Balancing Tenderness and Toughness

Love in any context, but especially in a family, will alternate between tenderness and toughness. The ancient Israelites recognized that love does not look like the saccharine romances (they were blessed not to know about artificial sugar) that are sold in pop culture. Love is not merely a feeling that comes and goes, making us feel warm and cuddly when it’s here and cold and prickly when it’s gone. Love is a choice that includes wisdom, prudence, and the hard work of self-giving.

Every proverb we’ll go over includes the phrase “loyalty and faithfulness,” which is a translation of the Hebrew word hesed, a term referring specifically to “covenant love.” This is an important concept to understand before meditating on the individual proverbs.

Among the ancient Israelites and their neighbors, a covenant was not merely a contract for various services rendered, although covenants did include some specific stipulations. Rather, a covenant established a relationship between the covenant partners, as well as a lifelong promise to accept that relationship and to fulfill certain responsibilities to the other members of the covenant. These agreements might be between nations, individuals, or clans, but the most famous covenants in the Bible were between God and His people, Israel. For instance, God made a covenant with Abraham after he demonstrated his willingness to give everything back to God, even if it meant sacrificing his son Isaac:

And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore.” (Gen. 22:15–17)

With the angel’s statement, God announces His irrevocable commitment to Abraham and His descendants. Now, these commitments might just sound like fancy versions of what we would call contracts, but that wouldn’t be right. A contract is a simple agreement to provide certain goods or services, such as when a person hires a cook or a gardener. A covenant is more like a marriage, in which one’s very identity is changed through establishing a new relationship with a spouse in an irreversible lifelong relationship that includes God as the enforcer of the commitment. Even when God isn’t making the covenant, the individuals or families who are party to the covenant swear before God — not just a lawyer or a magistrate — that they will fulfill the commitment they’re making.

Hesed, or “covenant love,” then, is the love proper to a com­mitted, covenantal relationship: total, self-giving, self-sacrificing, never ending, and based in the love of God. Such love may change its appearance over time — sometimes passionate, sometimes staid; sometimes tender, sometimes tough — but it never changes in the depth of commitment to the other person. That’s what these prov­erbs mean by “loyalty and faithfulness”: unconditional love.

Let not loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them about
your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. (Prov. 3:3)

This article is from a chapter in “The Proverbs Explained.” Click image to order or preview other chapters.

This proverb urges us to make covenant love the center of our lives by giving us images of a necklace and “the tablet of your heart.” The necklace reminds us that unconditional love should always be with us. As Catholics, we make this reminder tangible to ourselves and others by wearing a crucifix necklace or the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Some translations read that we keep hesed “around [our] throat.” This image suggests that covenant love is as essential to life as the air, drink, and food that pass through our throats.

The next image brings to mind several other moments in the Bible. Soon after the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem (587 BC), the Lord spoke to the prophet Jeremiah of the new covenant, which Jesus Christ would fulfill: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33). At the Last Supper, Jesus instituted the Eucharist as His Blood of the “new and everlasting covenant”; this covenant is rooted in the Blood of Jesus Christ, as the New Testament makes clear numerous times.

Then, St. Paul writes that when the Gentiles “do by nature what the law requires . . . even though they do not have the law . . . they show that what the law requires is written on their hearts” (Rom. 2:14–15). He also speaks of his own belief in this way: “For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self” (Rom. 7:22). In fact, the concept of the law resting in the hearts of men is a running theme in St. Paul’s letters:

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on your hearts, to be known and read by all men; and you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Cor. 3:2–3)

This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds. (Heb. 10:16)

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Heb. 8:10)

The Lord writes His covenant and His laws in our hearts, including and especially the law that we live by covenant love. Clearly, the Lord does not want us to live by merely obeying laws and living out the covenant relationship through mere external observance. Rather, His desire is to effect a transformation of every human heart so that the covenantal love of God — and the necessary inclusion of the neighbor in that love — flows from the depths of the human heart.

Jesus so obviously desired this kind of transformation of the heart that when He taught about the commandments of God in the Sermon on the Mount, he expanded on their meaning and ap­plication (see Matt. 5:20–48). “Thou shalt not kill” requires more than simply avoiding murder; it requires a transformed heart that does not call one’s enemy a fool or try to get revenge. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” comes to include refusing even to look upon others with lust. “Thou shalt not swear a false oath” becomes a prohibition against all oaths because one must always tell the truth. Clearly, God desires that covenant love and its specific behavior should flow from the heart.

Do they not err that devise evil? Those who devise good meet loyalty and faithfulness. (Prov. 14:22)

The Hebrew word for “those who devise evil” is chorshei, which refers to plowing fields in an erratic manner. So, those who devise evil follow their own paths in which they chase their own (usually selfish) desires instead of following the straight path of virtue that the Lord has set out for them. The result is a poor harvest, whether of vegetables or of holiness.

On the other hand, those who plow the fields in straight lines, that is, those who follow the Lord’s paths of righteousness and goodness, will encounter covenant love and faithfulness. The link between following God’s law and living in the light of unconditional love is important, particularly in a contemporary culture that denies and rejects that link. For instance, people often set up a false choice between love and following the rules, as in the song lyric, “If loving you is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.” Many people think that loving others entails accepting almost anything they might desire or do — and that loving themselves means indulging every desire that comes along.

This proverb presents an opposing position: following God’s law leads us to authentic love and personal freedom. If you speak to someone who has used his or her freedom to abuse drugs and alcohol or to use pornography or to pursue serial sexual relation­ships, you won’t hear a story of liberation but one of slavery to the addictiveness of sin.

In reality, we humans cannot fully and freely give unconditional love without following God’s law, and we cannot fully follow God’s law without unconditional love. When a child, a family member, or a friend goes astray (chorshei), true love summons us correct him or her, whether gently or with toughness. People who fall into sin hurt themselves and usually the people around them. Love does not let them continue to harm themselves — and worse, it does not affirm them in bad decisions. Accepting their destructive sinful behavior might seem easier at first, but it is not the authentic good that we desire for the person we claim to love.

Another aspect of fulfilling our duties to God and living covenant love belongs to our work, whether inside or outside the home. When we labor for our own glory rather than for the glory of God and the needs of our family and neighbors, we are not practicing covenant love. It’s easy to think that success in our jobs — getting awards, promotions, and so on — means that we are following God’s path. But if we are pursuing those honors to stoke our egos rather than for the sake of others, covenant love is not the operating dynamic in our lives and we are not “devising good.” Moral goodness and self-giving love belong together, and we mature by integrating them in every aspect of our lives — Church, family, friends, society, work, play, and so on.

By loyalty and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil. (Prov. 16:6)

When people live in close quarters, whether in a family or, as I did, in religious community with other priests and seminarians, they learn to deal with each other’s rough edges. We all have them, even if we don’t realize it. The first part of this proverb tells us how true covenant love helps us to cope with the difficult aspects of others’ personalities, as well as our own.

When the wisdom writer says that by covenant love “iniquity is atoned for,” he does not mean that our love magically wipes away sins. For that, we need God’s grace, which is granted by Jesus Christ’s saving death on the Cross, especially as ministered in the sacrament of Confession. This proverb teaches that unconditional love makes wrongs easier to bear and can help others to overcome their struggles.

The assurance that we are acting in love makes all the difference. When I lived in community with my brother Jesuits, they often had to call me out when I was having trouble fulfilling my duties to the community. I frequently tried to take on too many activities at once, and it took the loving correction of those around me to get me to focus on my primary responsibilities. The key to accepting their correction is that I always knew, based on the way they treated me in everyday life — with kindness and prayer and support — that this correction was based on love, not malice. Their love helped me correct my faults.

It’s the same in any family. It is so important that parents tell children that they love them, and there is no such thing as too much love. Of course, when the time comes for toughness, they are assured (even though it might not always seem like it to children at the moment) that correction is coming from their parents’ unconditional love, not from rejection, contempt, or pride. When they know they are loved and that their parents are helping them become better persons through discipline, they will accept that discipline sooner than parents expect. As children discover and work through their unique pains and struggles, the covenant love of parents helps them smooth out their rough edges and forms them into wonderful young women and men.

The second part of this proverb reminds us that our acts of cov­enant love always are better when they are done in union with love and fear of the Lord. Left to ourselves, human love is tinged with pride and self-regard, but our Lord enables us to practice authentic unconditional love. Our love for others becomes a reflection of His love for us; whereas, when we detach ourselves from His love, our own love for others suffers in turn.

Remember that Jesus said that “the great and first commandment” is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind ” (Matt. 22:37, 38). Love Him with everything you have — all of which He has given you anyway. When you love God first, you love His creatures even better. If you love God above everything else, then, you won’t expect your spouse and children to be God; that is, you can let them be the fallible people they are — just like you. His love makes it possible to bring people away from the path of evil.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Fr. Pacwa’s The Proverbs Explained: A Blueprint for Christian Livingwhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

image: Anastasios71 /

Avatar photo


Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ is a respected Scripture scholar, author, and popular EWTN Television and radio host, as well as the founder and President of Ignatius Productions.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage