Sunday, December 20, 2020

That Which Comes Naturally

“Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck; write them on the tablet of your heart.”

“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

The first quote comes from the book of Proverbs, and we might paraphrase it this way: “Do not ever allow yourself to stop being consistently loving and trustworthy; make these qualities part of the fabric of your being.” As a father, King Solomon is challenging his sons and others who will eventually read his wise words to be people of exceptional kindness and consistency.

The second quote here is the prophet Jonah’s complaint to God, and it pretty much explains itself. But it also serves to illuminate the first quote a little bit.

Steadfast Love

In Hebrew, the word rendered “steadfast love” in my ESV is checed, and is sometimes translated “mercy”. This sort of love is not just an emotion, it’s an action. It is affection that expresses itself through kind acts which are often undeserved, inconvenient, or both at the same time.

So Jacob could say to his son Joseph, “Deal kindly and truly with me. Do not bury me in Egypt.” In other words, “Joseph, if you really care for your father, here’s how you can demonstrate that: trek all the way back from Egypt to Canaan and bury my body where it belongs.” This was the litmus test of Joseph’s devotion to his father, and it required no small amount of trust on Jacob’s part and no small amount of character on Joseph’s. Jacob would not be around to remind Joseph or complain if his son did not come through on his promise. Were Joseph to neglect his father’s solemn request, it would demonstrate that whatever feelings he had for his dad were only polite sentiments; they fell short of genuine love and loyalty.

Too Kind for His Own Good

Jonah was annoyed with God because God was too kind, and especially because God was too kind to people Jonah felt didn’t deserve it. And he was right. They didn’t.

The first thing Jonah didn’t realize is this: that nobody deserves the kindness of God, including rebellious prophets. There is not some arbitrary line in the heart of God extending across the human race this far but not a foot further. God so loved the world, including not just the Israelites who acknowledged him as God, but also the violent, immoral citizens of the aggressively-expansive Assyrian empire who didn’t. This is because steadfast love originates in the individual doing the loving, not in the objects of his kindness.

The second thing Jonah didn’t realize is that there is no point in talking about the steadfastness of love if it breaks down at the first sign of failure on the part of its object. There is no value in emotions which evaporate the moment their object fails to cooperate with the program or shows insufficient appreciation for the efforts being made on their behalf. Such sentiments are pointless and vain. To be steadfast means to keep going in the face of what may amount to considerable adversity.

When Solomon’s Counsel Matters Most

So then, when Solomon tells us to “Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you”, his counsel is of greatest value to us not when the objects of our kindness are compliant, grateful, sweet-tempered, well-behaved, generous, honest and loyal, but rather when they are insubordinate, thankless, truculent, iniquitous, penurious, deceitful backstabbers. There is no need to bind love and faithfulness around your neck or write them on your heart when they well up in response to exactly what we are hoping for in others. Such affections produce themselves automatically and require no grace or self-control.

No, it is when we have been most disappointed in, betrayed by, offended at or angry with a partner, child, friend, neighbor, co-worker or even — heaven forfend — a fellow Christian, that we need love characterized by steadfastness and faithfulness. Sentiment packs its bags and heads for the hills when the going gets tough.

Abounding

God abounds in steadfast love. He doesn’t have to reach down into the depths of his being to kindle it, or to exercise self-discipline in order to stir up his affections. Kindness pours out of him like light and warmth from the sun. It is only when rebellion is entrenched, warnings ignored, and repentance rejected repeatedly, that God with greatest regret must act in judgment instead of mercy. In God’s case, the exercise of will is required to restrain his kindness, not to produce it. He needs no binding and writing, and no reminders to be merciful from human beings. Rather, it takes a sustained outcry from the victims of evil to urge him from his default mode of ceaseless kindness to all.

A practical reminder to human beings, then, whose default mode is fickleness and judgmentalism: loving steadfastly does not require us to feel loving before we act. In a needy world, a grudging kindness actually performed is preferable to a kindness much-considered but unconsummated. The feelings will come when they come. The actions should characterize us now.

Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit resides in our hearts with the goal of producing the very nature of God himself in us. One day we too will learn to abound in that which comes naturally to God.

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