Valentine’s Day is coming up, and I’ll bet every one of us has, at one time or another, been given (or bought) a box of those little pastel candy hearts with words printed on them. Back in the mid-1800s, the precursors to our cough drops became popular. They were called “apothecary lozenges,” and they weren’t easy to make. The medicine had to be pounded into a powder with a mortar and pestle, then mixed with a sugar paste, kneaded and rolled out and finally cut into disc-shaped wafers.
In 1847, a pharmacist named Oliver Chase invented a machine that made it easier to produce these lozenges. Eventually, Chase moved from making candy-like medicine to making straight candy wafers. He named his candy-making company the New England Confectionery Company, or the company we know as Necco.
In 1866, his brother Daniel came up with a way to print words on the wafers, using a felt roller pad with red food coloring. By 1902, the discs had begun appearing in different shapes, including the hearts we know so well as “Sweethearts.” When Necco closed down in 2018, Sweethearts were acquired by our very own Ohio-based Spangler Candy Company. They make 100,000 pounds of Sweethearts every day for eleven months in order to produce the 8 billion hearts that will be given and received, especially around Valentine’s Day.
You may love snacking on these little candies or think they taste like sugary sidewalk chalk, but their messages can bring a smile to just about everyone’s face. Whether it’s a trendy message like “Text Me” or a classic like “Cutie Pie,” they all do something important in a fun way: they use words to express love. The expression of love in words is the first of what author Gary Chapman calls “the five love languages.” He calls this language the language of “affirming words.”
As I mentioned last week, Mr. Chapman may have coined the term “love languages,” but he didn’t invent the languages himself. They are God’s creation—ways that God expresses love for us and ways that we can express love for God and for each other. We can find many examples of each language in Scripture and I think that, as we become familiar with them, examples will begin to jump out at us all over the place. Although we may find that we’re more comfortable with one language over the others, we can learn to use them all as we seek to express our love as fully as we can.
I grew up in a family that definitely speaks the language of affirming words. My parents constantly said “I love you” to each other, in front of me and my brothers. They said it to us. We learned to say it to my parents and to each other. To this day, every phone call and visit, email and text between my brothers and me ends with “I love you.” One of the saddest days of my life was the day when I realized that Mom’s dementia had robbed her of the ability to say those words and that I would never hear her say “I love you” again.
My parents showed us that they loved us in many ways. But there’s something special about hearing the words. Maybe that’s why the passage we read from Isaiah today moves me so much. This passage is the only place in the Bible where God specifically says those three little but powerful words: “I love you.”
These words were spoken to God’s people while they were living in exile and slavery. Babylon’s armies had overtaken Jerusalem decades before—the result of the Jewish people’s faithlessness and reliance on military alliances rather than on God. 2 Chronicles tells the story: “The invaders burned the Temple, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels.” Most of those who escaped the sword were taken into exile in Babylon as prisoners and slaves, where they lived for the next fifty years.
The words of in chapters 1-39 of Isaiah came to them in the midst of their exile, a time when they must have been feeling anything but loved by God. Where was God in the midst of their suffering, when they were far from home and feeling even farther away from the special relationship with God they believed they had been promised?
The prophecy spoken through Isaiah in chapters 40-66 comes as the Babylonian empire is crumbling. Isaiah 40 tells us that Jerusalem had served her term and her penalty was paid. Where there had been words of judgment and slavery, now there are words of freedom and hope. There had been words of restoration before, but they were spoken in the midst of trial—a promise for some distant future. Now, that future has arrived, and with it, the unequivocal, affirming words from God: “I love you.”
Those three clear words are important, but God isn’t limited to such a small vocabulary. “I have called you by name, you are mine,” God says. “When you go through difficult times, I’ll be with you.” “I will gather you to myself—everyone who is called by my name.” “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
Can you imagine hearing those words as an exile in Babylon? Can you hear them being spoken to you, today? Can you imagine God handing you a box of candy hearts printed with those words: “Precious,” “Honored,” “Called by Name,” “You Are Mine,” “I’ll Be with You,” “I Love You”?
These words just begin to scratch the surface of the “affirming words” love language. This language also includes what Chapman calls different “dialects”. These dialects include words of encouragement, words of kindness, and “humble” words. The word “encourage” literally means, “to inspire courage.” When we speak encouraging words to someone, we give them the courage to be what God created them to be. We let them know that they are valued. “You can do it.” “You make the best cookies.” “I enjoy talking with you.” “You’re a great mom or dad, son or daughter, sister or brother, or friend.”
Jesus spoke affirming words, too. “You are the light of the world.” “I have called you friends.” To Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon.” To a questioning scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
And then there are words of kindness. This has to do with how speak as well as what we say. The tone we use can make the difference between words that are affirming and words that are not. Compare “Oh, I would love to have your mother’s secret recipe chicken casserole for dinner tonight. Again.” (said with the verbal equivalent of rolled eyes) with “I would love to have your mother’s secret recipe chicken casserole for dinner tonight. Everything tastes good when I share it with you.” The second sentence uses affirming words of kindness. The second one does not.
Then there are humble words, which Chapman describes in a rather unique way. According to him, humble words are requests, not demands. When we demand something, we speak from a place of entitlement, expecting to be accommodated. Sometimes we make those demands in a back-handed way. “I suppose you’re too busy to take the trash out tonight.” It’s not a demand, but it’s based on the assumption that the other person expected to do what you want them to do.
When we make a request of someone, we hand control over to them. They get to decide whether to agree or not. When you make a request of someone, Chapman says, you affirm that something about them is valuable to you—something that makes your life better. “Could you please take out the trash tonight? That would be really helpful to me.” These humble words of request invite and affirm but don’t demand.
Finally, there are kind words: words that Paul described in his letter to the Corinthians, which we read last week. They aren’t envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. They don’t bring up past hurts in order to cause hurt in the present. They are words that build bridges rather than walls, through understanding and apology and forgiveness.
When I think of kind words, I think of Jesus, speaking with Peter on the beach after the resurrection. Peter had denied knowing Jesus three times. There’s no mention of Peter at the cross; in fact, according to Luke, all of Jesus’ acquaintances had watched from a distance. And yet, Jesus asks Peter a question. “Do you love me?” Jesus offers Peter three opportunities to experience forgiveness. Three opportunities to express his love for Jesus. Three opportunities to say to Jesus, “I love you.”
God freely expresses love for us—in words, affirming words. But, what if we’re not so good at that? What if “affirming words” aren’t our native love language? Chapman offers some helpful suggestions. If coming up with your own words, keep a notebook, and write down the words of affirmation you find on TV and Facebook, in books and movies, on bumper stickers and greeting cards. Buy a box of those candy hearts and write down the sayings you think will make your loved one smile. Affirming word of love are everywhere. Use them.
Secondly, say affirming words to others when the person you’re speaking of isn’t around. Eventually they’ll hear about what you said, and your words will carry as much weight as if you’d spoken them directly. I heard a story once about a pastor who was new to a church. She was told about Mrs. Jones and Mr. Smith—two members of the church who couldn’t stand each other. The new pastor learned that Mrs. Jones baked great apple pies, and that Mr. Smith had a beautiful singing voice. In a conversation with Mrs. Jones, the pastor asked if she knew Mr. Smith. Yes, she did, she sniffed. “I heard he has a great singing voice,” the pastor said. “Yes, that’s true,” Mrs. Jones conceded.
When the pastor visited Mr. Smith, she asked if he knew Mrs. Jones. Yes, he did, he admitted. “Mrs. Jones says you have a beautiful singing voice,” the pastor said. “She did?” Mr. Smith said. He paused and then said, “She’s known for her apple pies, you know.” The pastor made sure that Mrs. Jones heard about Mr. Smith’s comment. Soon after that, the congregation began to notice a warming trend between the former foes. Affirming words are powerful, even when given indirectly.
Saying those words about someone to others in front of them is even more powerful. Affirming your praise and appreciation publicly declares how much you value the other person. Jesus did this in his prayer in the upper room. Out loud, where the disciples could hear him, he prayed, “Father, I have made your name known to those whom you gave me…and they have kept your word…the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me” (John 17:6-8). Imagine hearing those affirming words spoken by Jesus about you, to God, in your hearing. Imagine what a loving gift you give to someone else when you speak to others about them, in their hearing.
If you still find it difficult to say affirming words out loud, try writing them down. Words that are written down have the added benefit of being long-lasting. They will be cherished long after spoken words have been forgotten. So, write a short note. Make a simple card. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare or Hallmark-worthy, and you don’t have to wait for a special occasion. Just write what’s in your heart, even if it’s nothing more than those three little words: “I love you.”
We can express our love to God using the language of affirming words, just as we do to people. We naturally do this together in worship, especially when we sing. But, if that’s hard for you to do on your own, try Chapman’s suggestions. Speak about God to others, while God listens in. If your prayers generally begin with a list of concerns and requests, try beginning as Jesus taught us to: with praise. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Is it hard for you to find the right words? Use the words of others—the words of the psalms, the words you read in your daily devotions, the words of the hymns we sing. Turn God’s own words around and say them back to God: “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”
The more we practice the love language of affirming words, the more comfortable we’ll be speaking it, and it’s never too late to start. It doesn’t matter how old you are. It doesn’t matter if you grew up in a family where silence was golden when it came to speaking of love. It doesn’t matter if you think your usual ways of expressing love should be sufficient. Linda Myers posted this thought on Facebook recently: “Everything we say at funerals should be said at birthday parties instead. We leave so much love unspoken.” It’s never too late to learn to speak affirming words of love, not just at birthday parties or Valentine’s Day but every day, to God and to others.
are many benefits to becoming fluent in this language, especially when it’s not our native tongue. Expanding our vocabulary for expressing love widens and deepens our relationships with God and with others. We become more effective in expressing our love to those whose primary love language is affirming words. They’ll experience our love for them more fully if they don’t have to translate it from a foreign tongue. We’ll also find it easier to accept the love expressed to us in affirming words, even if that’s not our primary love language. We’ll recognize it for what it is—a sincere gift of love.
What do we do if our primary language is affirming words, but we rarely it from the ones we love? That’s where grace comes in—the grace to accept love as it’s expressed, however different from what would prefer. When our preferred expressions of love aren’t forthcoming, that’s when our love for others must be the love Paul describes: love that doesn’t insist on its own way. Love that bears all things—like not hearing the words you long for. Love that believes all things—believing in love that’s expressed in other languages. Love that endures, even when it is imperfectly expressed.
If you need any more convincing that God speaks the love language of affirming words, consider the words of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Jesus is God’s ultimate expression of love for us—the Word, the Living Word. If God spoke God’s love for us in a Word, how can we refuse to hear and speak words of love ourselves? The love language of affirming words is God’s gift to us. We are blessed when we hear God’s words of love for us, and we are blessed when we speak affirming words of love to God and to others. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young