Complete the sentence: “Love is…” Depending on your perspective your answer could range from the musical “Love is…all around,” to the cynical – “Love is…blind,” to the biblical – “Love is…patient, love is kind” and so on from 1 Corinthians 13. For more visual thinkers perhaps what comes to mind is romantic wisdom offered in the guise of two cute naked cartoon characters. However, although John 4:8 states that “God is love”, few people, even in Christian circles, would have made this their first response. So why is that? Why do we divorce the concept of love that we recognise from that expressed by the God whom we profess to so intimately know?
Then there is upper and lower case love. We can “love” a TV programme or a song, a travel destination or an idea but only family-members, partners and close friends are deserving of our Love with a capital ‘L’. And what of romance? The Bible says plenty about marriage and the characteristics which Christians should value in a potential spouse. On the other hand, there is little to no mention of how the love which should blossom in marriage might be expressed aside from the vivid sexual imagery provided in the Songs of Solomon and the stringent spiritual standard presented in Ephesians 5. As for those in dating relationships, a thoroughly alien concept in biblical times, there is even less to go on.
Perhaps inevitably, Christians have looked to the world for inspiration and never is this as clear as on St. Valentine’s Day. February 14th in many parts of the Western world recognises the legacy of the patron saint of love, young people and happy marriage. Though little is known about the man (or men?)behind the celebration, it has become customary for couples to present their ‘valentines’ with cards and gifts as a token of affection. A custom which has led amorous Brits to spend eye-watering sums (over £800million) in recent years.
This is all well and good but, as so often happens when religiously-based celebrations are appropriated for commercial gain, Valentine’s Day has become more meaningful for retailers than romantics. Flowers, chocolates and teddy bears are offered in recognition of continued partnership or a blossoming crush, but what do these gifts really say? ‘I love you enough to have remembered Valentine’s Day?’ or ‘I saw this (on offer) and thought of you?’ After all, with so few biblical guidelines about how much time, energy or money to spend on your special someone, how do you know you’ve done enough to show appreciation? Indeed, how do you know you ought to have ‘done’ anything beyond maintain a willingness to lay down your life or submit yourself fully to the other?
The biblical concept of submission could not be more different from the version portrayed in this year’s only cinematic Valentine’s Day offering – Fifty Shades of Grey (whose main character is called Christian Grey). In the Bible it is about compassion not control, service not slavery. After all, Christian love is other-centred. This is what is meant by “[Love] is not proud… it does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking…” (1 Cor. 13:4-5)
Therefore, it stands to reason than Christian romance should be other-centred. Gift-giving is of course one way of expressing this but another example of daily romance which could not be demonstrated irresponsibly would be an outpouring of the fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22-23). Instead of using lavish gifts to plaster over past hurts, why not strive to present patience or kindness at every opportunity? Rather than taking your significant other for a ‘romantic’ meal in an expensive restaurant twice a year why not review your schedule so that you have time to cook for them on a more regular basis?
With loving acts, sacrificing time is often more meaningful than surrendering money but both are meaningless without the understanding that they are offered without conditions. Christ’s unconditional love for his bride – the church – shows us romance at its highest. Loving not because the other is lovely but making them lovely by being loved. For “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).