October 17, 2017

How Do You Say “I Love You?”

David Cornwell is a long-time reader and commenter at InternetMonk. Many (and I do mean many) of you have written to me personally asking if David could write something longer than his comments for us. Chaplain Mike and I both agreed that David’s contributions would be most welcome here. Please join me in welcoming David to the iMonastery.  JD

By David Cornwell

First I want to express gratitude to Jeff Dunn for his gracious invitation to write something for The Internet Monk. I’m a relative newcomer to this place. Michael Spencer had already become too ill to continue, but it was the archives of his articles that first attracted me. I delved into some of them, and quickly learned that this was a place I wanted to know more about.  To be invited to say something on a blog that features Jeff Dunn, Chaplain Mike, Martha of Ireland, Lisa Dye, Damaris Zehner, Denise Spencer, Adam Palmer, and every other person who has written here truthfully scares me. At first I went blank, then came up with a couple of subjects. I put them back in the drawer early,  because I feared one of them might be fairly controversial, and the other I couldn’t quickly put any meat on. Then suddenly it came to me.

Also I must say that the readers of this blog are some of the most intelligent and thoughtful people I’ve ever interacted with. From the beginning I’ve appreciated your honesty of faith, doubt, and the travails of the journey. We here together because we are all seekers.

Here is my topic: How do you say, “I love you?” My bet is that you do it in a variety of ways.

In my family we have always expressed our love for each other with good strong embracing hugs, sometimes with the added simple words, “I love you.” The church we attend is much the same way. Early in our liturgy there is a time of  “passing the peace.” Some Catholic or high Anglican types might question the way we do it, but it suits me just fine.  The words we offer to the other are “may the peace of Christ be with you.” But we do more than greet the one next to us, or behind or in front of us. It’s a time of getting out of the pew and into the aisles, perhaps shaking a hand, giving a hug, and greeting someone new.  It’s an exuberant expression that not only passes the peace, but says “I love you” and I hope it means that.

Are you a person who adds a tagline such as “I love you” to the end of a phone conversation? Marge and I  have done this many times with each other or another loved one.  It can be a habit, and if not careful one can use it with the wrong person.  Marge’s former employer called her at home once, and at the end of the call said “I love you,” then hung up. We were both hoping it was inadvertent. We laughed about it.

My father, as he grew older, would become emotional when we were ready to leave after a visit. We would hug, say our goodbyes, and almost always tears would well up in his eyes. And this started the chain reaction. Walking toward the car we would all end up wiping our eyes and needing to clear the tears before starting the drive home. We always knew he loved us.

I know families that never use the words “I love you” with a family member. Neither do they hug or touch. Yet, if you spend some time with them you will somehow figure out that they do love each other, and seemingly very deeply. One can sense emotion at times just beneath the skin, but the outward expression remains hidden. I have a hunch that this is cultural.

My deeper question here is how we express our love for God. We know that God can see our hearts and understands our deepest motives. This always scares me because I’m not sure I understand this hidden and maybe dark place deep inside me.

Answering a question from a scribe Jesus said,  “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  There is no other commandment greater than these.’”

One could ponder this statement for a long time and still fail to understand the deepness of its meaning. In seminary for our final exam in a course on inductive Bible study, we were assigned the book of  I John. If I remember, the time frame was two hours, and we had the little blue book in which to write it out. This had to be accomplished without helps, using the basics of  the inductive method of looking at the English text and then recording our observations in a meaningful way. What struck me then, and still does is John’s attempt to explain love, God’s love for us, and our love for God and for those around us. He goes at it from every possible angle, in, out and around. The explanation he gives in I John 4:7 through 5:5, however, cannot be charted, organized, or diagramed easily.

How do we tell God we love Him? It must start with knowing something about how he tells us the same thing. “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (I John 4:9-10 NRSV). So it starts with God who sent His Son to die for us. How do we comprehend this truth? Does it start with the intellect? By saying “Yes, I believe it?” With an affirmation? Through faith alone?

Some of us seem to come to this understanding easier than others. I know children who grew up with a joyous comprehension, and they never have had serious doubts. For most of us, however, it hasn’t been that easy. We struggle with understanding God’s love and the meaning of the Sacrifice.  For some of us with us this may last until the end of our days. Sometimes a crisis experience brings a resolution and serious doubts are resolved. In my own life there are those times that I’m more sure than others.

John hints that the Holy Spirit provides agency bringing to our hearts this kind of assurance. However it comes, before we can adequately love God, we must first be aware of His love for us. The more we become aware of the depth of the Sacrifice, the more sure we become of His love toward us. The natural exchange then, is for us to express our love back to God. Most of the time when we hug a child, we will receive back some kind of recognition of understanding. But as the child grows, it may seem at times that he/she doesn’t understand the sacrifices we make, those that flow out of love. In time, with maturity, this may change.

How does God know we love Him? He knows because we love in response to His love. The more we are aware of His love for us, the depth of that Calvary Sacrifice, the more we show to those around us. We won’t be able to help ourselves, will we? Our individual expressions will be as different as all our other personal idiosyncrasies. Some of us can’t keep quiet about it. Some do it in quiet ways. Even our cultural differences and denominational backgrounds are in play here. We can do it raising our arms toward God or bowing our heads. High liturgy may bring us near the throne as we worship God. Or a little prayer meeting in an old chapel on a country road may serve for someone else.

Some things will be consistent however. We will cease hating and despising our neighbor and those who are different. We will look with kindness on the poor and the prisoner. And maybe also we will look into the face and eyes of the alien and see Christ. When we do, we will be saying “I love you.”

So— how does your family say “I love  you?” And what does it mean for you to express your love to God?







  1. Beautiful thoughts, David. My mom taught us that the four most important things you can ever say are…

    1) “I love you…”
    2) “Thank you…”
    3) “I’m sorry…”
    4) “I forgive you…”

    When I counsel young couples, I always pass this advice along, and tell them to make a point to say three of the four every single day, and mean it when they say it. It just occured to me as I was reading your thoughts that when I say 1-3, with heart, to our God every day, He’s responding with numbers 1 and 4…and 1 again…and again.

    Think I’ll go wake my little girl up and tell her and my wife that I love them. Thank you, David.

  2. I can’t deny the fact that I am loved. Love has shown itself in so many ways. My mom told me that you never leave someone while angry because you never know what might happen. I didn’t understand this until my grandmother passed away in 2009. About two weeks before her death I called her from work and spoke with her. We chatted for a bit and both expressed our love for each other. When we said goodbye I never knew it would be forever and that I just had my final conversation with my grandmother. Two weeks later when my Dad called to tell me the news that my grandmother was not expected to live through the night. I cried and was torn apart. I was up most of the night and went to a nearby diner in Vienna, Virginia. But what helped me in the grieving process is knowing that I said “I love you” for the final time to my grandmother in what became out final conversation. Our relationship which ended forever…ended on the best possible note.

    If Christianity drops all the other BS and focuses on love…would there be a need for evangelism? No people would run, not walk to a body that expresses love. How many people hunger today for love? I don’t understand why Christians make it so complicated. I can’t figure that out.

    The only things that attract me to Christianity right now are grace and love. If I’m going to return to Christianity one day it will be because of grace and love.

    But an awesome post David….

    • Very good points Eagle, but Love “expressed” can be manipulative too.

      I remember watching a movie about Jim Jones and his cult. There was a section in the movie in which they described how, visitors to the church who were needing employment were introduced to their new boss at the end of the service. In a week after visiting the church, new people would be flooded with cards thanking them for coming to the church, and saying how much they (the old timers) had appreciated the church, and how they felt so loved in the church, etc.

      The film was trying to make the point how terrible all this was, while I was thinking, “hey great evangelism techniques. Show people that they are loved, and that you will help meet their needs (like unemployment), and your church will grow rapidly. ”

      Now, I am not so sure. Most churches need a healthy dose of care and concern for others. Are we risking a certain level of fakeness in our relationships if we emphasize it too much? Or do heart attitudes follow actions? That is, if I practice love and hosptilality I will eventually become loving and hospitable?

      Not sure that I have made my point very well here, but maybe someone could put it in other words for me to see if I am communicating what I am thinking.

    • “If Christianity drops all the other BS and focuses on love…would there be a need for evangelism?”

      I believe far far far too few understand those words.
      People evangelize in all the wrong ways, for all the wrong reasons (mostly either legalistic reasons, or reasons of inducing a blessing from God: for example “if I do my duty – i.e. harass everyone – then God will surely protect me and mine”). The indoctrination of evangelism strangles, chokes and then kills any notion of simply “loving God and Neighbour”. It is like a form of insanity that overtakes a person and forces them to plug their ears, close their heart, and cry “Jesus Christ crucified, preach it! preach it!”, and all the love is gone.

    • “If Christianity drops all the other BS and focuses on love…would there be a need for evangelism?”

      We may be getting off on a tangent here, but one answer to that question is Jeremiah 31:31-34. See short answer in bold.

      31 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

    • We are sinners and often choose the selfish route.

      “If we” (then He wouldn’t have had to come and hang on a cross for us).

      But we ought do what we can do…no matter how measly that is in comparison to God’s love for us.

      Thanks, David. Great words, as always!

  3. David, thank you for highlighting the very thing I need to see the most. It is so easy to forget, and so important to be constantly reminded, and to constantly remember.
    I believe that as we treat everyone with respect, and seek out to bless those around us, in whatever way we can and meeting whatever needs are needed to be met, then we will slowly enter into the Love of God. WIthout Love nothing has any value (1 Corinthians 13), so if we do not “love our Neighbour in truth” then our offerings are less and less, straying from was is ideal and God’s plan.

  4. Thank you, David. First John is a great place for love, and it’s important to know where love comes from. 1John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.”

    And the two great commandments, Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18 (revisited by Jesus in Matthew 22), put love in practical terms:

    36″Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38This is the great and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

    But we need to put them in that order, the order that Jesus used. I got into a discussion years ago with a friend in a bible study about this. I insisted that the second is dependent on the first, that love for God is necessary before loving one’s neighbor. She insisted no, that a person can love another without loving God. “But,” I may have said (it’s been a while), “if we love because God first loved us, then that’s where it starts.” Love from God and for God is a pre-requisite. I didn’t win the argument with her (nobody ever has with her—you’d have to know this person to appreciate this) but I remain convinced of the order, and that our love is dependent on God’s loving us first.

    Off-topic, but then the woman started to study Greek, and she came to bible studies better armed. I decided then and there that bad bible interpretation is not made better by using the Greek as a club (I’ve since studied a little Greek myself, and I recommend it; but only in the right hands…).

    Great post, David.

    • David Cornwell says:

      Ted, I think you are correct, at least to an extent. Because we choose those we love and how much we love them unless we love God first. The love God calls us to is so radical that we start losing our choices. Some people are lots easier to love than others.

  5. Beautiful and wise words. Thank you.
    I think mostly we say I love you by speaking and acting and doing things that are for another person. That is to say, in their interest and for their good. This often involves sacrifice and surrender. Similarly, our love for God is expressed in words and deeds that glorify God.

    Love is the greatest commandment, and I’m convinced that it remains unfilfilled because so many people think it is or should be easy, but it is incredibly difficult precisely because it involves sacrifice and surrender, and because we are so prone to the sins of the heart (selfishness, arrogance, pride, legalism, fear, anger, impatience, etc.) that prevent, diminish or even destroy the possibility of love. To have any sucess at this we must constantly return to God’s ultimate love for us as — to Jesus and the cross.

    • More often than not, “love” in Christianity basically amounts to a pious platitude. People say they “love” God or Jesus because they think they’re supposed to, not because they really do. The Bible does not make it any easier with its unrealistic expectations (“love everyone”) and regular detours into sociopathy (God’s “unconditional” love being apparently conditioned on submission and obedience).

      • Bad exegesis, dude. “Sociopathy”? God’s love isn’t conditional, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reject it and suffer the consequences. We can love someone we send to prison.

  6. Thank you David. Amen.


  7. LOVE:
    what Jesus taught
    what Jesus lived
    how he died
    how he rose

    How do we do the same???
    Thanks David. beautiful.

  8. Hi Jeff,

    I have a comment stuck in moderation.

  9. textjunkie says:

    There really is a difference between the half-hearted hand shake and quickly saying “peace be with you” to a stranger, and nipping across the aisle to hug your friend, saying “Peace!” I’m at a church now where everybody shares the peace with everybody from the rector on down (it’s a small congregation), and it is a great expression of community and friendship–I wouldn’t say love, per se, because it’s easy to smile on Sunday morning when no one is asking anything of you (love is a bit more demanding!). But it’s a start.

    Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength–that’s a good way to think about it: how does he know we love him? Thanks for bringing that up, I will have to reflect on that today. 🙂 I start out most days by praying that what I do at work with my time and my hands and my brain honors God that day, but that’s hard to measure…

    • David Cornwell says:

      “… it is a great expression of community and friendship–I wouldn’t say love, per se, because it’s easy to smile on Sunday morning when no one is asking anything of you (love is a bit more demanding!). But it’s a start.”

      You are correct. It isn’t necessarily love at it’s highest level, but it at least has us on the right road to that kind of love. When this kind of community and friendship is missing in church, then the church and it’s people are deprived a connection that is so important. In a way it’s part of the pastoral ministry of the church, because people share in their concerns in those same pews that we are gathering to worship. I’ve been in churches where “passing the peace” seems to be a more or less empty liturgical element. (Hope I’m not getting into trouble here!). We do it fairly quickly, then we are back in the pews, so no gabfest.

      • The hardest thing at our church is getting everyone back into the pews. Then we celebrate birthdays and wedding anniversaries with prayer and song. The service is long but we go out on a high.

        The other side of this is that when we lose a member to illness or death, there is a void in our lives. But the loss is really a gain because of the love shared.