[This review first appeared at the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womahood]
Paul E. Miller. A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships. Wheaton: Crossway, 2014. 172 pp. $12.99.
Love is pervasive. Everybody loves something or someone. We love our spouses, children, cars, antiques, sports teams, novels, pizza joints, movies, tribes of friends—and the list goes on and on. In fact “love” is thrown around so flippantly that we may need to invent a new word to recapture the radical nature of biblical love.
What is biblical love? John’s words get us started: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). To meditate on God’s amazing love in Christ Jesus is astounding and life-giving. But we are also given the capacity to follow in our Savior’s footsteps—to die for others and pay the price of love! What an extraordinary gift and calling.
It seems simple, yet both paths of love—God to us and us to others—can be complicated. We want to experience God’s love and we want to love others. But something may be out of sync. We listen to good preaching on God’s love but it doesn’t land on our hearts. We strive to serve those around us, but it isn’t received well or we’re taken for granted. Love just isn’t easy.
Thankfully Paul Miller is a reliable guide to biblical love in A Loving Life. Much like his well-received A Praying Life, this new book offers a fresh, down-to-earth vision that transcends pious platitudes and self-love philosophies. He tells us that love isn’t one aspect of Christianity; it is the whole.
The New American Journey
Miller contends early in the book that with regards to love “we start well but end badly” (13). We are a culture that dreams big about love but we don’t follow through. Our perspective on love is more influenced by Disney and Seinfeld than shaped by Jesus’ sacrificial life and death. Why is this? Miller gives two reasons…
Naïve expectations make us high maintenance and supersensitive. Human frailty makes us cynical, doubting the possibility of love. The new American journey is from naivety to cynicism. The result? We feel abused, betrayed, and bitter. It was better not to have dreamed. The magic is gone (13).
So how do we love when we’re naïve or bitter? Miller suggests we listen carefully to the story of Ruth – a story that doesn’t set aside nitty-gritty realism but still clings to resurrection hope.
The book of Ruth shines a spotlight on biblical love in a way that is rich, peculiar, and Christ-exalting. Miller’s short chapters and unhurried pace allow readers to slowly savor this narrative about a Gentile woman finding her way in a new place. And along the way we’ll find love.
Through twenty-three chapters Miller explores the idea of hesed love that dominates Ruth’s story. The word can be translated “steadfast love” and conveys sacrificial, one-way love (24). Hesed love is uneven; it loves regardless of the response (42). It’s the kind of love that releases control and chooses to love in the chaos (73).
Ruth exemplifies this kind of love. As a Moabite, Ruth not only follows Naomi away from her home, but embraces the loneliness that would inevitably accompany a foreign woman in Bethlehem. She sets aside any chance for marriage and family so that Naomi can have food, companionship, and care. Miller insightfully comments:
Substitution is the structure of love. That’s why, subconsciously, we are allergic to love. We rightly sense that death is at the center of 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 (27).
This idea of love-via-death is central to Miller’s book. True love is costly. When we offer it, we die a little bit. Ruth offers a love to Naomi that restricts and narrows her own life. To love is to limit ourselves. Thankfully, as we see in Ruth’s story, this kind of narrowing love also deepens our lives.
Miller mentions how he sees this narrowing and deepening in godly men who learn to love one woman over many years. “These husbands develop enormous capacities for gentleness, thoughtfulness, and grace. Those who flee the sting of particularity often end up flat, without depth, lost in ephemeral things” (74).
Boaz narrowed his life for Ruth by offering her food, work, protection, and eventually marriage. Miller points out Boaz’s “aggressive tenderness” (95). Men in traditional cultures may avoid serving women because they could lose their dignity, while men in liberal cultures may avoid serving women because they could compromise gender equality. Boaz’ aggressive tenderness avoids both tendencies and illustrates Paul’s teaching on sacrificial headship (Eph 5:22-33).
Miller surprised me by saying the true Christ figure in the book of Ruth is Ruth herself (152). No doubt Ruth shows hesed love. Yet I see myself more in Ruth than Christ in Ruth. Like Ruth I am foreigner, “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph 2:12). Like Ruth, I need a Kinsman-Redeemer who will buy my freedom and offer me steadfast love. Jesus is this Kinsman-Redeemer, who set aside his kingly position to pay the ultimate price of love and secure his foreign bride.
A Shepherd’s Touch
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of A Loving Life is Miller’s powerful ability to weave personal stories and anecdotes into his reflections. He not only explains the book of Ruth and draws out biblical principles, but gently shepherds hearts with the stuff of real life. His often self-deprecating approach demonstrates the very love that he is trying to teach.
A Loving Life is rich in practical wisdom, pastoral in its tone, immensely quotable, and challenging in its message. It exalts Christ’s care for his people. It confronts us with the sacrificial love that Boaz freely offered Ruth and Jesus freely offers sinners. I enthusiastically recommend it to all who journey on the difficult yet life-giving path of love.