“Physical suffering is hard, but the really brutal stuff is relational suffering,” says Paul Miller, author of “A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships,” published last spring. “People are living with the kind of relational suffering that they wouldn’t have had 200 years ago when physical suffering was much greater.” In our culture, Miller says, there are millions of “modern day widows,” whether divorced, abandoned, isolated, or surviving death like the biblical widow Ruth. These are men and women whose mouths are bitter with the taste of love gone bad.
Confronting their suffering, Miller asks: How do you love when you don’t get love in return? How do you endure in the midst of suffering? He uses the journey of Naomi and Ruth to illustrate Gospel love. “We tend to think of love as a feeling, or a state, or a relationship,” he says. “It’s helpful to see it as a pilgrimage that contains surprises, and that I’m not in control of.” While each pilgrimage of love may take a very different route, Miller says that the shape of the path is always the same.
The shape of the loving pilgrimage begins with life, goes down into death, and then upward to resurrection, explains Miller. “It’s a J-curve. Jesus lives a J-curve. He describes his life as a seed dying and rising again. … Gospel stories are possible only because God actively shapes history, bringing life where there is death.” The Gospel path of humility is illustrated in Ruth, who again and again demonstrates her committed love to Naomi despite rejection, fear, and loneliness.
“The central idea of the book of Ruth is hesed love … the Hebrew idea that combines love and commitment. Hesed is one-way love. When you love with hesed love, you bind yourself to the object of your love, no matter what the response is,” says Miller. “I call it love without an exit strategy.”
As we follow this path of hesed love, like Ruth, we soon realize it’s impossible outside of relationship with our heavenly Father. “You endure the weight of love by being rooted in God. Your life energy needs to come from God, not the person you are loving,” Miller writes. “The more difficult the situation, the more you are forced into utter dependence on God. … You know without a shadow of a doubt that you can’t love. That is the beginning of faith — knowing that you can’t love.”
Miller’s lesson is not an easy one — love is not the sunny, fluffy, feel-good stuff of “happily ever-after.” Instead, it is “the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” that Paul speaks of in Philippians 3:10. But this is exactly where we find the beauty of God shining through us. Like Ruth, we find that our journey of relational pain and suffering is redirected into the same J-curve of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Even for those who have tasted love’s most bitter brokenness, Miller says that when we continue to show up, God will show up too and lead us to a loving life.
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