I think about love nearly every day. In fact, some of my students call me “Dr. Love.” But the language of love I hear around Valentine’s Day each year can be confusing.
Sex and Romance
I hear “love” used in two ways on Valentine’s Day. Sometimes the word refers simply to romance and sex. A red heart is the symbol for this love language. Hearts are synonymous with flirting, romance and sex. If we think carefully, however, we realize that sex and romance are not always healthy. Such activity can be self-centered, exploitative, abusive or creepy. Perverts lust, they don’t love.
Altruism and Agape
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The second love language I hear on Valentine’s Day reacts against the first. “Love isn’t about sex and romance,” say some, “it’s about altruism and helping the needy.” Love helps the poor, shows compassion to sufferers, or makes friends of enemies. True love is agape, to use a biblical word for love. This use of “love” seems unsuitable for Valentine’s Day. It fails to describe love as attraction, mutuality or delight. When my wife and I celebrate Valentine’s Day, we’re not expressing compassion for those who suffer. My wife is neither a victim nor my enemy. Love is more than altruism and agape.
Love and Well-Being
The most helpful way to talk about love is to say it promotes overall well-being. Scholars use various synonyms for “well-being.” They speak of blessedness, flourishing, abundant life, wholeness, genuine happiness, shalom or the good life. Love can involve promoting good in life’s physical, mental, social, environmental and even spiritual dimensions. But it can also involve promoting good romance and sex. To promote overall well-being is acting with the greater good in mind, not just our personal pleasure.
Love on Valentine’s Day
If love promotes overall well-being, romance and sex on Valentine’s Day can be potentially loving. Romantic or sexual actions are loving if we do them intending to promote goodness. If we send cards, flowers or gifts with only our own happiness in mind, we aren’t loving. If we act with only our own pleasure at play, we should not call such acts loving. On Valentine’s Day, we focus on the well-being of two people in relationship. But to love well, the two must consider how their actions affect the wider society.
Confusing ... No More
This Valentine’s Day, I encourage you to send cards, flowers and gifts. Flash a heart sign, if you feel like it. Splash “I Love You” across the sky. Be intimate with that special someone. But remember that love ultimately wants what is good, healthy and positive. And love wants this when romantic flames burn brightly, flicker faintly or are reduced to ashes. When goodness is the goal, Valentine’s Day love language is less confusing ... baby.
Thomas Jay Oord is professor at Northwest Nazarene University and the author of more than 20 books, including “Defining Love,” “The Nature of Love,” “The Science of Love,” and “The Uncontrolling Love of God.”