A few months ago I found a book in our local charity shop called “Why Love Matters”. It is subtitled “How affection shapes a baby’s brain”. It is a book that explains why love is essential to the development of a baby’s brain in the earliest years of life, and how early interactions between babies and adults have lasting consequences both for good and for ill.
It is not only a babies brain that is shaped by their relationships with adults and their primary caregivers, but also the baby’s entire nervous system. Those babies that receive an abundance of love, affection, care and nurture in these earliest years of their development are able to develop neural pathways in their brain that help them to blossom and grow in ways of greater wholeness and stability of character, whereas those babies that do not receive consistent love and affection are more likely to struggle later on in life in dealing with stress and are more susceptible later in life to struggle with things like anorexia, addiction and anti-social behaviour.
What interests me about the book, written by Sue Gerhardt, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in the UK, is that in a very real sense it provides, secular and scientific backing for the central most important value in Christianity: Namely Love. Christianity can’t be all that wrong.
When asked about the most important commandment, Jesus in effect emphasizes the word love three times, the third time implicit within the statement “Love your neighbour as yourself”. In Luke’s version, the word love is only explicitly used once, but it is clearly emphasized in three directions Love God, and your neighbour as yourself.
John’s Gospel 13:34 is the only Gospel not to include the greatest commandment, but in it’s place John has the new commandment, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” In this commandment, the word love is explicitly repeated three times.
And In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul, who had once been a religious extremist before his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, comes to the conclusion that there is in fact nothing greater than love. Faith Hope and Love remain he ends his beautiful hymn to love, but the greatest of these is love.
Roughly two thousand years later, Sue Gerhardt provides psychological and scientific backing to the claim that love is of utmost importance in the healthy development of a child’s brain and nervous system and by implication their development as fully rounded and balanced human beings.
Indeed, the root cause of many of our struggles is that in fact many of us do not know ourselves to be deeply valuable or valued. Over the weekend Wendy and I watched the 2019 hit film Rocketman, which is a portrayal of the early life of Elton John up to the point where he went into therapy for his addictions to alcohol and drugs. His was a story of a home life with very little real love, affection and affirmation, apart from the love shown him by his grandmother who paid for his lessons on the piano. He longed to be hugged by his dad who was cold and aloof and who ended up abandoning Elton John as a child getting married to someone else and having other children that he loved more.
But his mother was not much better. As she is portrayed in the film, she was preoccupied with her self and so had very little warmth, love and encouragement to give to the little Elton.
Elton John’s descent into drugs and alcohol and a wild life was clearly an attempt to fill the enormous hole that should have been filled with the love, kindness, affection and affirmation of his parents in his earliest years as a child.
It is interesting, that the key moment of transformation and spiritual awakening in Jesus’ life, and which propelled him into ministry was at his baptism. What we have in the gospels is clearly a symbolic representation of an experience that was clearly difficult to put into human words, but the culmination of that story reveals that in that experience, was the profound and life-changing affirmation that he was God’s beloved. You are my Son whom I love are the words in Mark’s Gospel. This experience of being bathed in Divine love in the Jordan River propelled Jesus life in a whole new direction with his primary purpose in life now proclaiming in word and deed, the Good News of God’s Divine Love that is available here and now to everyone, even the worst of sinners.
Over the next 5-6 weeks I would like to explore the centrality and importance of love in what Gary Chapman calls the 5 languages of love.
He writes that each of us through our conditioning and our particular personality types give and receive love in at least 5 different ways. He calls these ‘Love Languages’.
Very briefly, these love languages include the following:
1. Words of Affirmation
2. Physical Touch
3. Quality Time
4. Acts of Service
5. The Giving and Receiving of gifts.
Gary Chapman suggests that for each of us, one of these love languages will be the primary way in which we give and receive love although all of us will have at least one other secondary love language.
Our primary love language is our natural way of receiving and showing love. We usually learn this language in our families growing up. Secondary love language is generally a learned pattern of expressing love that is not as natural. Or it may be that 2 of these languages of love come naturally to us, but the other languages of love need to be learned.
Gary Chapman theory of the 5 love languages means that other people may not share our primary love language which means that sometimes love can be lost in translation.
One of the difficulties of speaking different languages is that people don’t always understand one-another. And so it is with the 5 Languages of love. If one person’s primary language of love is expressed through physical touch and another person’s primary love language is giving gifts, they may end up talking past each other. The person who receives the gift may not fully recognise the gift as the profound act of love that it is, because what they really want and possibly need is a hug. But for another person, a hug might be interpreted as a bit of an invasion of their personal space and therefore may not realise that for someone else it is a primary expression of their love.
One of the ways that we can grow, is firstly to recognise what our own language of love is. And secondly for us to recognise that not all people have the same primary language of love as us. This growing awareness of ourselves and others can help to facilitate greater understanding and in the process help us to grow in our love for others.
Learning another persons language is a great act of love. English speakers around the world have unfortunately not been very good at learning the languages of other people. In South Africa, generally English speakers are the least able to speak other people’s languages. Most English speakers would expect other people to speak English rather than the other way around. When I ministered in African Townships for 5 years of my early ministry I made a point of doing my best to learn at least a little of an African language. I wasn’t as successful as I had hoped but I could see that these fumbling attempts to speak their language were received as acts of love.
And so it is, that if we wish to nurture loving relationships with others, we all need in some way to recognize firstly that other people’s primary language of love may not be the same as my own, and as an act of love towards others it will mean being willing to acknowledge and learn someone elses’s language of love.
If I want to show love to someone whose primary love language is Words of Affirmation, if I am to love them for who they are, then I will need to learn to use Words of Affirmation in my dealings with them. And if someone elses’s primary love language is quality time, then if I am to truly love them as they are then I will need to learn in some way to speak that language of love, remembering how important quality time is to them.
May God bless us over the next few weeks as we explore these 5 languages of love, learning perhaps a little more about ourselves, and a little more about others, and in the process hopefully learning a little more of God’s love for each of us and God’s Way of Love expressed in the life of Jesus, who in many ways was multilingual speaking fluently in all five languages of love.