House of Bread: Defining Hesed

[Part Four:   House of Bread: The Road Less Traveled ]

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I’ve always appreciated people who tell it like it is, who have something to say and say it with honesty and courage. The folks who beat around the bush and try to dress their words carefully so they won’t come across as black and white but some muddled shade of gray leave me confused. Are they saying this or are that saying that? What exactly are they trying to tell me?

When we approach the subject of love, every reader of this post will bring a certain amount of experiential baggage with them that colors their thinking and their feeling. Some of you may have been hurt so deeply that you’ve resigned yourself to never be vulnerable in that way again. Others have only recently put their toes in the water and not experienced the depths. Wherever you are on the love spectrum—whether it be love of a friend, a spouse, or a family member—your love will involve risks. C. S. Lewis was profoundly aware of this.

Of all arguments against love none makes so strong an appeal to my nature as “Careful! This might lead you to suffering.”

To my nature, my temperament, yes. Not to my conscience. When I respond to that appeal I seem to myself to be a thousand miles away from Christ. If I am sure of anything I am sure that his teaching was never meant to confirm my congenital preference for safe investments and limited liabilities.…

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness.

But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.  (The Four Loves, Kindle Location 1541)

A Life Commitment

As Ruth clung to Naomi and poured out her heart, she also mapped out for us the road of hesed love. In the going and lodging—those things that encompass daily existence—Ruth pledged herself to Naomi. Next, she turned radical, saying something that was unheard of in the ancient world—“Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Ruth renounced her Moabite citizenship and religion. We’re not talking about a move from Florida to Georgia, with a switch of membership from First Presbyterian to First Baptist. Ruth committed her entire life to Naomi, essentially saying “until death do us part.”

It is impossible that these words just rolled off Ruth’s tongue as an afterthought. She had already committed herself to Yahweh, Who gave her the desire and strength to lay her life down for Naomi. God not only lived at the center of Ruth’s poem, He also lived at the center of Ruth’s heart. This beautiful scene on the road to Bethlehem paints a similar picture to that of Jesus calling His disciples—Come, forsake everything and follow Me. Take up your cross and die.

Defining Hesed

So what exactly is hesed love?

No one word will suffice to translate this word. Hesed is a Hebrew term found in multiple places in the Old Testament, which has the general meaning of kindness, mercy, faithfulness, goodness, loyalty, and steadfast love. Simply put, it is the marriage of love and loyalty, commitment and sacrifice. Hesed moves in one direction—towards others. Most importantly, it is not moved by feelings, but by commitment. Actually, hesed can feel awkward, lonely, and unfair, but since it’s grounded in covenantal commitment—not feelings—it’s a stubborn love that won’t let go.

To get a better understanding of hesed, let’s look at a few places we find it in Scripture.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love hesed, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The hesed of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lamentations 3:22-23)

Surely goodness and hesed shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23:6)

In Psalm 136, every other lines repeats the phrase, “His hesed endures forever.”

The prophet Micah speaks of God relinquishing His anger because He delights in hesed. In the books of Joel and Jonah, God is described as abundant in hesed. Jeremiah speaks of God’s hesed to His people as well as of Israel’s hesed to God. Hesed is the primary theme of the book of Hosea, where God loves Israel, his bride in hesed.

The idea of hesed is carried over into the New Testament with the Greek word for mercy taking its place. We see this in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where the priest and Levite refuse to show mercy to the wounded man on the side of the road. The Samaritan, on the other hand, shows mercy by caring for the man no matter what the cost to him personally.

Is There an Alternative?

By this point you may be thinking, “I’m not so sure I can love anyone like that.” And that’s a great place to be, because apart from God we can’t love like that. Hesed is Christ’s love on the cross for sinners, and it’s the love God puts in our hearts for others through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is our calling—to love God and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Our faith is to work itself out in hesed-type love.

So what’s the alternative to hesed? Is there some middle way that doesn’t require so much sacrifice and commitment? Actually, there is an alternative and it comes in many shapes and sizes. It’s called self-love and it feels natural and good to us. You’ll find it hiding behind marital conflict, sibling squabbles, church splits, adulterous relationships, divorce, estranged families, broken friendships, and hundreds of other painful maladies in our homes, churches, and in the world at large.

Self-love is our default mode, which makes it very dangerous, because self-love has one outcome in view—to destroy us and everything we touch. To truly love—to love with hesed—one must die to self. And death to self is a slow, painful process.

[Part 6:  House of Bread: From Lamenting to Bitterness ]

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