Going to a private Christian college introduced me to a variety of awkward topics of conversation. My favorite? “So, what’s your love language?”
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what that meant. I vaguely remembered a flowery purple book on the subject, sitting atop a dusty bookshelf in my dad’s study, but I didn’t know people my age actually read it, or that it was important enough to bring up in an introductory chat. I then got my first run-through of the love languages, something that would be repeated again and again in religion class discussions, or over coffee with guys I was trying to crack, or in late-night girly talks in the dorms. I even had friends in more serious marriage-bound relationships who read the book as a couple, marking parts that they felt would enlighten their beloved. At first, I latched onto the theory. It’s interesting. It’s romantic. It makes sense … right?
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the theory, it comes from Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages and proposes the idea that each of us gives and receives love in different ways. While the main application is intended for marriage, it can be seen across the spectrum of relationships, and there have even been subsequent printings of the book focused on singles and children. The five categories are: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Gifts, Quality Time and Physical Touch. Typically, people will have one or two that are their primary love language. For example, when I was tested on how my love “speaks,” I scored highest in Quality Time, closely followed (with only one less point) by Physical Touch. Let’s snuggle for an hour, eh?
But as time goes by, I’ve begun to fear that love has been lost in translation. We may have even taken this idea of love languages, which is meant to inspire us to look at the needs of others, and turned it around to diagnose and defend selfish tendencies. Perhaps the languages could be seen as a starting point, a healthy place to begin developing love. But I’m not yet convinced that you are confined to this, or that by determining which one is your “favorite” you will somehow improve in the art of loving.
First, ask yourself, what is this need we have to dissect our nature, to put labels on its different functions, focusing on the parts and not the whole? We break down our love, putting it in little boxes and dismissing the rest. Now, I have utmost respect for those who devote themselves to investigation of our human nature and habits. There is truth in their work, to be sure. But we shouldn’t so readily let it define our identities, accepting theories as gospel. Furthermore, love has been analyzed and categorized for ages. Other well-known theories include: the six styles of loving, the triangular theory of love, compassionate vs. passionate love, liking vs. loving and the color wheel model of love, all of which present valid approaches. Keep in mind that these authors and psychologists are trying to describe and understand humanity, not make molds for it to fit into. Test all things and cling only to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). You are a unique and growing individual who won’t fully “find yourself” between the pages of a paperback, or in the answer key to a personality test.
Secondly, the love languages (when abused) give us room to be lazy. They allow us to write off the efforts of others, or to limit our own. “Well, nice try, but that’s not how I best receive love.” They tell you that love only translates when everyone is comfortable. But love isn’t about comfort, is it? More often than not, it’s about sacrifice. This isn’t even a strictly Christian idea, but an understanding in the human heart that pure love is a wholehearted, selfless posture. David Richo, psychotherapist and author of How To Be An Adult In Relationships, says, “The most common thread in all spiritualities is to let go of your ego, which is the part of us that thinks that we should be first. [The ego is] the opposite of really showing love, which has to do with caring about others.”
When Jesus spoke of love, whether for your neighbor, spouse, or enemy, He pictured a holistic love, one that doesn’t ask for anything in return. He taught, with His words and actions, that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life. He did this physically, to the point of death. And yet, we have such difficulty with simply setting aside our wants, intentions, insecurities and agendas. Even marriage is supposed to be an imitation of the way Christ fully loves the Church, His “bride.” So why does our version of love seem so finicky and particular, keeping record of rights and wrongs? As theologian and philosopher Rufus Jones said, “Men wrongly divide love into two types, ‘human love’ and ‘divine love,’ but in reality there is only love.”
Consider 1 Corinthians 13 (MSG): “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always ‘me first,’ Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.”
True fulfillment, outside of our own fickle “needs,” beyond the shortcomings of society’s depiction of “love,” is only found within the grace and compassion of Christ. We won’t always “click” with everyone or be able to easily organize them under a checklist with headings and bullet points. We won’t always feel fully valued or appreciated by them either … life is far too messy and organic for that. But in these times, remember that “love is patient, love is kind.” Look to a God who loves unconditionally, and assess how you can do the same with those around you.