I know many people in the church have been influenced and helped by Gary Chapman’s bestselling book, The Five Love Languages. If you count yourself (or those in your circle of influence) in that camp, I’d encourage you to consider David Powlison’s review, entitled, Love Speaks Many Languages Fluently.
As longtime readers of this blog will know, I consider Powlison to be an incredibly perceptive, insightful thinker on sanctification. Even for readers who might not care about this particular book, I’d encourage everyone to read this review, for it is an outstanding example of careful reading and thinking, as well as a great model for how to do a book review that identifies evidences of grace but also serious deficiencies when viewed through a Christian lens.
Powlison begins by acknowledging that the book contains some constructive advice and accurate descriptions of lived life–it “rings bells when it describes how people typically come wired.” (As many probably know, the five love languages are affirming words, quality time, gift giving, physical affection, and acts of service.)
Chapman’s full working philosophy might be summarized this way: “I’ll find out where you itch, and I’ll scratch your back, so you feel better. Along the way, I’ll let you know my itches in a non-demanding manner. You’ll feel good about me because your itches are being scratched, so eventually you’ll probably scratch my back, too.” . . .
Unwittingly he exalts the observation that “even tax collectors, gentiles, and sinners love those who love them” (Matt. 5:46f; Luke 6:32ff) into his guiding principle for human relationships. This is the dynamo that makes his entire model go. This is the instinct that he appeals to in his readers. If I scratch your back, you’ll tend to scratch mine. If you’re happy to see me, I’ll tend to be happy to see you, too. So, 5LL teaches you how to become aware of what others want, and then tells you to give that to them. This is the principle behind How to Win Friends and Influence People and The 30-second Manager. It’s the dynamic at work in hundreds of other books on “relational skills,” or “attending skills,” or “salesmanship,” or “how to find the love you want.” Identify the felt need and meet it, and, odds are, your relationships will go pretty well. . . .
Up to a point, 5LL can be informative, correcting ignorance about how people differ from each other, and making you more aware of patterns of expectation that you and others bring to the table. . . . But speaking love languages is surely not the whole story. In fact, it is practical, immoral wisdom—manipulation or pandering or both—when it becomes the whole story. Part of considering the interests of others is to do them tangible good. But then to really love them, you usually need to help them see their itch as idolatrous, and to awaken in them a far more serious itch! That’s basic Christianity. 5LL will never teach you to love at this deeper, more life-and-death level. Chapman’s reasons for giving accurate love to others, his explanation of what speaking another’s love language does, his ultimate goal in marriage, and his evaluation of the significance of love languages are deplorable.
. . . The 5LL model fails the class “Human Nature 101.” Like all secular interpretations of human psychology (even when lightly Christianized), it makes some good observations and offers some half-decent advice (of the sort that self-effort can sometimes follow). But it doesn’t really understand human psychology. That basic misunderstanding has systematic distorting and misleading effects. Fallenness not only brings ignorance about how best to love others; it brings a perverse unwillingness and inability to love. It ingrains the perception that our lusts are in fact needs, empty places inside where others have disappointed us. The empty emotional tank construct is congenial to our fallen instincts, not transformative. It leaves what we instinctively want as an unquestionable good that must somehow be fulfilled. It not only leaves fundamental self-interest unchallenged, it plays to self-interest. . . .
. . . The love of Christ speaks a “love language”—mercy to hellishly self-centered people—that no person can hear or understand unless God gives ears to hear. It is a language we cannot speak to others unless God makes us fluent in an essentially foreign language. We might say that the itch itself (an ear for God’s language) has to be created, because we live in such a stupor of self-centered itchiness. The love language model does not highlight those exquisite forms of love that do not “speak your language.” You and I need to learn a new language if we are to become fit to live with each other and with God. The greatest love ever shown does not speak the instinctively self-centered language of the recipients of such love. In fundamental ways, the love of Christ speaks contrary to your “love language” and “felt needs.” Does anyone naturally say, “I need You to rule me so I’m no longer ruled by what I want”? Does anyone naturally say, “For Your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my iniquity for it is great” (Psalm 25:11)? Does anyone naturally say, “My greatest need is for mercy, and then for the wisdom to give mercy. I long for
redemption. May Your kingdom come. Deliver us from evil”?
God’s grace aims to destroy the lordship of the five love languages, even while teaching us to speak the countless love languages with greater fluency.