I suppose it is a story as old as time itself. Man and woman, thrown together by circumstance. Man tolerates the relationship while the woman is committed, heart and soul. Eventually, woman finds a way (she believes) to bind her man to herself, to earn his heart-felt commitment once and for all.
It is a formulaic storyline that fills our movies and programs, and for good reason. It is a time-honored attempt to earn love, or something that emulates deep affection. It’s also pretty life-like. Don’t believe me?
Read Genesis 29:31-34.
Leah isn’t loved, but she’s pretty fertile. The birth of Offspring #1 inspires her to dream: “Surely now my husband will love me.” Offspring #2 prompts the thought, “…I am not loved…” Finally, she realizes that it takes three kids to get that sort of committment she craves: “Now, surely my husband will become attached to me because I have given him three sons.”
We see Leah’s desperation again in the next chapter. She brazenly trades food for Jacob’s attention, and after three more sons she confirms that this time – finally – she’s got him: “Now surely Jacob will honor me, because I have given him six sons.”
Wonder how that worked out for her.
What did Leah want? Love. She just wanted to be loved; not loved in spite of the fact that she had weak eyes and wasn’t Rachel, “…lovely in form and appearance.” She just wanted love, honor, and attachment, deeply-rooted affection for who and what she was. She named her kids to recall her struggles. She battled her sister and bartered her food in an attempt to earn something that must be freely given.
Not so different from today, though; there really isn’t anything new under the sun.
It sounds remarkably like my friend Bethany, who, at the age of 45, hides various decisions from her parents; fearing that their disapproval of her judgment will imply disapproval of her, Bethany dares not risk losing Mommy’s and Daddy’s love by having them know that she pays for the highest speed internet or bought her son a cheap cell phone.
It sounds like gifted choir member who insists that she can’t sing, can’t remember the words, lacks a decent voice. She craves affirmation of her considerable skills because no one seems to care much for her as an individual.
Leah’s actions recall a guy I met back in the US, someone who made sure everyone knew his accomplishments, his acquaintances, his friends, his experiences so that they might give him the respect he wanted. Ironically, his self-centered monologues turned people off, causing them to ignore him which, in turn, inspired more egocentric conversation in pursuit of elusive respect.
Our thinking seems to be, “If I have enough babies, he’ll love me. If my decisions are perfect, they’ll care about me. If I accomplish enough, they’ll respect me. If I serve enough, people will treasure me….” The problem though, is that our thoughts rarely stop at this point. Too often we confuse the affections of others with worthiness of ourselves, and we end up thinking, “If I have enough babies, I will be innately loveable. If my decisions are perfect, I’ll be worthy of approval. If I accomplish enough, I will become inherently respectable. If I serve enough, I will be a treasure in and of myself…”
Look around you, at work and in church, and observe some of the more odd patterns you see in others. My friend PW tells me frequently, “Jeremy, any time you observe extreme behavior or an extreme point of view – anything that is at the far end of any particular spectrum – you’ve got to realize that there’s a reason for it. There’s always a story behind it. Always. Find the story, and you’ll likely understand the person. Usually, you’ll manage to love him as well.”
So, that guy at church who throws money around and makes power plays…what’s his story? What is he seeking? Power for the sake of power? Or does he really need respect that he never got from people before he was wealthy?
The woman who serves - constantly, desperately, in every conceivable capacity - why doesn’t she ever go home? Could it be she is chasing love and involvement that her husband/father/sons seem not to give?
Two observations spring to mind:
1. On a personal level, loving is impossible without knowing. We can love groups of people without knowing too much about that. God’s sharing of His own divine love makes such a thing possible. However, to love the most difficult people around us, sometimes we need to know their story. We need to work at understanding what drives them, what makes their words and behaviors so outrageous. We have to practice a certain amount of reflection and introspection, setting aside how we feel about people long enough to think about them, to know them.
2. The stories that drive our behavior also inform our theology. Stay with me here, because this might be a stretch. I was recently talking about Chad, a difficult Christian brother, while complaining to my buddy, Terry. I intended to end the conversation with, “But I’ll tell ya…that guy works really, really hard.” Terry snorted and said, “Chad doesn’t have any choice. In his mind, Chad still hears the voice of his daddy or momma telling him he’s not good enough, not smart enough, not holy enough.” Interestingly enough, Chad is a pretty strong anti-Calvinism proponent, and why not? Anyone who is driven to work hard in order to earn human favor will likely drift towards theological positions that allow him to earn divine favor as well. Is it any coincidence that liberation theology came from communities that legitimately craved justice?
Instead of critiquing theology in a vacuum or avoiding difficult individuals whose behavior is beyond bizarre, we need to listen. We need to hear the stories of those who speak through their beliefs and actions. We need to practice discernment and exercise our willingness to hear not just what is said by others, but also what is left out. In knowing people and their positions in life, we will find it possible to love them and bring them into a deeper relationship with Christ and his church.
We’ve all got our stories, haven’t we? We all bring our baggage and our history to our relationships and our theology. What is my story, and what is yours?