We each have, tucked away in our hearts, memories of extra special moments throughout our lives when we felt especially loved. In fact, it’s a wonderful thing to do, once in a while—an exercise that’s good for our heart and our hope–to revisit those moments in our lives, starting from the time we were very little and then moving forward toward the present. Taking some time to remember and revisit and feel grateful for those experiences.
We develop our own understandings of what love is from our early experiences of feeling cared for, wanted, protected, and valued. Whether we grew up in a perfect home or not—and many of us didn’t, but love still found a way—we begin to see that, for us, Love has a certain feel, a certain look. It may involve hearing or saying specific words—like “I love you”—or be more about the things we do for each other than the things we say.
In the 1990s, a family counselor named Gary Chapman noticed a common theme in many of his sessions with couples. Often partners said they didn’t feel loved by the other person and that led to all sorts of problems that brought them to counseling. But it was often the case that the other partner felt he or she was being loving, even though their mate didn’t seem to appreciate it, or it never seemed to be enough. Curious about this common pattern, Chapman began to research the possibility that people feel and share love in different ways. That would mean that if someone has a much different way of loving than we do, we might miss the fact—or the feeling—that we’re loved when we’re with them. They might be loving us, and we wouldn’t even know, because their way of loving—what seems right and good to them–isn’t the way we expect love to look. It would be like we’re on different frequencies, missing each other’s signals.
Chapman eventually wrote a book, based on his couples’ research, called The Five Love Languages and it was quite successful; in fact, it is still selling strong and has blossomed into versions for different audiences. The book is based on the simple idea that when we learn how we feel most loved—and how the one we love feels most loved—that understanding will help us create a happier, stronger, more fulfilling relationships with each other, where we both feel wanted and valued, cared about and loved.
So when you think back to one of those memories you have in which you felt deeply loved, you may find a clue about your own love language. For example, one of my favorite memories is from an afternoon I sat beside my great-grandmother as she told me stories from her own childhood, when she witnessed the Chiefs of the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations coming into her small Oklahoma town for a great powwow. She was just a little girl but it was such an awesome sight that she remembered it in vivid detail and told me all about it—even down to the way the breeze stirred up by the wagon wheels passing in the street blew her hair away from her face. That whole precious memory is suspended in time for me and I too can remember so many things about that day, even though I was probably only four or five years old. I felt so loved and special in that time we spent together.
You might want to take a moment just now and picture a special, loving memory of your own. Go back to all the details—the way things felt and looked and sounded that day. Let your heart open and feel the love again, just like you were back there, whether it happened yesterday or decades ago. And once you’re feeling that experience again, ask yourself whether the moment included any of the following things: you received a gift from someone you loved, you spent good quality time with them, they told you they loved or appreciated you, they were doing something extra nice for you, or they made contact with you in some way, by holding your hand, touching your shoulder, giving you a hug, kissing you on the forehead. Were any of those things present in your loving memory? Did one in particular make you feel loved? When I tried this experiment myself I knew immediately—spending that quality time with my great-grandma, quality time was what made me feel loved.
Each one of those actions represents a different love language, according to Gary Chapman. In his book, he identified the languages as
- Words of affirmation, in which someone expresses love or appreciation. So you feel most loved when someone says it. Words are important.
- Quality time, like the time I spent with Grandma Roos. Being together is how you feel loved, when someone is by your side and wants more than anything to spend time with you.
- Receiving gifts, when your loved one surprises you with chocolates and flowers;
- Acts of service, when your person does thoughtful things for you, helping you with tasks you need to accomplish, or things he or she knows will make you happy;
- Physical touch, when making contact, feeling close, sharing loving touch makes you feel most loved.
Discovering how we feel loved can be a big part of the puzzle of improving our relationships. We can understand one another better and know that if we’re not feeling loved, it might not be that the other person isn’t trying but that they have a different love language of their own. And that’s the other challenge. Whatever our love language is, it frames both how we feel loved and how we share love, which means we’re likely to show love in the way we’d like to receive it, even though the other person may feel most loved some other way.
This can lead to misunderstanding and leave both people feeling unloved. Here’s why: say one partner whose love language is acts of service does something nice for her beloved such as cooking his favorite dinner but his love language is words of affirmation. That means he feels most loved when she expresses her appreciation and love for him, but not necessarily when she does nice things. He might totally miss that the dinner she made was her showing love for him. And since she will feel most loved when he does something nice for her (because her love language is acts of service), he can tell her she’s pretty til the cows come home but if he doesn’t back it up with actions—doing something nice or kind fo her—she may not really feel the love he’s trying to share.
Part of the challenge and beauty of love is that it always involves drawing unique and individual souls together and making us a part of something bigger than we were alone. We start out as two separate people with different experiences and outlooks and thanks to the miracle of love, we become something more—and, with two gathered, there God is in our midst. Because God is truly the source of all that love that weaves us all together in such an amazing and living tapestry of potential perfection. It’s all God’s love.
I was blessed to witness a very tender and amazingly loving moment last Friday at hospice. It was quite a gift from God, arranged and orchestrated in a perfect way to enable a family to come together at just the right time and in just the right way. No matter what their individual ways of feeling loved might have been, in that moment, the love was so transcendent, so evident and there was such a sense of peace and comfort that we all knew it was God. Perfect love was in the room. There are no more words to describe it than that. What a blessing. And from now on, any time anyone in that family remembers those precious moments, they’ll experience a real, and present, and healing wave of God’s love.
In our Old Testament reading from Psalm 43, the writer calls to God for light and care, asking to be led once again to the place where God dwells, that place of perfect peace. When he is discouraged, feeling unloved and uncertain, he returns to the memory of when he was loved truly, when he was in God’s presence: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my savior and my God.”
And of course, Paul’s chapter on love—1 Corinthians 13—is a standard and a promise in thousands of wedding ceremonies each year. I was just reading last night in one of my great-grandma’s books—which interestingly I just happened to find this week–written by Emilie Cady that a promise is something sent beforehand to indicate that something unseen is at hand. I love that. Paul is talking about the promise of love here and the ways we can inadvertently block the flow of God’s love, when we get caught up in our human dramas. It happens all the time; it’s just part of the human condition. Without God’s love at the heart of all we do, Paul tells the Corinthians, our actions, our promises, our words in this world have no value, no power, no life. The greatest successes in the world mean nothing if God’s love is not the first impulse stirring everything and everyone toward action.
At the time Paul wrote this, he was concerned about the splits and disagreements in the early church in Corinth. He wanted to encourage the early Christians to hold to God’s love as their deepest leading and highest value. He wanted God’s love to be the seed of their actions with one another so that their community could be healthy and strong. The behaviors he describes in this famous passage are ones that safeguard and protect and foster the kind of environment we need in order for love to grow—whether that’s between two people, in a family, a meeting, a community, or a world. Paul writes,
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
He makes it sounds so simple, doesn’t he? God’s love is patient. God’s love is kind. But what happens when it flows through you and me into the world? When our personalities and patterns and personal needs and expectations get involved?
It’s just a part of being human to have blind spots and we’re all a work in progress, so grace is needed here. God knows and understands and is helping us move beyond what limited us in the past. But letting ourselves love freely—by sharing the love God so abundantly and continually pours into our lives—is perhaps the biggest and most worthwhile lesson we will ever learn on this planet. We gradually notice where in our lives we aren’t very loving and—with prayer and God’s grace and lots of trial and error—we learn to relax and open up and let God teach us more, again and again, about what it means to love truly.
It reminds me of the Rumi quote I share so often: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Those barriers within us are the parts of our personality that inadvertently turn God’s love into envy and boasting and blame. When we notice that we have such a barrier, a simple prayer—asking our inward teacher for help us better understand—that simple prayer will lead us toward all the Light we need. And the result will be more love, God’s love, flowing freely in our lives.
Because that’s what God’s love does—it flows freely one life to the next to the next. God’s true love wants the best for all. It celebrates everyone’s accomplishments. It lifts us all up, affirming our unique value, setting us free of whatever binds us, forgiving us our blind spots and wrongdoings, and it rejoices—rejoices! Celebrates! Sings!–when we find and speak and share the truth.
Maybe this Valentine’s Day, in addition to the candy and flowers, we can give each other the gift of letting God’s love flow freely and truly through us, unhindered and unbound by personality or pattern. We won’t be perfect at it, but aligning with the One who is perfect is really all we need to do. God’s love is freely given and we can help it along. God will show us how.
As the poet Hafiz wrote,
“And still, after all this time,
The sun never says to the earth,
“You owe Me.”
Look what happens with
A love like that,
It lights the Whole Sky.”
- OT Psalm 43: 3-5
- NT 1 Corinthians 13