1 Corinthians 13:1-13: Psalm 36:5-10
It’s funny how sometimes a bunch of little disconnected threads can all come together at some point in your life. Some thirty years ago, counselor and author Gary Chapman wrote a book called The Five Love Languages. It was pretty popular, and still is—it’s sold more than 20 million copies, plus there are other related books. It’s about how couples can get better at showing and receiving love but, since I felt that Marc and I were doing just fine in that department, it didn’t really grab my attention when it came out.
Then, a couple years ago, I was looking for a Bible study to offer the parents of the preschool students. The title popped up again. But, it wasn’t actually a Bible study, so again skipped over it.
Then, a few weeks ago, Marc and I were enjoying our Friday night routine of watching TV crime dramas. As usual, we started with “S.W.A.T.,” then moved on to “Magnum P.I.” We finished up with “Blue Bloods,” and in that week’s episode, one of the police officers had read Chapman’s book. She was getting positive results by using what she’d learned in her encounters with suspects and victim and co-workers, as well as with her husband. I decided I thirty years was long enough to wait and that it was time to check out this book.
Chapman’s premise is that we express love in five basic ways. He calls them “the five love languages.” The five love languages are words of affirmation, physical touch, quality time, gift-giving and receiving, and acts of service. According to Chapman, each one of us has a primary love language. It’s the way we feel most comfortable expressing our love for someone else. It’s also the language we understand best when receiving love—what really makes us feel loved. So, for example, you may feel most comfortable expressing your love by giving a gift, and you may feel most loved when you receive a gift. It reminds you that someone cares enough about you to think of you in the course of their day. Or, you may express your love through acts of service—doing helpful things for the person you love. And, you may feel most loved when someone does something thoughtful for you.
The problem starts when two people have different love languages. Imagine a husband whose language is gift-giving, and a wife whose language is acts of service. The husband comes home one day with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, eager to see his wife’s joy in knowing he had thought of her during the day and taken the time to buy her this lovely gift. He walks in the door, past the dog who’s whining to go out, over the pile of unfolded laundry in the hallway, and presents his gift as his wife juggles the baby in one hand and her cell phone in the other while taking care of an emergency at work. She looks at him with dismay, and maybe even anger. He looks at her with disappointment. Neither feels loved in that moment, because he had expressed his love with a gift, but she feels loved when her husband pitches in, unasked.
Think how differently things would have turned out if he had placed his flowers on the counter, taken the baby, put the leash on the dog, and taken them both out for a walk. I’m willing to bet that by the time he got back, his wife would have greeted him with a warm smile and big hug, because he had shown her how much he loved her in the way she best understood.
Chapman’s is one of those books that describes something we all kind of know but never put into words. And, he gives some very practical tips on becoming more fluent in all the love languages—your own and those of the people you love, whether that loved one is a spouse, other family members, or friends.
As I read through the book, a number of things occurred to me. First, figuring out your loved one’s primary language helps you express the love you have for them in a way that they can fully appreciate. It’s a twist on the golden rule: Do unto others, not what you would have them do unto you, but what they would have you do unto them. We express our love most effectively by honoring their preferences, in the ways they can best receive it. We can learn to understand their love language, even when it’s not the same as ours, and act accordingly.
Secondly, figuring out our own primary love language helps us recognize why we might not feel loved. Like the husband with an armload of flowers, our loved one may be doing their level best to show us love in the way they understand it, and they’re flummoxed when we’re disappointed. Understanding that our language may be different from theirs allows us to respond with grace, accepting what they have to give in spite of how it’s given.
Finally, I realized that, while Chapman’s description of love languages was his creation, the languages themselves are not. They were created by God. They were created by God as the means by which God expresses love for us. Scripture is positively brimming with love in all five of the love languages. There are beautiful words of affirmation. There are stories about God’s love conveyed through physical touch. There are passages about God spending quality time with us. Scripture runneth over with gifts, given and received, and acts of service far beyond what our human minds can comprehend.
The love languages were also created by God as ways we can express our love for God. Each of us may have a primary love language, but the good news here is that God understands all the languages! We never need to worry about a mismatch, like the ones we may experience in our human relationships. But, we also have the opportunity to grow in our relationship with God as we learn new ways of expressing our love for God.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to explore the five love languages that Chapman writes about. We’ll gain an understanding about what makes us feel most loved, and how to offer grace to those who love us but don’t express it in our language. We’ll search the Scriptures for examples of how God uses these languages to show love for us. And, we’ll explore how we can use the five love languages to express our love for God and for other people.
Where better to begin this series about love language than with Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the nature of love? 1 Corinthians 13 is such a beautiful passage. It’s familiar even to people who aren’t acquainted with the Bible since it’s a staple of wedding ceremonies. I always have to chuckle when a starry-eyed couple chooses this passage though, because it’s a pretty sure bet that they don’t know why Paul wrote it. He wrote these words to a church that was feeling anything but love for each other—a church that had developed a reputation for being quarrelsome, one where jealousy was rampant and factionalism had arisen. Paul’s words aren’t so much a beautiful ode to love as a stern lecture to a congregation that clearly didn’t know what love looks like or how to express it.
Last week, Ron mentioned the old adage that “Jesus is the answer” to any question. But here, I think Paul might say that “love is the answer” to the problems in the Corinthian church. The love that Paul describes is the agape kind of love we talked about a few weeks ago—selfless love, love that seeks only the well-being of the other, the love that God showed us in Jesus.
“Love is patient; love is kind,” Paul begins. The person who has this love for others works to learn the love language the beloved speaks. It’s not a quick process. It requires paying close attention to the other. What makes her glow with happiness? What makes his eyes light up? This kind of love is based on a genuine desire to please someone else. That may mean offering signs of love in the way they best understand but are out of our comfort zone. Patient, kind love also accepts the love expressed to us at face value—not devaluing it because it isn’t offered in the way we most prefer.
Paul continues, “Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.” The agape love Paul speaks of doesn’t look around and compare notes. It doesn’t look at Facebook and say, “If I were really loved, my beloved would treat me like that.” We certainly don’t boast about our own ability to speak in multiple love languages in ways that make others feel deficient in their own ways of expressing love. In fact, we would do well to view our own ways of loving with humility, since we may not be nearly as good at speaking someone else’s love language as we think we are.
“Love does not insist on its own way…it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.” The person who loves this way doesn’t insist that love be expressed only in their own preferred love language. Agape love never assumes that the love being offered is anything but sincere, and it rejoices in the truth of that love, however it’s expressed. Agape looks beyond the language that’s spoken to the truth of the speaker’s intentions and rejoices in it.
“Love is not irritable or resentful.” People who know how to offer agape aren’t irritated when love is offered in a language other than their own. They don’t see the use of a foreign love language as an insult or thoughtlessness. They don’t become resentful or, as the Common English Bible says, “keep a record of complaints.” Agape has no use for an inventory of all the times we wanted to be shown love in a particular way, but weren’t. Agape doesn’t weaponize love by piling up less-than-satisfactory memories of less-than-perfect expressions of love so that they can be used as ammunition later on. People who love with an agape sort of love graciously accept love in whatever form it’s offered and, if any record is kept, it’s a record of gratitude.
The Corinthians placed great store in their knowledge and gifts like prophecy and tongues. The Corinthians thought these were marks of their spiritual maturity. We can fall into the same trap. But, Paul warns, these are temporary things. They are incomplete things. They are the security blankets clung to by children who haven’t yet grown into “the measure of the full stature of Christ.” Love—selfless love, agape love—is what lasts and will lead us to spiritual adulthood.
Until then, Paul says, we see in a mirror, dimly. What do we see in a mirror? Ourselves. We don’t see others, and we certainly don’t see God. Often, we don’t even see ourselves clearly, clouded as our vision is by our own perceptions. And, this is how we often see the expressions of love we’re given, too. We see them only in terms of how we want to be loved. We perceive them only through our own needs and desires, unless grace-filled love opens the ears of our hearts so that we can hear the love language someone else is speaking.
When we love selflessly, we see more clearly. One day we will be perfected in love, and in that day, Paul assures us, we will know fully, even as we have been fully known. Isn’t that what we all seek? Isn’t that what we want expressions of love to indicate—that we are fully and deeply known? In Paul’s world, “knowing” someone was a metaphor for the most intimate knowledge lovers can have of each other. We want to be known like that—not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. That’s how God knows us, and that’s how we want to be known by the people in our lives.
We come closer to feeling known when our beloved speaks our language. But, as we are being perfected in love, our vision and hearing improve. We’re able to see in others what they are trying to show us. We’re able to hear in other languages how much we are loved and known. We’re able to speak the love language of the other, even when it’s not our native tongue, so that they will begin to feel known. And, we become more attuned to the love languages God speaks to us, understanding the love God has for us, because of (and maybe in spite of) the fact that we are indeed fully known by God.
The psalm we read in our Call to Worship this morning describes the amazing love God has for us. Repeatedly, the psalmist describes this love as “steadfast.” The Hebrew word for “steadfast love” means abundant kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and mercy, all without end. Does this sound familiar? A love that is kind. A love that is forgiving. A love that endures. This is the love God has for us—the love Paul describes, spoken to us in multiple languages, throughout Scripture and throughout our lives, so that we can hear it and feel it, embrace it and be embraced by it.
All the time I was thinking about this theme of love and love languages, a song kept running through my head. The song was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen. Since I’m not a Queen fan, I figured it must have been the Holy Spirit who planted this annoying earworm, so I looked up the lyrics. The song begins, “This thing called love, I just can’t handle it. This thing called love, I must get ’round to it.” And then the first verse ends with thee words: “I ain’t ready [for this] crazy little thing called love.”
It may be true that many of us aren’t really ready to fully express or receive this crazy big thing called love—whether it’s love between us and other people, or between us and God. Hopefully, after we spend some time learning God’s love languages, we’ll be more ready. To get ready for this “getting ready,” I’ve provided copies of a quiz on the table in the narthex. It’s designed to help you identify your own primary love languages. If you haven’t already done so, please pick one up and complete it before next Sunday. Then, keep your results in mind as we focus on God’s love languages in weeks ahead.
God uses many languages so that we can experience God’s love in the way we can best understand. God accepts our expressions of love in whatever language we speak—with grace, with forgiveness, and with understanding, because God created and understands all the love languages. As we dive into this rich store of love language, we’ll become more ready for love—more ready to express it and more ready to receive it. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young