The language of love

Valentine’s Day is celebrated in many countries around the world, a commemoration, supposedly, of St. Valentine, an early Christian martyr. But the origins of the celebration are murky: there’s more than one saint by that name, and what they did seems more the stuff of legend than sober history.

One thing, however, is clear: in America at least, the celebration has become very much a commercial affair. The media. The advertisements on TV, in magazines, and on the Internet. The arrangement of displays in retail stores. All conspire together to send the message: Guys, if you want to prove that you love her, you’d better buy her something. Like candy. Or flowers. Or a really nice dinner. Extra credit if jewelry is involved.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no strong intrinsic objections to such romantic gifts and gestures — provided that they are in fact the expression of an already loving relationship.  That’s not the same thing as trying to prove a love whose existence is doubtful (“Well, I bought you flowers, didn’t I?”) or buying a gift out of sheer obligation (“If I don’t do something, I’ll look like a heel”).

I’ve seen wives who were unsure of their husband’s love, waiting to see what he would do on Valentine’s Day. When he does nothing, or does something inappropriate (like giving her an empty gift box as a joke), it confirms her worst suspicions. When he does something, it’s either a temporary salve or taken as a consolation prize. But whatever he does, nothing can substitute for the knowledge that she is truly loved the other 364 days of the year.

As Gary Chapman has taught us, people have different “love languages” — what signifies love to one person may not signify love to someone else. Advertisers and businesses want us to believe that a box of candy or a diamond ring will say “I love you” to anyone. That makes their products and services a safe bet and a convenient purchase.

But guys, here’s the deal: if you asked her, she might tell you that she’d rather you just put your dishes in the dishwasher, like she’s asked a gazillion times. That says love to her much more than a box of candy once a year. She might rather you tell her honestly and regularly that you love her, or notice what she does and say “Thank you.” That might be worth much more to her than diamonds. The frequent gift of a warm and unsolicited hug can be worth a thousand roses.

Sometimes we think of love in terms of what our culture defines as romance, especially on Valentine’s Day. Again, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as far as it goes. But romance is not the whole of love. Christians in particular should understand that, inasmuch as we profess to worship a God who is love (1 John 4:8), and who demonstrated the depth and breadth of that love on the cross (John 15:13; 1 John 4:10).

That said, Christians can also think of love in lofty terms that miss the simple opportunities we have to be loving in daily life. You may be willing to take a bullet for your spouse, for example, but are you willing to listen, with humble attentiveness, respect, and compassion? It’s not rocket science. But it is a choice to made anew every day.

So have a happy Valentine’s Day. And may this be an occasion to ponder what love might truly mean in your home.