A cultural and biblical reflection on transforming love
Some accounts report that St. Valentine was a Roman priest and physician who was martyred by the emperor Claudius II Gothicus around AD 270. He was buried on the Via Flaminia, where Pope Julius I reportedly built a basilica over his grave.
Other sources identify him as the bishop of Terni, Italy. He was martyred, apparently in Rome; his relics were later taken to Terni.
These could be different versions of the same account, thus referring to only one person.
According to legend, he healed his jailer’s blind daughter, then left her a note on the day of his execution signed “from your Valentine.”
In AD 496, Pope Gelasius marked February 14 to celebrate St. Valentine’s life and faith. He is venerated today as the patron saint of beekeepers, epilepsy, and, of course, engaged couples and happy marriages.
We may have the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer to thank for the holiday that bears his name. There is no record of romantic celebrations on Valentine’s Day prior to a poem Chaucer wrote around 1375 titled “Parliament of Foules.” He links a tradition of courtly love with the celebration of St. Valentine’s feast day, though this tradition did not exist until Chaucer’s poem received widespread attention.
This tradition eventually made its way to the New World. Factory-made cards, a product of the industrial revolution, became popular in the nineteenth century. In 1913, Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Missouri, began mass producing valentines.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
“There is only one path to happiness”
Whatever our view of St. Valentine and the day that honors him, it is clear that loving others is God’s intention for us.
When Jesus taught us, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), he echoed Leviticus 19:18 and the consistent teaching of Scripture (cf. John 13:34; Romans 13:10; 1 Corinthians 13; 1 John 4:16).
However, our Lord’s call to love our neighbors as ourselves requires us to love ourselves. How can we do this?
It’s impossible to give what we do not have or lead people further than we are willing to go. Before I can love anyone else well, I must learn to love myself well. The key to this decision is learning to see myself as God sees me so I can love myself as God loves me.
However, such a view of ourselves is extremely countercultural today.
A fascinating Forbes article offers “Ten Lessons The Year 2020 Is Desperately Trying To Teach Us.” The writer encourages us to give ourselves grace, choose authenticity, befriend others, seek to live with gratitude and persistence, choose your battles, learn from science and expertise, be present in the moment, and stay connected. He also includes the statement, “Faith and hope are inseparable.”
Apart from this observation, however, his advice urges us to do what we can do to improve our lives and our world through our personal initiative and resources.
This self-reliant viewpoint has a long history in our culture. Socrates taught us that to “know yourself” is the foundational key to knowledge—not “know God” or “know divine revelation.” From then to today, Western culture has placed the self and self-knowledge at the center of our philosophical and psychological universe.
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (AD 50–135) advised us, “There is only one path to happiness, and that is in giving up all outside of your sphere of choice” (Discourses 34.4.39). He taught that the “proper work of the mind” is “the exercise of choice, refusal, yearning, repulsion, preparation, purpose, and assent” (Discourses 4.11.6–7).
The Roman orator and tragedian Seneca (died AD 65) observed that “greatness of soul . . . can’t stand out unless it disdains as petty what the mob regards as most desirable” (Moral Letters 74.12b–13). In As You Like It, Shakespeare has one of his characters proclaim, “All the world’s a stage / And all men and women merely players.” Our job is to play our role as best we can for as long as we can.
Paraguay has no word for “tomorrow”
There is no end to the self-reliant advice available to us today.
Since the first of the year, I’ve been collecting news stories offering such guidance. Here are some examples:
- Focus on the positive today, following the example of Paraguay, which has no word for tomorrow and is ranked the most positive nation on the planet.
- Solve problems by identifying “first principles” that you know to be true and that can point the way forward.
- Learn more effectively by benchmarking resources, emphasizing what fits your goals, and excluding all else.
- Break bad habits by creating “friction” that makes them more inconvenient and substituting healthier rewards for those provided by wrong behavior.
- Find more ways to laugh since laughter creates bonds with others, produces positive emotions that lead to flourishing, and increases life satisfaction.
- Set goals and define new habits by which to invest in yourself during difficult times.
- Curb destructive “self-talk” by speaking to yourself as if you were advising a friend.
- When facing challenges, ask yourself, “What would I do if I wasn’t afraid?”
One writer lists “the things you stop chasing once you realize your worth”: proving people wrong, happiness, the future, people who don’t love you, and the “hustle” to become a success.
Research also indicates that a significant key to longevity and life satisfaction is defining a reason for living that gives us meaning and purpose. Marcus Aurelius noted: “A person who doesn’t know what the universe is, doesn’t know where they are. A person who doesn’t know their purpose in life doesn’t know where they are or what the universe is” (Meditations 8:52).
All good advice.
However, as this New Yorker article notes, self-help guidance doesn’t seem to work for many of us. With the plethora of self-improvement advice available today, why are we struggling to find happiness?
Even before the 2020 pandemic, the World Health Organization described depression as “a leading cause of disability worldwide” and “a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.” In 2017, the HHS declared an opioid public health emergency. The suicide rate in the US increased 33 percent from 1999 through 2017.
And this was before the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated our physical, mental, and emotional challenges nearly beyond description.
“We love because he first loved us”
It would seem that learning to love ourselves well is not something we can achieve by ourselves.
God’s word states this simple but profound fact: “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This principle applies not only to the way we love God and our neighbor but also to the way we love ourselves.
In other words, the more we understand the depth to which God loves us, the more we are empowered to see ourselves as he sees us and to love ourselves as he loves us.
Consider these interconnected biblical facts:
One: God loves you as much as he loves anyone who has ever lived.
The most famous verse in Scripture proclaims, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, my italics). God loves you as much as he loved Moses, David, Daniel, Peter, John, St. Augustine, and Billy Graham. He loves you as much as he loves the most faithful missionary and martyr in the world. As St. Augustine noted, “God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.” This fact leads to the second.
Two: God loves you as much as he loves his own Son.
In John 17, Jesus prayed “that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (v. 23). “Even as” means “to the same degree as.” Think of it: the Father loves you as much as he loves his perfect, sinless Son. This is because of our third fact.
Three: God loves you because he is love.
The Bible is clear: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Love is not just what God feels or does—it describes his essential nature. In every moment and circumstance, God is love. Everything he does is motivated by love. To put it bluntly, God cannot not love you. He loves you because his character requires him to love you. He loves you not because you are lovable, but because he is love. This leads to a fourth fact.
Four: God’s love for you is in no way dependent on you.
Scripture teaches that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). There is literally nothing you can do to make God love you any more or less than he already does.
Beware the “three P’s”
These facts are not new. Most Christians can quote the verses I just cited. Why, then, do so many of us struggle to see ourselves as God sees us and to love ourselves as God loves us?
We live in a culture that measures us by the “three “P’s”: possessions, popularity, and performance.
- A secular society based on a consumeristic economy will inevitably define success by possessions. The more we have, the more we must be worth.
- Possessions often lead to popularity. The more, the better.
- Such popularity is often based on our performance. The better, the better.
A counselor once shared with me this maxim that captures our ethos: “I am not who I think I am. I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.”
We struggle to love ourselves in part because we’re not sure anyone else truly loves us. And because we know in our private selves how unlovable we are.
The title of John Powell’s masterful book, Why Am I Afraid To Tell You Who I Am? has a profound but simple answer: I’m afraid you won’t like me if I do. We all know personally the fact that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We know that we are not who we wish we were and who we think God and others wish we were.
This is precisely why we need to remember every day the fact that God loves us not because we are lovable but because he is love. Perhaps a step back in time will make this point.
How much does God love you?
I have been privileged to lead more than thirty study tours to the Holy Land. Each time, we visit the Garden of Gethsemane on the slope of the Mount of Olives east of the Old City of Jerusalem.
Gethsemane comes from two Hebrew words meaning “olive press.” It was a large area in Jesus’ day. Here our Lord chose to die for us.
He knew he would face three illegal trials at the hands of the Jewish authorities and three Roman trials ending in his conviction. He would suffer crucifixion, the cruelest form of execution ever devised. His perfect, sinless soul would be made to bear our sin so that he would cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). And he would die that we might live.
In this garden, Jesus made the decision to bear our sins on our cross and go to our grave. In this garden, his Father chose to send his beloved Son to a cross where he would writhe in pain and bear our sins on his sinless soul.
To illustrate their choice: the story is told of the drawbridge engineer who brought his young son to work one day. He showed his son how he pulled the levers to raise the drawbridge so ships could pass beneath, then lowered them so trains could pass over.
The engineer heard the air horn of an approaching ship and maneuvered the levers to lift the drawbridge. As the ship was sailing through the raised bridge, he noticed that his son was not with him. Looking out the window, he spotted his young boy climbing and playing on the gears.
He started out to get him when he heard the ear-splitting whistle of an oncoming train. The bridge must be lowered, immediately.
In that moment, he realized: if he rescued his son, the passengers on the train would crash and die. If he lowered the bridge, the passengers would live but his son would be crushed and killed. It was the most horrible of dilemmas.
The father pulled the lever.
That’s what your Father did for you when he sent his Son to die for you.
Please, never again wonder if God loves you.
Your Father loves you for who you are, not what you do. If you have confessed your faith in Jesus to save you, God sees you as if you’d never sinned. He calls you to serve him in gratitude for his unconditional grace.
Henri Nouwen made this call clear and persuasive:
The great spiritual call of the Beloved Children of God is to pull their brokenness away from the shadow of the curse and put it under the light of the blessing. This is not as easy as it sounds. The power of the darkness around us is strong, and our world finds it easier to manipulate self-rejecting people than self-accepting people. But when we keep listening attentively to the voice calling us the Beloved, it becomes possible to live our brokenness, not as a confirmation of our fear that we are worthless, but as an opportunity to purify and deepen the blessing that rests upon us.
When we see ourselves as God sees us, we will love ourselves as God loves us. We will then be empowered to love our neighbors as ourselves. And such love will transform our world.
Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre observed, “Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.”
What will you do with God’s love for you?