Lacking the Language of Love
The English language is spoken by more than 1.5 billion people worldwide. It is the official first language of 67 different countries and the second language of hundreds of others. English dominates the business world, global politics, and international trade. Part of its popularity, of course, comes from the dominance of the Western world in general and the United States in particular in many industries and spheres of influence, but the English language itself has many attractive, versatile qualities. For one thing, it has a relatively simple and consistent set of grammar rules compared to many other languages. English also has an “extensive” and “copious” bank of vocabulary, allowing for many different ways of saying the same thing (and allowing for many opportunities to prattle on in—I don’t know—a sermon, for example).
But the English language fails spectacularly in one very important area of speech: the language of love. In the English-speaking world, “love” is a catch-all verb/noun with ubiquitous usage. In one day, a person might say “I love French fries” in one breath, and turn to their grandma to say “I love you” in the next. That same person could also feel betrayed by the love of an unfaithful partner while also feeling betrayed by the love of their losing basketball team (too soon, KU fans?). “Love,” therefore, is this catchall word in English that simultaneously means everything and nothing.
Other languages have much more astute and comprehensive collections of “love” words. Spanish, for example, is notorious for its gradients of “love,” from the casual and platonic te quiero (a friendly “I love you” between peers) to the romantic and passionate te amo (a binding “I love you” between life-long partners). The classical language of Sanskrit—foundational to many modern South and Southeast Asian languages—contains 96 distinct words for “love.”
I hope it goes without saying that “love” is foundational to who Christian people understand ourselves to be, as individual beloved children of God and as a community called to love and serve the world. The love infused in a Christian identity is, simply put, so much ‘more’ than the English “love” could ever imply. In Scripture, the word used exclusively in ancient Hebrew for the love of God is hesed. Hesed defines the unconditional, unbreakable loving-kindness God extends to God’s covenant people, Israel. It is the kind of love that is entirely undeserved yet endless in mercy and benevolence. New Testament Greek has its own distinct word for God’s love: agape—that self-sacrificial love Jesus displayed on the cross for the world to see, an illustration of our inability to be without God and God’s refusal to be without us.
God’s unparalleled hesed/agape love may be lost from our vocabulary, but it certainly is not lost from our lives. Just the opposite: the hesed/agape love of God is our raison d’être (French), lkigai (Japanese), desideratum (Latin). “So, as we journey with Christ closer and closer to the cross this Lenten lesson—the staggering journey of God’s hesed and agape–now is the opportune time to ponder in our hearts that which leaves us speechless.