The book has been out for years, and by this time just about every Christian has been introduced to the “love language” parlance. We know that love languages refer to the varied ways people give and receive love. Some feel loved when they receive affection, others when they receive gifts or affirming words. There are five of these languages and most of us have been taught to rank them in order of personal preference. Well and good. God has created us in different ways and vive la difference.
Still, one of the most helpful things I ever learned about love languages came not from the book but from a critical review. In an issue of The Journal of Biblical Counseling David Powlison expressed a mix of admiration and concern for the love languages, and even years after I first read his comments, one of the central critiques stands out: “The love language model does not highlight those exquisite forms of love that do not ‘speak your language’.” That packs a powerful punch. Let me explain how.
When we are honest about love languages, we admit they are prone to begin to speak with a “dark and greedy growl.” Here’s how it works for me: I am never far from making my preferred love language the ultimate expression or even proof of my wife’s love for me. When I have it I feel loved; when I lack it I feel unloved. It takes surprisingly little time for “I feel most loved when you are affectionate with me” to become “I don’t feel loved unless you are affectionate with me” to degenerate all the way to “You need to speak my language if you expect me to love you in return.” For another person, “I feel cherished when we spend quality time together” may soon become, “I feel loved when you drop everything to focus on me, are completely understanding, give me unconditional love, agree with all my opinions, and never disagree with me, question me, or interrupt me.” These are good languages filtered through a bad heart.
That is one genuine concern and every marriage counsellor has run into it: “I just don’t feel loved.” But there is a related issue—the one that Powlison highlights in his review. When I demand that people speak my preferred love language, when it becomes the one way I receive love, I unnecessarily narrow my experience of love. I miss out on all of those “exquisite forms of love that do not ‘speak my language’.” Sure, I experience the language I prefer, and it is good to be loved this way! But I miss out on so many others including the ones others may most love to speak. The challenge and joy of love languages is not in demanding someone else learn to speak my language or manipulating them until they learn to do so. It is in learning how to speak other languages, to receive love in new ways. As long as I am satisfied with only the language I prefer, I miss out on the joy of those other four languages and the millions of others that exist beyond the reductionist categories.
It helps to think about it this way: God speaks a language that doesn’t suit any of our natural preferences. He didn’t woo or win us by condescending to our preferred language, but by teaching us a whole new one. Powlison says, “You and I need to learn a new language if we are to become fit to live with each other and with God. The greatest love ever shown does not speak the instinctively self-centered language of the recipients of such love. In fundamental ways, the love of Christ speaks contrary to your ‘love language’ and ‘felt needs’.” God loved us so much he spoke a language we didn’t want to hear, and we learned to receive it as the best language of all. There are other languages we need to learn that will teach us more truths, deeper truths, about love.
It is God’s grace that keeps us from such narrow views of love, from receiving love according to only our preferences. Yes, we all have a preferred language. But there is joy to be had beyond it. Says Powlison, “God’s grace aims to destroy the lordship of the five love languages, even while teaching us to speak the countless love languages with greater fluency.”