How One Hebrew Word Changed My Heart
I have a confession to make: I’m not a loving person. Actually, that’s probably putting it a bit too nicely. Sure, I can be agreeable and diplomatic. I’m not quick to butt heads or pick a fight. But the truth is, when it comes to displaying compassion, I am naturally as soft and snuggly as a slab of granite.
To a certain degree, I think men in general can struggle with a tendency toward being harsh and unloving. Colossians 3:19 seems to indicate so: “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them” (ESV). Personal experience has taught me that this temptation toward harshness is particularly strong when faced with…uh, shall we say, wildly fluctuating female hormones. When those closest to us demonstrate an emotional stability on par with a wave pool, our annoyance can go into overdrive fairly easily.
Several months ago, on one particularly emotional evening, I isolated myself in the bedroom with my Bible, desperate for God’s help. I was angry and I knew I needed to demonstrate more tenderness and love to Shannon. (Sound familiar?)
God showed up and rocked my world, displaying His tender love for me by drawing my attention to a short, three-letter Hebrew word: leb. It appears in several places in Scripture, each of which is packed with meaning.
God revealed Himself to me through the Levite in Judges 19, who sought his wayward wife with gentle words: “But his concubine played the harlot against him, and went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there four whole months. Then her husband arose and went after her, to speak kindly [leb] to her and bring her back” (Judges 19:2, 3a).
God revealed Himself to me through Joseph, who showed mercy to his brothers, who, through hatred and jealousy, had sinned grievously against him: “‘Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ And he comforted them and spoke kindly [leb] to them” (Genesis 50:21).
God revealed Himself to me through Boaz, who treated Ruth—a foreigner and a stranger to the people of God—with kindness: “Then she [Ruth, after working in Boaz’s field] said, ‘Let me find favor in your sight, my lord; for you have comforted me, and have spoken kindly [leb] to your maidservant, though I am not like one of your maidservants” (Ruth 2:13).
God revealed Himself to me through Hezekiah, who encouraged those in Israel with repentant hearts: “Then Hezekiah spoke encouragingly [leb] to all the Levites who showed good insight in the things of the LORD. So they ate for the appointed seven days, sacrificing peace offerings and giving thanks to the LORD God of their fathers” (2 Chronicles 30:22, NASB).
How do I know God is like this? Because He Himself has spoken kindly to wayward Israel with a gospel promise that is for all who find mercy in His sight: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her [Israel], and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly [leb] to her” (Hosea 2:14, ESV). “Speak tenderly [leb] to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned” (Isaiah 40:2a, ESV).
Through these examples, God graciously plowed me over with His amazing love. Even though I have been unfaithful to Him countless times, He has tenderly wooed me back to Himself. When faced with my anger toward Him, God has responded with mercy, not treating me as my sins deserve (Psalm 103:10), dousing the flames of my anger and bringing me to sweet repentance (Romans 2:4). Though I was once alienated from God, He has shown me favor by drawing me near through the blood of Christ (Ephesians 2:12-13). Though I have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), He has made an astounding proclamation on my behalf: my iniquity is forgiven (Psalm 32:5).
In that moment, God helped me see how the Bible isn’t to be used primarily to give us examples of how we should be longsuffering and merciful and gracious. The stories of Joseph and Boaz and Hezekiah are designed to point us to God, not a moralistic code of conduct. If we see any virtue in the Old Testament saints (or in the New Testament saints), it is because of the divine virtue bestowed upon them by the grace of God.
Alone in my bedroom, I was affected by the nature and character of God, enabling and equipping and motivating me to treat my wife as this longsuffering, merciful, and gracious God had treated me. Instead of trying to emulate the virtue of past saints in my own strength, outside the power of the gospel, I was floored by the goodness of God’s love for me in the gospel.
I can still struggle with anger. I’m not what you would consider a bleeding heart. But that experience of God’s condescending love has radically affected how I treat others when I find myself annoyed and angered. In other words, I am learning how to more effectively love others because of the love He has first shown me (1 John 4:19).