byFaith | 2.12.15
By Alan Dowd
With Valentine’s Day upon us, odds are we’ll be hearing and
saying more “I love yous” than normal. In romantic relationships, families and
friendships alike, these are important words. Yet research reveals a surprising
life cycle for “I love you” within marriage: The longer two people are married,
the less they say it. After a decade of marriage, only a third of couples
report saying “I love you.” At first blush, that’s disheartening and downright
depressing. But perhaps there’s more to the story—and more to love—than words.
“I love you” is just three little syllables, but so much
flows from such a tiny sentence. It’s packed with enough meaning to encompass
what I feel for my wife, my parents and siblings, my niece and nephews, my
dearest friends, my savior. It has the power to
keep someone aliveor bring someone back
to life; generates enough passion to create a life or lay
down a life; and enfolds enough breadth and depth to make us ache for
yesterday, get lost in today, sacrifice for tomorrow.
The phrase “I love you” is used only seven
times in the NIV Bible. In one sense, that’s surprising. After all, given
that the Bible is God’s love letter to us, you would think that in 66 books and
hundreds of thousands of words, more ink might be devoted to that
But in another sense, it shouldn’t be a surprise at all.
First, anyone who has been blessed to receive a really good love letter knows
that its beauty, its quality, its value isn’t measured in how many times “I
love you” appears, but rather in how and why the writer has summoned the
courage to say those three words. The letter itself is the “I love you.”
That’s certainly true of the Bible. For those with eyes to
see, “I love you” is everywhere in God’s story. And that brings us to a second
reason why we shouldn’t be surprised about the number of “I love yous” in
scripture—and perhaps why we shouldn’t be depressed by the number of “I love
yous” spoken in a maturing marriage. God says “I love you” in the most perfect,
most powerful, most poignant, most profound way it can be said: with actions.
From the Garden of Eden to the Garden of Gethsemane, from creation to the
cross, from the Fall to the Resurrection, God is showing how wide and
long and high and deep is His love for us.
Words are important. Words can build up or tear down; they
can heal or hurt, bless or burden, help or hinder. I use words to make a
living. I love words. But they are no substitute for action. My wife’s words
didn’t carry me through a career crisis or hold my hand in the ER. My dad’s
words didn’t put food on the table or rush me to the hospital or coach my
baseball teams or purchase my first word processor. My mom’s words didn’t feed
me or take me to drum lessons or help outfit my first apartment. My
grandfathers’ words didn’t liberate Europe. My savior’s words didn’t rescue me from
what I deserve.
As one of my prayer-group partners puts it, “Love is not a feeling, but an action.” That’s true of God’s
love for us, our love for each other, and our love for God. Love without action
is not really love. And saying “I
love you” is not as important as showing“I love you.”
We say “I love you” in hurried goodbyes, in autopilot replies, in cute
and corny and clichéd cards, in fleeting moments of passion. And there’s a
human need for that. As one of my friends who didn’t hear “I love you” nearly enough
as a kid reminds me, “It’s very
important to say it to one another and not to let it be something
we take for granted.”
But we show “I love you” in
what we do, in how we do it, in how and where we spend our time. And that says
more than words can ever say.
Some very dear friends recently showed“I love you” by sacrificing time from their busy schedules to share what “I
love you” means to them. Their answers reflect three overarching themes.
1. “I love you” means caring about, focusing on and thinking about the
one who is loved.
means loving you on your terms versus on my terms,” explained my very best
friend, my wife. “I love you not so much as I hope or wish that you might love
me, but more as you hope or wish to be loved.”
“I love you,” an old friend
said, “means giving completely of yourself for others—God, your spouse, your
brother, your neighbor, your comrades-in-arms.” To love, he concluded, is “to
focus on the needs and wellbeing of others.”
It “means to me that I really
care about you and your wellbeing,” added another wise and precious friend. “It
means that I want you to have the peace and presence that I know and experience
in Jesus Christ.”
“‘I love you’ means that I care for someone, need them in my
life and want the best for them,” one of my brothers in Christ explained, conceding
in his answer what prompted me to ask my question: “This is actually extremely
tough to define.”
2. “I love you” means knowing and accepting the one who is
“‘I love you’ first means that I know you, and that I delight in that knowing,”
said one friend. “Love is birthed through knowing.”
“‘I love you’ means I see you in the best, most brilliant
and beautiful light,” shared a sister in Christ, “and can imagine clearly what
God saw when He created you.”
Wow! To love and be loved in that way is a matchless gift.
love you” means being committed and connected to the one who is loved.
“When I say, ‘I love you,’ it means, I am in your corner; you can count on
me; I care for you; I pray for you; I will do whatever I can to help you,”
a wise friend explained.
It means “saying ‘yes’ to
the mess” of a shared life, said
one sister in Christ.
“It means standing by your side when times are good and
bad,” added another. “It makes you my family.”
Indeed, when I say “I love you,” I am, quite literally,
saying I am connected to you by love.
God, who is love, shows and says “I love you” in each of
these ways: He focuses on and cares about the one who is loved—extravagantly,
recklessly, totally. He accepts the one who is loved—fully, completely,
unconditionally. And He is committed to the one who is loved—single-mindedly,
jealously, passionately. As C.S. Lewis observed,
God’s love is as “persistent as
the artist’s love for his work…provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child…exacting
as love between the sexes.”
May we show “I
love you” as well and as often as we say it—on Valentine’s Day and every day.
Dowd writes a monthly column exploring the crossroads of faith and public policy for byFaith.