Love Languages: The Good and The Bad

Everywhere I look it seems that I run into someone carrying around one of Gary Chapman’s books on Love Languages. There are plenty to choose from and it seems that he’s left no demographic untouched. There are Love Language books targeted at adults, teens, children, singles, and men. There’s a Love Language devotional, small group resources, and books explaining the “heart” behind the love languages as well as the love language that God speaks.

The main thrust of these books is that human beings give and receive love in five distinct ways:

  1. Acts of Service
  2. Touch
  3. Words of Encouragement
  4. Quality Time
  5. Gifts

Chapman observes that there is usually one (or maybe two) of these languages that speak more profoundly to us. He refers to that as our primary love language. The problem, according to the books, is that we tend to show love to others in the same way that we receive love. To use the book’s language we too often think our spouse, children, and friends have the same primary love language that we do.

Early in my marriage I remember wondering how my wife could possibly say that she didn’t feel loved. After all I had emptied the dishwasher, cleaned up the kitchen, and picked up around the house. What more could she possibly want? I operated under the theory that nothing says, “I love you” more than a orderly home.

I still remember when I first heard the concept of Love Languages and it dawned on me that my wife might not be wired exactly like I am. It had never even crossed my mind that picking up my dirty socks didn’t communicate love to her. When pressed to think about what her love language might be, it became pretty obvious that it was “Words of Encouragement” not “Acts of Service”. I had made the all too common mistake of assuming that she was just like me.

As a practical step you might want to try to discern the primary love language of those closest to you. But don’t assume that you’re correct. Take the time to discuss this with them and see if you’re on the right track. Ask them what makes them feel loved.

In one sense I think that the Love Language concept can be very helpful. But I think that there is another sense in which this same concept can also be very dangerous to a relationship.

The problem that David Powlison finds is that Chapman’s philosophy is built on Jesus’ statement that “even tax collectors, gentiles, and sinners love those who love them” (Matthew 5:46ff and Luke 6:32ff). This translates roughly into something like “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” While this kind of love is common in the world, it isn’t what Christians are called to. In this very section of Scripture Jesus tells us that we are supposed to love our enemies not just those that love us. In this way Christians stand out from others and bring glory to Christ.

Another problem revolves around Chapman’s concept of the “emotional love tank” and his assertion that our “misbehavior, withdrawal, harsh words, and critical spirit occur because of that empty tank.” It sounds as if this is giving the sinner the right to play victim blaming their sin on the fact that they haven’t been loved properly.

Additionally it seems that it gives everyone the right to demand that they be loved in the “right way.” If I don’t get my love tank filled, then who knows what hurtful thing I’ll do or say? But does the Bible ever give us permission to act sinfully because our needs aren’t being met? I don’t think so. Yes, we all have ways that we enjoy being loved but that can’t ever become an excuse to demand that others treat us according to our self-described need. Our “needing” can quickly turn into our demanding.

Chapman seems to distill relationships down to a set of skills. No one has to deal with their heart. Relationships can be fixed if a person will just learn another’s language and make the effort to love them the right way. There is no real need to face our sin and selfishness. No need for a Savior but just improved skills. There is no need for a Redeemer as much as a counselor.

Powlison has a great section on how the five love languages become distorted by sinful human beings.

Affirming words? I feel loved when the crowd cheers and when you offer me flattering comments.

Quality Time? 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.

Gifts? I feel loved when you are my Sugar Daddy, giving me money, buying me lots of nice stuff, taking me on exotic vacations, and pampering me.

Acts of Service? I feel loved when you do exactly what I want, and don’t make any demands on me, and say, “Your wish is my command.”

Physical Touch? I feel loved when you go along with my perverted sexual fantasies and when you make me feel like the most special person in the world.

Our sinful nature can turn each of the love languages (along with everything else) into something dark and selfish. We usually can see it when others’ love languages grow perverse but it is more difficult to see it when it happens to us.

What we need is a redeemer–someone to rescue us from our sin. What we need is a changed heart so that we demand less and serve more. What we need is to know a greater love that can satisfy our hearts so that we don’t look for people to meet that deepest need. In other words, what our relationships need is for each of us to believe the gospel in deeper ways for it is in the gospel that we meet Jesus, experience his love, and gain a new heart.

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