1. Love begins with looking.
On nearly 40 different occasions in the Gospels, Jesus either looks at people, tells others to look, or teaches about looking. When Jesus encounters the widow of Nain (Luke 7), he looks at her first—then he feels compassion and acts on her behalf. We see the same pattern in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). This is why we instinctively look away from a homeless woman or a disabled man. We know that if we really see that person, we will be drawn into the mess of loving another human.
The first step of love is looking at someone—focusing on his or her face, what he or she is doing, feeling, thinking. The person becomes important—not just the role they fill or the problem you’d like to solve for them. And ultimately, God uses this discipline of the eyes to produce compassion in the heart.
2. Love has no exit strategy.
The Bible uses the Hebrew word hesed nearly 250 times to describe a steadfast love that combines commitment with sacrifice, most often God’s love for his people. Hesed is one-way love. Love without an exit strategy. When you love with hesed love, you bind yourself to the object of your love, no matter what their response is. So if the object of your love snaps at you, you still love. If you’ve had an argument with your spouse in which you were slighted or not heard, you refuse to retaliate through silence or withholding your affection. Your response to the other person is entirely independent of how they have treated you.
Hesed is stubborn. Hesed says, No, you act on your commitments. The feelings will follow. Love like this is unbalanced, uneven. There is nothing fair about this kind of love.
3. Humility is the key to love.
Our modern culture strongly emphasizes that openness, or vulnerability, is the key to love—exposing yourself, your weakness, your sins. I don’t want to denigrate that. We see throughout the Gospels how Jesus prizes the openness of his disciples. But as much as he prizes it, what he points to (and what Paul points to, especially in Philippians 2), is that the key to love is humility. Emphasizing openness without humility leads to the biting and devouring that Paul talks about in Galatians 5, in which both sides are more concerned with the other person understanding them. Both sides are good at honesty—but there is no compassion in it. The key to love is humbling yourself, or putting yourself under another person’s power.
Loving people is hard sometimes. Here is the help we need to embrace relationship, endure rejection, cultivate community, and reach out to the most unlovable as we discover the power to live a loving life.
4. Suffering is the crucible for love.
Suffering is the crucible, the testing ground for love. We don’t learn how to love anywhere else. Don’t misunderstand, suffering doesn’t create love, but it is a hot house 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. You can’t flee the crucible. Love will not grow if you check out and give into the seductive call of bitterness and cynicism–or seek comfort elsewhere. We have to hang in there with the story that God has permitted in our lives.
As we endure, as we keep showing up for life when it makes no sense, we learn to love, and God shows up. We can endure in love, if our God acts in time and space.
5. Love is unsure.
Love doesn’t always know what to do; it is unsure. Legalism (or paternalism) is clear and confident; that’s where we often start in relationships. “I know who you are and what you need.” Love is not sure what it sees, so it incarnates, or steps into someone else’s shoes. Love slows down to ask questions and, in so doing, it begins to see clearly.
Legalism has no questions, since everything is figured out ahead of time. So it is really blind.
6. Love is not efficient.
As I study Jesus’s life, I’m learning that love is not efﬁcient. When my heart is motivated by the love of God, I’m not so driven to move on to the next project. Being a good steward of my time requires that I tune in to God’s heart and see the opportunities to love others that are all around me. The Apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesians to “be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15–16).
Only when we examine our walks in the light of biblical wisdom and in the Spirit’s presence are we able to make the most of our time. Otherwise, we will absorb the wisdom of the culture and be caught up in the kingdom of busyness.
Jesus wants us to be primarily lovers, not stewards, with our time and even our money. Focusing primarily on stewardship is like focusing on the fine print. It gets people thinking about preserving time and money. In parable after parable Jesus tells stories about people who give it all, who love with abandon. Stewardship is the fine print. Love is the large print. He wants us to love with abandon. Jesus presumes stewardship and teaches love.
7. Love creates community.
Our modern quest for community has a thousand faces to it: Where can I go to find a place where I am loved? How can the church be a real community and not just a social club? How do I achieve intimacy in marriage? (Intimacy is just a state of heightened community on a small scale.) Instinctively, we know what makes for a good community: a safe place where I am included, where I am known and loved, and I in turn know and love others. Creating an inclusive community is the holy grail of modern culture. But actually doing it is extremely difficult.
The biggest problem people have in searching for the perfect community is just that. You don’t find community; you create it through love.
8. Love thinks.
A neglected aspect of love on display in the book of Ruth is wisdom. Our culture puts “falling in love” front and central, but forgets about “thinking in love.” Not Naomi. She thinks about how to make love happen. That’s wisdom. Without wisdom, Naomi and Ruth’s situation would have remained frozen.
Because we moderns have surrendered love to the world of feelings, we often separate thinking and planning from love. Our culture is quick to call a plan (like Naomi’s plan to bring Boaz and Ruth together) “manipulation,” but that is only because Romanticism hijacked the word love. When buying a home or starting a business, we present a plan to the bank or investors. They want to make sure that we’ve thought about everything. It is not manipulation to want to buy a house or start a business. So why would marriage be any different? Thinking, planning, and problem-solving are completely intertwined with romance, love, and audacity. Life is like this.
When we separate love from thinking, love gets weird and floaty, and finally tragic as lives are destroyed all under the banner of “falling in love.” It’s good to think in love even as you are falling in love.
9. Faith is the power for love.
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. The more difficult the situation, the more you are forced into utter dependence on God. Self-confidence and pride are stripped away, because you simply do not have the power of wisdom or ability in yourself to love. That is the beginning of faith: knowing you can’t love. Faith is the power for love. Paul the Apostle tells us that the I-beam, or hidden structure, of the Christian life is “faith working through love” (Gal. 5:6). In overwhelming situations where you are all out of human love, you discover that you are praying all the time because you can’t get from one moment to the next without God’s help.
You realize you can’t do life on your own, and you need God and his love to be the center. You lean into God because you can’t bear the weight of love. So faith is not a mountain to climb, but a valley to fall into.
10. Death is at the center of love.
Your journey of love will draw you into Jesus’s journey—which goes down into death before it rises in resurrection. I call this the J-Curve, and it is the shape of the normal Christian life. At the center of our everyday lives, we should expect to find a dying love. The command to love is complete. Jesus wants all of us. One word that Christ uses and is used throughout the New Testament that gets to the heart of death is obedience. By that, I mean a surrender of your will. What happens when we surrender our will in that situation, whatever it is where we need to die, that’s where we discover the power of Jesus to love.
When you realize that death is at the center of love, it is quietly liberating. Instead of fighting the death that comes with love, you embrace what your Father has given you. A tiny resurrection begins in your heart.
Paul E. Miller is the author of A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships.
Paul E. Miller (MDiv, Biblical Seminary) is the executive director of seeJesus as well as the best-selling author of A Praying Life and several other books. With the help of his ministry staff, Miller creates and conducts interactive discipleship seminars throughout the world. He and his wife, Jill, live in the Philadelphia area and have six children as well as a growing number of grandchildren.