If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
1 Corinthians 13:1
Twenty years ago a book called The Five Love Languages made its debut, and it has since revolutionized the way married couples think about communication. You’ve probably heard of it, but in case you haven’t the gist is this: author Gary Chapman describes five “languages” for expressing love: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. Most people prefer one or two above the rest. That preference is how they experience love most meaningfully, and how they are mostly like to show love to others.
This idea, in and of itself, is significant, but what made Chapman’s book so important was this truth: Once you know your spouse’s love language, it is your responsibility to speak love in a way that is meaningful to them.
Put another way, the five love languages teaches us a deep truth about the nature of love. When it comes to love, intention is not enough. Instead, the recipient of love determines the act of love. If you want to love someone in a way that is meaningful to them, you need to ask them what that looks like.
That’s huge. It’s a lesson in loving Jesus’ way, which is why the five love languages aren’t just helpful for marriage. They’re helpful for Christian witness. If we want to impact the world in the way of Jesus, then we need to take a page out of the five love languages. Especially when it comes to the internet.
The internet is tricky, because it can feel like you’re having an inside conversation. Whether you comment on a Christian blog, or start a discussion thread on Facebook, it can feel relatively contained.
But that feeling is an illusion. The internet is not private, and our conversations are in full view of the world. This is one of the ways Christian stumble in expressing our views. Even if you don’t write something blatantly mean, it may lack empathy or fairness. And the world hears you. People who disagree with you, they see.
That’s also the reason Christians seem tone deaf on issues like abortion, marriage equality, race, or immigration. Many of us want to communicate “truth with a capital T,” but there’s a reason why “rightness” is not one of the five love languages. Truth matters, but the principle of the love languages reminds us that you can be right, and still be wrong.
Although the five love languages cannot be directly applied to the internet, the paradigm can: the idea that it is “on us” to show love in a way that is meaningful to others. With that in mind, there are three areas in which Christians struggle to display this kind of love:
1. The poor and the marginalized – Too often I read Facebook statuses and wonder, “Would they say that to a poor single mom?” “Would they say that to an African American person?” Maybe they would, but when it comes to the most vulnerable members of society–the ones God expects us to care for–“rightness” is not the same as good news.
When you post about issues affecting the poor and marginalized, remember this: Jesus pointed people to God by providing signs of His goodness. He healed people and fed people. He made them feel seen and heard. That same burden is on us when we express our opinions. Whatever your perspective may be, share it in a way that is compassionate to those for whom Jesus showed compassion. Don’t just point people to signs of God’s goodness. Be a sign of His goodness.
2. Those you disagree with outside the church – As I have already said, social media is not an insider conversation. Blanket statements about the world’s lostness, or condemnations about celebrities or Muslims or some other group, this is not love. This is laziness. People will not be not be drawn to Christ by a bludgeoning with truth.
Instead, our comments and posts–ALL of them, even the ones that are not about religion of politics–should carry the aroma of Christ. We should be winsome. We should listen. We should be humble. We should be fair.
As a side note, I think it’s worth pointing out that our love for the first group (the poor) gives us credibility with the second (non-Christians). That’s how Pope Francis has won the respect of non-Christians worldwide, without ever changing church doctrine.
3. Those you disagree with who are inside the church – In John 13:35, Jesus says Christians should be known by our love, but this is the one I struggle with the most. When it comes to choosing my words, I give careful attention to non-Christians and the poor. When it comes to people inside the church, I get impatient.
But in many ways, the love between Christians is much more like a marriage. We are committed to one another, and that takes work. No matter how strongly we disagree with another, we are still under the obligation to communicate truth in love. It’s an essential part of our witness.
One of the lessons the five love languages teaches us, is that you must learn another person’s language. It’s not enough to feel loving, or to intend love. You must speak love in a language they can understand. Both inside and outside the context of marriage, this requires us to ask, and to listen. Ask your non-Christian friends what makes them feel heard. Ask your minority friends what they wish you understood.
And if someone accuses you of being unloving or unkind, don’t double down. You owe it to them, and to Christ, to back off, start over, and try again. You can’t please everyone, especially those who think love is the same as agreement, but most people know the difference.
I’ll be honest, sometimes language about “love” feels a bit squishy to me. Sometimes it feels like meaningless niceness, or sentimentality without any power. That’s what I hear when people say “All you need is love.” But I’m learning the importance of loving people in the very precise, very intentional way of Jesus. His kind of love is powerful because it required a lot of him. It required humility and self-sacrifice, two attributes we don’t often associate with social media.
But maybe we should.