Editor’s Note: This piece was first published in February 2015.
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, parents, and siblings, my niece and nephews, my dearest friends, my Savior.
“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, parents, and siblings, my niece and nephews, my dearest friends, my Savior. It has the power to keep someone alive or 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 three-syllable sentence.
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 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 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.”
“I love you” means caring about, focusing on, and thinking about the one who is loved
“It 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.”
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.
“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 well-being of others.”
It “means to me that I really care about you and your well-being,” 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.”
“I love you” means knowing and accepting the one who is loved
“‘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.
“I 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.