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I’m not sure how many version of the best-selling The Five Love Languages Gary Chapman has written. I went to CBD, and here is at least a sampling (I think I caught most of them):

  • The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to Your Mate

  • The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts

  • The Five Love Languages, Men’s Edition

  • The Five Love Languages of Children

  • The Five Love Languages of Teenagers

  • The Five Love Languages, Singles Edition

  • The One-Year Love Language Minute Devotional

  • Heart of the Five Love Languages

  • God Speaks Your Love Language: How to Feel and Reflect God’s Love

  • Love as a Way of Life: The Seven Secrets Behind Every Language of Love

The gist of these books is that we each have a “love language”—affirming words, quality time, gift giving, physical affection, acts of service—and that we must learn to recognize what language or languages our loved ones speak and to act accordingly.

Many people have been quite helped by this concept—in part, I think, because this book and its iterations contain some common-sense observational insights. But it seems to me that the whole worldview it presupposes has been accepted rather uncritically. That’s why I have long appreciated the thoughtful review of the book by David Powlison, entitled, “Love Speaks Many Languages Fluently.”

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.”

Powlison summarizes Chapman’s “full working philosophy” as follows:
“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.”

But therein lies the problem: Chapman takes an “is” and turns it into an “ought”:
Unwittingly [Chapman] 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.

Powlison is at pains to show that this is not all bad:
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 as Packer once said, a half truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth. Powlison thinks that Chapman’s advice—the point at which he moves beyond description to prescription—can actually be counterproductive to genuine biblical love:
[S]peaking 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.

Chapman’s model, Powlison argues, 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. . . .

Powlison goes on to contrast this perspective with the foreign “love language” of Christ:
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.

Read the whole thing.

Update: A response from Powlison to some of the commenters after the jump:

Fascinating responses. I think that my article acknowledges and promotes the various good things about 5LL that several commenters point out and defend. Love languages, in principle creationally, are ‘natural affections’ for good things. It is helpful for us to learn these things about others and ourselves, to seek to bless others, to recognize what brings genuine blessing to us. The “fumbling and mumbling” can be partially redressed by helping both men and women to pay attention to another’s LL. Paying attention to LLs creates more “win-win” in human relationships, and that is a good thing. The first third of the article commends the positive aspects of 5LL, and encourages readers to take those good things to heart. I mean those commendations and encouragements: “God’s grace teaches us to speak the countless love languages with greater fluency,” as I say towards the end of the article. In the language of the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer: “We thank you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life.” To speak another’s LL brings some of those blessings.

But, on balance, was my article too critical?: “both barrels,” “making something out of nothing.” It would be unbalanced toward the negative if the final purpose of my review (and of Christian ministry) were simply to encourage more win-win relationships. But I chose also to trace the implications of 5LL for harder, deeper problems, both relationally and psychologically. As the General Thanksgiving goes on to say: “But above all, we thank you for your inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.” There are things about us and our relationships that need better medicine. In order to learn to love well, we need Jesus Christ to love, to die, to be raised, to reign, to return, to work in us transforming the dynamic of inner modus operandi. Wise ministry is never less than common grace, but it surely brings something more than common grace.

As the article discusses, Chapman brings a troubling logic to his treatment of adultery, and rebellious teens, and loveless people—and the human condition. He gives no indication that it’s important to understand how natural affections for good things segue into inordinate cravings. As I say, this makes his theory simultaneously overly-sentimental and cruel. The observations and behavioral advice about LLs are fine as far as they go; it’s the theory and the outworking of its implications that become sentimental and cruel. I’m not sure that respondents adequately weighed those issues on the balance sheet. The thoughtful ambivalence of the couple in my opening paragraph set the shape of the article.

The 5LLs really are “the whole story” in Chapman’s book. Whatever Chapman might think in private, we only have his written work before us. Struggling people have only the book, and LLs are the only story the book tells. This is why throughout the book there is no place where Jesus’s love really matters. For that reason, I conclude that his schema for helping people brings light remedies to the deep troubles of life.

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