If you’ve spent any time on social media around February 14, you probably have noticed a wide array of opinions about Valentine’s Day. Some love it, others hate it, and there’s a large camp of people that are simply indifferent to it. If I am honest, I probably find myself more in the “indifferent” camp, not so much because of what the day claims to celebrate, which is love, but perhaps because it focuses far too much on the superficial. Let’s be honest, as a culture, we already spend most of the other 364 days of the year on the superficial, so it doesn’t really feel all that distinct or special.
Nevertheless, the reality of love is absolutely essential to what it means to be human, and therefore it’s worth talking about. It’s actually necessary to talk about because when we get down to love’s authentic meaning, we enter into a mystery that goes far beyond us but yet somehow deeply involves us. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
"God’s very being is love. By sending his only Son and the Spirit of Love in the fullness of time, God has revealed his innermost secret: God himself is an eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and he has destined us to share in that exchange." (CCC #221)
The way that we are called to love is meant to image the way our Creator loves. God’s love involves a total gift. This is the bond of love that forms the communion of Persons among the Holy Trinity. It is a kind of love that doesn’t take, consume, grasp, manipulate, use, or objectify. When authentic love is at work, the other person is never lost.
Everyone reading this knows we live in a culture deeply wounded by pornography. Pornography claims to portray “acts of love” that are actually love’s opposite: use. We need to be re-trained in authentic love because so many of us have learned it wrong. Through the scourge of pornography, broken familial bonds, and the damaging example of so many false witnesses, we have built our understanding and practice of love on very poor foundations. The only way to rebuild these foundations is through the power of God through grace, and by the daily practice of authentic love. So, today, I want to offer you five non-sexual ways to express love that, if you practice them consistently, will give you a firm foundation for the pure and life-giving love you really desire.
Begin With Prayer
I want to invite you to resist the temptation right now to skim over this section. We all know prayer is absolutely necessary, but do you actually do it? If love is about communion and authentic self-gift, then we need to first receive that gift from God, Himself. This means that God needs to take first priority in my life, and I need to practice building my day around my time with Him. There are so many people who are trying to embrace purity but still haven’t made this fundamental shift in their lives. Until this decision is made and put into practice, it will always be an uphill battle. This requires pushing beyond our own self-centeredness and comfort, and it is in this battle that the deeper grace resides.
Practice Eye Contact
Often times when speaking or leading retreats, I will lead the group in an exercise of eye contact. I’ll invite them to turn to their neighbor and hold their “gaze”. After what can feel like an eternity, but is really only about 30 seconds, I’ll let them break the eye contact. When they share their experience of the exercise, the word most often used is “awkward”, but if we dig a little deeper, we realize that “intimate” is a better word to describe it. It is awkward because we don’t know how to handle the intimacy. The word intimacy is sometimes broken down as “into me see.” When we strive for simple eye contact, we give ourselves the opportunity to really see the gift of the person before us, and we make ourselves vulnerable in allowing them to truly see us.
There is something very profound communicated when we seek to hold their gaze: “I see you, you are good, and you are worth my time and attention.” While I don’t recommend spending 30 seconds gazing into someone’s eyes today, I do challenge you to pay attention to the way you maintain eye contact in your interactions and conversations and what you are communicating through your gaze.
Related: Clearing Away the Haze
Prioritize Your Time
We tend to have the falsely romantic idea that expressions of love must rise up inside of us in some kind of organic way. We think that if the experience involves any kind of effort or decision, it somehow isn’t love. This just isn’t reality. Expressions of love involve a choice, and who you choose to spend your time on or with reflects a lot about your character because your time is indeed precious.
We live in a very ego-centric culture. Everywhere you look you see examples and encouragements around “self-care” and “focusing on you.” While there is great value in taking care of ourselves, the amount of time spent on ourselves must be just. In many instances, we magnify the amount of time we need to ourselves while at the same time diminishing the amount of time others need from us. Whether it is a quick phone call or a visit, I encourage you to spend time with someone who needs the precious gift of your time today.
Use Your Words
There’s a difference between offering compliments and affirmation. When you compliment someone, oftentimes you are expressing admiration for a physical characteristic or for something they have done or accomplished. While compliments are indeed good, they point to more superficial or passing things. Affirmation is very different. When you affirm someone, you speak to a much deeper place—the place of their identity—which does not change. With affirmation, you point out the goodness and worth of the person. You speak words that remind them of how much they are loved not because of anything they do, but simply because of who they are.
As a culture, we are not accustomed to offering love this way, and we don’t always know how to receive it. We like to say in our ministry that “love pushes past the awkward moment.” There’s a need to push through what, in the moment, might feel awkward or unfamiliar in order to love well. Who is one person that needs to hear your words of affirmation over them today? I challenge you to take a step in authentic love to build up a brother or sister today through the gift of your words.
Serve Without Expectations or Conditions
We all have certain daily tasks that we enjoy doing, and we all have daily tasks that we find difficult. In your families, friendships, and other relationships, there’s actually a joy in getting to know things like this about people. Consider for a moment the task, perhaps in your household or at work, that you least enjoy doing. Now imagine if completely unwarranted, someone stepped in to take care of it for you with no strings attached and no expectations or conditions. What does a gift like this mean to you? Behind a selfless gesture like this is an interior acknowledgment and recognition that the person being served is worth the effort just because of who they are, not because of what they do. This is something we all need more often.
These are just a few ways to go beyond the superficial observance of Valentine’s Day this year, but there are many more. My hope is that by taking some intentional steps today, you can begin cultivating these expressions of love daily in your lives. The more that you do this, the more freedom you will have to embrace the purity of heart that authentic love demands of you.
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