral. Instead of reflecting on the wounds of Christ, I nurse my own wounds. Self-as-victim is the great narrative of our age. . . . Enshrining the victim is so seductive because you have been hurt. But self-pity is just another form of self-righteousness, and like all self-righteousness it isolates and elevates. It elevates you because it says you are better than the other person; you are the victim. It isolates you because you live in and are nourished by your interior world, which can’t be criticized.
Suffering and Lament
[We often do our best to hide our suffering. Indeed, sometimes we confuse laments over suffering with lack of faith. But Paul Miller argues that Scripture is full of laments, and that lamentation is a necessary step on the path to hesed love.]
A lament puts us in an openly dependent position, where our brokenness reflects the brokenness of the world. It’s pure authenticity. Holding it in, not giving voice to the lament, can be a way of putting a good face on it. But to not lament puts God at arm’s length and has the potential of splitting us. We appear okay, but we are really brokenhearted. (emphasis added)
Listening to a lament is a powerful way of loving someone who is suffering. By being present, by not correcting or even offering our own unique brand of Christian encouragement (“It’s going to be all right – God’s in control”), we give those who are grieving space to be themselves.
This doesn’t mean that Naomi’s judgment of God is correct. God is good and just. He will answer her frustration with more goodness. Naomi was interpreting God through the lens of her experience.
She stopped in the middle of the story and measured God. A deeper faith waits until the end of the story and interprets experience through the lens of God’s faithfulness. Is this something we tell Naomi? No. It is what we tell ourselves. Good theology lets us endure quietly with someone else’s pain when all the pieces aren’t together. It acts like invisible faith-glue.
The opposite danger of not lamenting is over-lamenting. Dwelling on a lament is the breeding ground for bitterness. Bitterness is a wound nursed. Our culture’s emphasis on the sacredness of feelings often gives people an unspoken theology of bitterness. They feel entitled to it.
Faith, Love and Obedience
[Difficult situations compel us to conclude:] 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. Faith is the power for love.
Unlike the Israelites who wanted to return to Egypt, Naomi is obeying, doing the right thing by returning to the Promised Land. Her feelings were all over the place, but she put one foot in front of the other as she returned. We can summarize her response this way:
Bitterness openly expressed to God + obedience => a raw, pure form of faith
Bitterness openly expressed + disobedience => rebellion
Through a sheer act of will, Naomi continues to show up for life. In C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the senior devil, Screwtape, warns his junior devil of the danger of this obedience.
Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause [the Devil’s cause] is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending to do our Enemy’s will [God’s will], looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.
Ruth’s act of loving put her at the bottom of society, but she doesn’t push back on her lowered status. She accepts the cost of love. Like Jesus, she takes the lower place. Love and humility are inseparable.
When serving is combined with humility, the serving becomes almost pleasurable. You are thankful for any gift given you. In contrast, pride can’t bear the weight of unequal love. . . . pride makes others’ joy, or even the possibility of our own joy, feel phony. It is an odd sort of authenticity where we demand that others be as depressed as we are.
Jealousy is extraordinarily deceptive. It is by far the most destructive sin in communities and organizations that I’ve been a part of, and yet, I seldom hear it mentioned or confessed. It always masks itself as something else, creating a hidden chain of slander that drags someone down. A multiheaded hydra, it begins with an inability to rejoice with another’s success, leaks out as gossip, and finally erupts as slander. Jealousy seeks to gain by destroying others, while hesed [love] loses by giving itself. One is the heart of evil. The other is pure gospel.
Many Christians get stuck trying to grow their faith by growing their faith. They try to get closer to Jesus by getting closer to Jesus. Practically, that means they combine spiritual disciplines (the Word and prayer) with reflection on the love of God for them. But that will only get you so far. In fact, it often leads to spiritual moodiness where you are constantly taking your pulse wondering how much you know the love of God for you. Or you go on an endless idol hunt trying to uncover ever deeper layers of sin. Oddly enough, this can lead to a concentration on the self, a kind of spiritual narcissism. Ruth discovers God and his blessing as she obeys, as she submits to the life circumstances that God has given her. So instead of running from the really hard thing in your life, embrace it as a gift from God to draw you into his life.
Obedience and Resurrection
[Miller discusses how the life of loving obedience often follows the shape of a J-curve: Our love and obedience leads to suffering, and so our life seems to get worse. But God brings about the upward slope of the “J” – in ways that we cannot know ahead of time, following trajectories that we never expected.]
[God teaches] us to love by overloading our systems so we are forced to cry for grace. God permits our lives to become overwhelming, putting us on the downward slope of the J-curve so we come to the end of ourselves. I encouraged my friend to embrace the downward path, not to push against it or worry about where his feelings were with his wife. Jesus said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:11, 18). Seeing the gospel as a journey remaps our stories by embedding them in the larger story of Jesus’s death and resurrection. His normal becomes our normal.
Here’s what I have learned going through the J-curve:
1. We don’t know how or when resurrection will come. It is God’s work, not ours.
2. We don’t even know what a resurrection will look like. We can’t demand the shape or timing of a resurrection.
3. Like Jesus, we must embrace the death that the Father has put in front of us. The path to resurrection is through dying, not fighting.
4. If we endure, resurrection always comes. God is alive!
May we love, suffer, lament, believe, obey – and see resurrection!
By Coty Pinckney