…and the most potent of all. For those unfamiliar, The Five Love Languages began as a book by Gary Chapman, based around the idea that a big part of communicating love in our relationships means doing so in one another’s respective “languages,” whether physical touch, acts of service, quality time, words of affirmation, or gifts.
At least, those are the five he names.
But as my own relationships deepen and pass through the minor and less minor crucibles and conflicts of life, I’m realizing that there is a sixth love language that I might be bold enough to claim universally trumps all of the other five.
For this, we have to turn to a book that I recently rediscovered as one of my favorites in the entire Bible, that I reread several times, that I return to now because I’ve realized it’s quite unique in the Canon–this is the book of Philemon.
Philemon is an “occasional” letter to the extreme–a tiny story with a tiny cast and seemingly tiny theology, without a single tweetable verse. Unlike the rest of Paul’s writings, which hover somewhere between the penthouses and the clouds, Philemon is at ground level. It’s like one of the encounters in the Gospels with a flesh and blood person, except written by Paul and distilling all of his theology into a single decidedly commonplace story.
Tl;dr– Philemon is a privileged, powerful, and generally godly man–way too similar to you and me. Just trying to get by and even hosting a Bible study at his home, when one day an employee named Onesimus who’s eaten from his table quits without warning, and makes off with a large fistful of Philemon’s money in hand.
And then, the allegorical and providential hand of God meets Onesimus and draws him into the same faith as his previous master, and does so by the hand of Philemon’s mentor Paul.
I love their story because, in the words of Malcolm Gladwell,
It is one thing to read in a history book about people empowered by their faith. But it is quite another to meet an otherwise very ordinary person, in the backyard of a very ordinary house, who has managed to do something utterly extraordinary.
Because Philemon neither an Evil Guy who gets struck down dead instantaneously, nor an apostle, I can feel what he feels. The tautness in his heart, the rekindled anger when he reads Paul’s carefully gracious but pointed letter, which falls just short of commanding Philemon to welcome back Onesimus not just as forgiven, but as family. I can also occupy the narrative uncertainty about how Philemon responded, and share in that decision in my own everyday life.
Should I withhold, or should I release this most costly but most powerful of “love languages,” this treasure which our language can only describe with a grossly over-used word, “grace?”
It’s horribly ironic, that in all our efforts to show love to the ones we love, the best chances to love must be given by them and not by us? Or conversely, that I feel the most tremendously loved not when showered with gifts or even diligent acts of service, but when I myself have behaved as the most unlovable?
And yet there is just nothing like it. This is the love of God that melts the human heart like nothing else can, because its very nature brings a heat that is counter to everything in this world. This is the love which Paul prays upon Philemon, that he would seize upon Onesimus’ return not as a spark for anger but as an opportunity to share in the costly love of Christ.
Oh, it hurts. It never ceases to hurt to forgive and love the unlovable and unlovely, but the more I receive it, the more I am melted and remolded to touch something utterly extraordinary in my otherwise very ordinary life.