Once there was a teenage girl who sought love by giving herself away, only to have a man respect her and simply ask, “Would you like a hand to hold?” rather than just taking, like so many others. She had not seen pure, innocent love for so long. She felt awkward, unsure of how to respond.
This type of selfless love that had no agenda was unfamiliar to her.
Sometimes love is a foreign language.
This is true for many of us. If one has not seen pure love demonstrated, one might find it hard to recognize, and even more difficult to openly and freely accept.
As we seek to love others (and allow ourselves to be loved), we need to learn the language of love. I’m not talking about the Five Love Languages as written about by Dr. Gary Chapman, which outlines five ways to give and experience love as gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service (devotion), and physical touch (intimacy). Those have validity, but I’m talking about language that allows us to practically give and receive love, and the boundaries that we have that prevent us from accepting love. And this differs from person to person.
Because we are human and we live in an imperfect world, many of us find the language of unconditional love foreign and difficult to understand. We can be defensive and suspicious, which creates walls that make it difficult to experience true love, whether in giving or receiving.
When we are truly interested in loving others extravagantly, we accept the challenge of becoming a Love Interpreter. An Anthropologist. An Investigator.
We must be creative, so that we can love people in a language that they can understand and easily accept. With a gracious heart and without judgement, the eyes of our heart need to be able to see what is hidden beneath the surface. We need to investigate – what is the felt need? How can we best meet that need? And what might hinder the receiver from openly accepting the act of love?
I know that some people think of the Christmas story as just that, a made-up story. But it makes so much sense to me – if indeed there is a God of the universe (and I believe there is), why he would send his Son to earth to become a man.
“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622
He came to love us in a language we could understand. He became a Love Investigator, Anthropologist, Interpreter from God to the people of the world.
John 1:14 The Message (MSG)
14 The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.
Philippians 2:7 MSG
When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges.
Hebrews 4:15-16 The Message (MSG)
We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.
As we strive to learn what it means to love one another in a language they can understand, I’m reminded of Paul’s words.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 The Message (MSG)
19-23 Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!
How can we be in on it? How can we show pure, unconditional love to those around us? How can we love extravagantly, with reckless abandon? How can we be Jesus with skin on?
Here are some examples where love might be a foreign language. What is the best way to show love in a language they will understand?
The autistic child, who can’t look you in the eyes, and is overwhelmed by outside stimuli.
The overwhelmed single mother suffering from postpartum depression.
The bipolar middle-schooler who overheard his teacher say he might be a psychopath.
The new bride who is having flashbacks of her childhood sexual abuse.
The twenty-something atheist who has nothing but contempt for organized religion.
The teen who was adopted from a home of origin full of violence and abuse.
The WWII veteran who has never talked about the war.
The refugee who fled their home after the rest of their family was brutally murdered.
The divorced woman who feels she will never have a healthy relationship.
The empty-nester in a dead marriage.
The mentally ill homeless man you pass on the corner each morning as you head to work.
The curmudgeonly senior citizen who has spent years alienating their family and is now terminally ill and dying alone.
The sex trade worker to whom touch means something other than love and respect.
That annoying co-worker who you’re sure is out to get you.
The cancer patient who cannot answer one more “How are you doing?” query, and just wants to be ‘one of the girls’ again.
The recently divorced empty nester, who longs for love but can only see the ways that she has pushed it away.
The single dad, who was a player in high school, who now has a young daughter and must learn to treat women with respect.
When we look beyond the surface and discover ways to love – creatively, extravagantly, purposefully, unconditionally – it will be a foreign language to many. Key points to remember:
LOVE WITHOUT AN AGENDA: Don’t expect a thank-you note. Pure acts of love are not so other people can see how awesome you are. Pure acts are not so you can post about how loving you are on social media. We are all tainted by mixed motives, but as much as possible, check your ego and expectations at the door.
LOVE IS PERFECTLY IMPERFECT: Pure love is not finding the perfect gift, or always knowing the right words to say. Acts of love that seek to meet felt needs are often imperfectly perfect. It may feel awkward or uncomfortable. Love anyway.
LOVE DOESN’T ALWAYS MAKE SENSE: It is likely you will feel or even look foolish to outsiders. Love doesn’t always make sense.
LOVE MIGHT COST YOU SOMETHING: It takes time and effort to be a Love Investigator, to discern how to love in a language that can be understood and received. It might mean giving your time, your attention, or even spending some money or giving your material goods.
LOVE MIGHT NOT BE WELL-RECEIVED: Your efforts might not be well received. There might be so much brokenness or the walls might be so high that each act of love might just plant a small seed that needs to be nurtured until it can grow. Don’t give up. Just keep watering and letting the sun shine in.
LOVE JUST SHOWS UP: Listen to your intuition. If that little voice is prompting you, MOVE. If you don’t know what to do or what to say, just show up and be present. Often that is just enough.
LOVE WINS: If it’s awkward, imperfect, poorly received, that doesn’t matter. Just keep practicing love.
1 Corinthians 13:13b The Message (MSG)
Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.