Two friends of mine—gracious friends of Central—are teaching a class at their church to help couples foster intimacy in their marriages. They have laughed that they had better work on their relationship in order to lead this class with integrity! In a recent conversation the husband spoke of a new insight: what each of most desires is understanding. When we share the burdens of our hearts with our loved ones, it is not for them to fix the situation; it is an opportunity for them to express understanding. Understanding places us on the side of the one expressing concern, and we are drawn into his or her perspective on the vicissitudes of life. When we try to “fix” another’s situation, we display a subtle superiority that disempowers rather than supports.
Psalm 119, that really long acrostic poem about God’s revelation to and expectations of Israel, often returns to the theme of seeking wisdom and gaining understanding. These are gifts that God will provide for those who earnestly seek them. In the seventh week after the Epiphany, we listen to this text: “Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart” (Psalm 119:34). It appears that the Psalmist is praying to be able to see things more clearly as God sees them. Perhaps another interpretation is the desire for God to understand the Psalmist’s (or the nation’s) situation, with all its frailty and vulnerability.
Understanding requires an intentional willingness to make space for the desire or condition of the other—and be changed by it. The old theological doctrine of impassibility, held tightly by classical theism, states that God does not have passions and that God cannot be acted on from external powers. This doctrine is no longer the voice of orthodoxy. Thankfully, in more recent years, theologians have maintained if God cannot suffer with us, God cannot love us. It seems to me that understanding is about suffering with another and thereby growing in love. God offers the deepest understanding through pitching a tent on our side, becoming one of us (John 1: 14). We are called, also, to this kind of understanding.
Molly T. Marshall
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