Steadfast Love"Even–or especially– in the wilderness, we can find the truth about ourselves."
As a teenager, I remember the day a new sign appeared on the familiar bulletin board just outside my voice teacher’s studio. It read, “There is nothing you can do to make God love you less; There is nothing you can do to make God love you more.” I had heard the first sentence many times before, but I still recall how struck I was by the second statement. While I could not do anything to lose God’s love, there also was not any good I could do to earn more of it. My heart swelled with this fresh understanding of the pure, unconditional nature of God’s love. His love was not like my love, which is so often fickle and conditional. The boundless love of God, our Creator, is unconditional and unmerited.
A beautiful Hebrew word, chesed, occurs nearly 250 times in the Old Testament. It means steadfast, unconditional love, loving kindness, compassion, mercy; love that endures, never quits, never lets go. This word remains difficult to translate into English because it means all of this at the same time. It embodies the concept of covenant—faithful devotion fueled by love. Most of the 250 occurrences of chesed reference the love and mercy of God toward humanity and for His people. It speaks to the very character and nature of God. God is love and so forms the basis of His relationship with humankind.
In Jeremiah 31, the prophet foretells a coming time of hope and restoration for God’s exiled people. Though they persisted in sin and rebellion against God, His love remained steadfast, and His people “found grace in the wilderness.” The Lord said, “I have loved you with an everlasting love [chesed]; therefore, I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer. 31:2b, 3b, NRSV).
For Israel, the wilderness represented a place of sin, desolation, danger, deprivation—a place where everything was hard. Israel’s 70-year exile was an elongated wilderness experience, where it was awfully hard to cling to faith and hope. God’s people longed to be back home, to go back to the life they had known; yet Jeremiah points out that it was in the wilderness that God’s people experienced the depths of His love. Though they were faithless, He was faithful to the promises He had made. Through it all, God showed His persistent, loyal and unconditional love and care to His people.
In the “Life with God” Bible, William H. Willimon points out that the wilderness is a place where no one wants to go. Eventually in this life, however, everyone must. It is a shadowy place of day-to-day struggle to survive and find our way. Yet, as is proclaimed here by Jeremiah, even in the wilderness, especially in the wilderness, the grace of God abounds. Anytime we as the community of faith or as believers find ourselves in some “wilderness,” we need to be attentive and expectant for revelations of God’s love and care. For, even there, especially there, we can find chesed, the steadfast love of God. In times and places of loneliness and desolation, we meet God just as we are—needing to be loved, to be accepted, to be imbued with hope. God assures us that we are already loved just as we are.
When in the wilderness, take heart. God is with you. In the midst of your difficult circumstances or feelings of hurt, rejection, or confusion, you have to—as Henri Nouwen advises in “Life as the Beloved”—say to yourself, “These feelings, strong as they may be, are not telling me the truth about myself. The truth, even though I cannot feel it right now, is that I am a chosen child of God, precious in God’s eyes, called the Beloved for all eternity and held safe in an everlasting embrace.” The chesed of God is unconditional, unhindered, unfailing. It is the love our souls long for and need.
We receive it by God’s initiative. Even before we knew our Creator, He loved us. Even before we move toward God, He moves toward us. When we fail, we are loved completely. When we get it right, we are loved just the same.
“So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16 NSRV). May we be attentive and expectant for revelations of this great love. And may this be our prayer: “Lord, help us to grasp the depths of Your love with our whole being, so that we may love You and the people around us with our whole being, with the depths of Your steadfast love.”
Major Annalise Francis is administrator and corps officer for the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Ashland, OH.