It is tempting to think we intuitively know how to love people. And it would be amazing if life could be that simple. Yet, because we each have our own stories and different versions of what it means to love and be loved, we need to enroll in the “University of Love” and take the lifelong course on “How to Love People.” It’s a course that we’ll never be able to say we’ve finished because there is always something new to learn. Karen Spruill, M.A., a counselor, author, and friend, shares a list of timely definitions and thoughts on what it means to love. —Rich DuBose
PART 1—BUILDING LOVE
Love can mean different things due to individual personalities and backgrounds. In Gary Chapman’s book, The Five Love Languages, he offers an assessment to determine which of five kinds of love you and your family members might identify with as individually meaningful:
Words of affirmation
Acts of service
Most people need a combination of their love languages but some are more important than others. During parenting and grand parenting, it’s essential to convey love to a child for healthy development.
“Conveying love to a child can be broadly classified into four areas: eye contact, physical contact, focused attention, and discipline,” according to Dr. Ross Campbell in How to Really Love Your Child. All areas are equally essential. These qualities and actions hold true for most of our relationships. Especially after the pandemic, many people are truly suffering from reduced exposure of smiles, warm touches/handshakes, and personal attention. As you read the essentials below, consider how Jesus Christ modeled them during His time on earth.
Though this need varies with some cultures, this is one of the primary ways to show love, especially to children, resulting in “filling their emotional tanks.” Eye contact affects our feelings toward others. Toddlers, babies in strollers, and children who spend hours in front of electronic screens may not make much eye contact with adults. However, it can result in confusion for the child, employee, or spouse if eye contact is mostly offered in connection with criticism, correction, and punishment. Eye contact, or lack of it, used as punishment to children and spouses, is cruel and may be more painful than physical punishment.
Eye and physical contact are needed in everyday life with children. Kind and loving touching increases the bonding hormone, oxytocin. Unfortunately, many parents only touch their children when necessary such as helping with dressing, moving in and out of cars, up and down from chairs, etc. Salespeople are sometimes trained to offer a simple touch on the arm or hand as a way to show support or friendship to others for the desired result. Nursing babies and mothers bond through eye contact and touch many times each day. Heartbreak occurs for good reasons when intimate affection is shared on a casual basis and then quickly abandoned for another temporary relationship.
The need for affection can vary but Dr. Campbell maintains it is crucial for young boys from birth to age 7 or 8 since boys often receive less loving touch than girls. Boys need a different kind of physical contact as they grow—notice the slapping, high-fiving, wrestling, and bear hugs. Yet, being hurt, tired, sick, and at bedtime are opportunities for loving touching. Young girls’ need for affectionate physical touch seems to increase with age, peaking around age 11. This is an important age in preparation for adolescence.
Giving a child or spouse/friend undivided attention can help them feel completely loved. That means turning off the cell phone, electronic tablet or reader, and any streaming entertainment. Focused attention is often replaced with treats, gifts, money, or just urgent family duties. Happy couples or families usually feel loved due to the setting of priorities, goals, and planning of time. Focused attention requires some patience and commitment. (Sabbath can be a practice of focused attention for the family.) Without focused attention, a child may experience increased anxiety since everything else is more important!
In child therapy, we often give a simple assignment of spending several times each week allowing each pre-school or elementary-age child client to pick an activity for 30-60 minutes (minimum expense set) to be spent with a parent. In many instances, behaviors change, or the need for therapy is eliminated after several shared fun sessions. Family time with question cards like those from the “Ungame” can facilitate getting a deeper knowledge of each other’s hopes, dreams, preferences, and values.
Dr. Campbell reminds us that “making a child feel loved is the first and most important part of good discipline,” and that discipline is so much easier when the child feels genuinely loved. A child’s behavior is their main way of communicating, and they continually ask, “Do you love me?” Campbell cautions that a parent’s worst enemy is his/her own uncontrolled feelings. Uncontrolled anger ruins good discipline.
Much more could be said regarding discipline, however, it is primarily the guidance and training for mind and character through every type of communication appropriate for each developmental stage. The goal of training is the resulting self-controlled, compassionate, and constructive member of society. As we read Psalms 23, it’s good to remember that the shepherd’s rod was almost exclusively used for guiding and directing the sheep and lambs, not for beating. Ephesians 6:4 warns parents against scolding and nagging children, resulting in resentment and anger. The first is unconditional love, the second is discipline.
The HALT Method
When dealing with misbehavior, parents should first ask themselves, “What does this child need?” Many adults have learned to use the HALT method for their own times of irritation and agitation to address “What seems off?” The HALT tool comes from the recovery community but may be used as a technique for better emotional regulation. Parents may find it helpful to discover their child’s needs, and also teach them to the child. Children can practice becoming their own detectives for self-awareness.
HALT stands for 1)Hungry—eat something light and nutritious; 2)Angry—deep breathing, running, walking, or intense exercise; 3) Lonely—reach out to a safe person to connect, or self-connection with spiritual practices, exercising, reading, painting, or a hobby; and 4) Tired, prioritize tasks and prioritize sleep, pause to do something relaxing, walk outside, sit in silence, take a nap or go to bed. All of the needs, unless managed, can lead to poor decisions, lack of communication, and damaged relationships.
Bonding Through Trauma and Service Experiences, and Nature Bathing
People who survive long car trips together, weather disasters, office crises, wars, etc., sometimes find these experiences result in bonding with others. New compassion, friendships, and connection for reunions and holidays can result.
Those who choose to share a cause, a community need, soup kitchens, prison ministry, animal welfare, or regular times of serving others may create a sense of teamwork, unity, and community. Nature bathing might look like a camping trip with a group of friends, or family time on bicycle rides. Other examples are tandem kayaking (can you work as a team?), horseback riding on trails, swimming, running marathons together, or hiking through forests. Getting into nature with sunshine, green trees, flowers, and animals provides a special kind of reset. It can bring healing of the whole person, and with others. These activities create memories and conversations for years.
Make Your Attention Bids!
Researcher and author, Dr. John Gottman from the Gottman Institute, explains that “bids for attention” are invitations for closeness. Bids can be verbal or nonverbal, or physical. Bids may result in increased trust, emotional connection, and passion.
We make responses to bids in three ways:
Turn Toward — acknowledge the bid; it starts with paying attention
Turn Away — ignore or miss the bid
and Turn Against — argue or become belligerent
Turning starts with paying attention.
Gottman suggests that there are Masters and Disasters of Bids in couples. The Masters turn toward the other’s bids 86% of the time; Disasters turn toward the other 33% of the time. It is important to make lots of bids each day! Show that you want to connect, and learn to pay attention to others’ bids.
In 50 hours of training to become a Stephen Minister* to our own church members, we start with listening as a skill that can be learned and practiced.
Kenneth C. Hauck, Ph.D., reminds us that there are three needed qualities in optimal listening:
Presence — being physically, emotionally, and spiritually present
Empathy — feeling another person’s problems as if they were your own, but not taking them on yourself
Composure — being calm, accepting silence, not judging, not over-identifying, being patient
Effective listening is best experienced in a listening environment with a private, non-disruption location, a comfortable seating arrangement, fairly close together, and facing each other. Then we listen for feelings, patterns, and unsaid things.
Active Listening Involves:
Validating (not necessarily agreeing but accepting, believing, and understanding thoughts and feelings)
Asking questions (open-ended, clarifying, non-judgmental, avoiding “why” questions).
Using continuation phrases such as: “Tell me more,” “Could you say more about that?,” “What else can you tell me?”, etc.
Reflecting what the person has to say by responding with such phrases as “It sounds like,” “It seems as if,” “If I understand,” “I get the impression,” etc.
PART 2—NECESSARY BOUNDARIES
Sympathy and Empathy
Human relationships on a broken planet are often complicated and exhausting. Christians are often guilty of trying to “fix it” for others, giving advice, or attempting to teach doctrine rather than seeking to understand. As living ambassadors for Jesus’ love, we are not the savior of anyone. And we have a stewardship of our own health, gifts, and bodies, as we desire to serve Jesus as long as possible. With much prayer and support, we can keep reaching out to others.
It’s vitally important while seeking to understand and love others to know the difference between sympathy and empathy. Dr. Hauck offers these definitions: Sympathy is feeling concerned for someone else without becoming involved in their lives. Empathy is feeling another person’s problems as if they were your own without actually taking them on yourself. We can slide into over-identification when exposed to others’ deep hurts and pain. The resulting sense of being overwhelmed by deep sadness and triggering of our own past experiences can hamper our efforts to love or make them ineffectual. An awareness of our own human vulnerabilities is needed. Personal grief due to a recent loss or illness may be too fresh to offer healthy sympathy or empathy.
A community of trusted and safe disciples is a great asset for processing our attempts at loving or figuring out the next wise step for helping others. This could be a personal counselor, a wise elder or pastor, or a regular fellowship group. Any discussion or mentoring needs to acknowledge the importance of confidentiality of the person receiving help or listening. That is, unless they have given permission for their name and specific circumstances to be shared. Prayer ministries can help safeguard trust by paying attention to confidentiality.
Judging and Labeling
Anyone who has tried to love adolescents, young adults, victims of trauma, and former Christians, understands how sensitive people can feel about being judged or labeled. Everyone desperately wants unconditional love from others. Yet, relationships need parameters and some definitions of expectations. The likelihood of judging usually increases when one lacks a personal relationship or an understanding of another person. We live in a tribal world of “us” and “them,” on layers in society and the church.
Jesus cautioned the Jews in John 7: 24 to “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” So it must be possible if one invests the time and energy to learn more about the person or group they are tempted to judge. And in John 8: 15, “You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one.” He went on to say if He does judge, His decisions are right because He stands with the Father.
Love and Discernment
Discernment is needed to learn, grow, and be safe in a sin-infected world. God gifts us with personal intelligence and free choice, plus the wisdom and experience of others in their spiritual growth. Remember James 1:5, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.” (NIV)
Also remember Matt. 10: 16, as Jesus directed His disciples: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good and pleasing and perfect will.” The Holy Spirit is promised to provide spiritual discernment to God’s people since we have the mind of Christ, (I Corinthians 2:12-15).
What Is Appropriate Love and Inappropriate Love?
We get confused about how far our responsibility extends or what our expectations should become. Due to painful relationship mistakes, we fear to trust again.
One of the tools I have often used for illustrating the need for boundaries (invisible fences and gates) in our lives is built on a diagram of concentric circles. These circles illustrate the appropriate use of Time, Treasures, Touch, and Talk (the T’s). It’s really all about Trust.
1. The most inner circle is that which represents our most intimate relationships—usually a spouse or immediate family. What kind of language do you use or accept from these people? Are the touches tender and playful? Do you feel safe sharing family heirlooms or your own home at times? How much of your time can you safely extend to one person in your intimate circle and still meet the needs of others?
2. The next outward circle represents close friends, cousins, workmates, or classmates. Again, consider what is appropriate in the realms of Ts.
3. The third circle might be acquaintances, neighbors, and people with whom you regularly do business.
4. The fourth circle might represent those people who you just wave at in passing, or notice on occasion.
5. The very outer circle represents people you have only met once. For example, they could be a salesperson at your door, a marketing caller on your phone, someone at a restaurant, or on a bus.
Use the T’s
Use the T’s to place appropriate measures within the circles. When people have only met once and then have intimate sexual relationships in the outer circle 5, there is a mismatch in what is appropriate for health and well-being. When you loan your car to someone in circle 4, and then it gets damaged, you probably have not established the appropriate trust with your Treasures. Or when your neighbor in level 3 asks “How ya doing?”, it may not be appropriate to discuss the details of your latest medical diagnosis. Likewise, when people speak to us with coarse or swearing words, or strangers start to label us with derogatory words, we can ask for a “stop” or not continue to engage.
Practice the Ts in each level and start teaching them to your children of reasonable age.
Burdens and Loads—Galatians 6:1-5
Many work-focused Adventists believe that God has called them to sacrifice their own health and their families for the ministry or whatever calling/cause they support. They sincerely think they need to be available 24/7 and often misinterpret scriptures to aid their unhealthy lifestyles. Overly-committed Adventists forget that even Enoch and Jesus pulled away for regular quiet time away from others, to pray and rest.
Some verses in the Book of Galatians are often quoted to support unending involvement or care for church or family members. The first several verses may be referring to the “burden” of a self-destructive, moral sin or weakness. The Greek word here (Young’s Analytical Concordance to the Bible) for this burden is “weight.” And those church members who are spiritually strong should humbly guide the overburdened back to balance, realizing they may also be tempted. Then in verse 5, “each one should carry his own load.” A different Greek word is “load” to be borne, denoting a Christian’s personal responsibility for their health and relationship with God. A load is not necessarily a burden.
Speaking With Love
Unlike aggressive/angry or passive people, loving Adventists aim to speak as assertively with truth and honesty. Assertive Adventists have godly self-confidence knowing their value and whom they serve. This allows them to care for their own bodies with lower anxiety and deal with uncomfortable emotions. Assertive people can share their own opinions and beliefs with others.
Authors Ruth N. Koch and Kenneth C. Hauck (Speaking the Truth in Love) provide concepts for becoming appropriately assertive speakers:
Say Something — If you need to say something, it doesn’t have to be the perfect opening or the perfect words.
Be Honest — Say exactly what you want and need, otherwise it’s dishonest and confusing.
Use “I” Messages — Use the word I to own and be responsible for your statement.
Use “I Want” Statements — Similar to an I message. “I” plus a specific request that you want to happen.
Combine I Want Statements and I Messages — Accept ownership of your feelings and make a direct request.
Avoid Labeling — The other person will feel attacked; instead, identify the behavior and specific actions to which you are reacting. Be specific about expressing affectionate feelings and appreciation.
Be Concise — Be relatively brief.
Don’t Apologize for Being Assertive — Justifying, whining, or pleading is passive.
Avoid Sarcasm — This is aggressive and prevents constructive communication.
Be as Persistent as Necessary — You may need to use a statement more than once.
A Few Tips
Finally, just a few tips for dealing in a difficult conversation with a former member, unchurched person, discouraged or disagreeable person. Consider these kinds of loving responses after listening and paying attention:
“May I as you a question? What kind of God have you rejected?”
“What were your past church experiences?”
“You may be right”
“In my opinion…”
“What does that mean to you?”
“What has helped you heal from that hurt?”
“This is what I have found helpful…”
Soak in Ephesians 4: 15, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ.”
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