One of the staple books of marriage and pre-marriage counseling is Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages (5LL hereafter). It looks at the multi-faceted ways that people give and receive love in the form of (1) words of affirmation, (2) physical affection, (3) acts of service, (4) gift giving, and (5) quality time. The overarching point is that there are “different strokes for different folks” and that it forwards our relationships when we learn to love the other according to the “love language” they speak.
These ideas have helped countless couples sort out their differences and communicate their needs in a practical and understandable way. They can be custom tailored to anyone and encompass the myriad ways people interpret “quality time” or “acts of service.” They help resolve conflict by showing that we do not love others well when we simply love the other the way we like to be loved. Instead, we accommodate the other’s “love language” and love them in the way they understand, not how we understand. This, in turn, helps fill their “love bank” meaning that their needs are met, and when needs are met we can expect a flourishing of love that will come back on us. Even if it does not count as a bona fide psychological theory it still remains a very practical and commonsensical way to treat others a la the Golden Rule.
As I was going over some of these ideas recently I remembered a critique that I read a while back by David Powlison. When I read it, I thought it made a lot of sense and made some good corrective points. I read it again, and while it still makes some good corrective points, I think it makes a flawed conflation between “selfishness” and “self-interest.”
Powlison’s general point is that 5LL is based on a sub-Christian type of love that Jesus ridicules in the Gospels; the reality that “even tax collectors, gentiles, and sinners love those who love them (Matt. 5:46; Luke 6:32). This “guiding principle” is “not necessarily bad,” says Powlison, but that “it doesn’t go very far, and it does go bad easily.” This is where things get murky. True, the “guiding principle” is “not necessarily bad,” but it seems bad because it goes bad easily.
Powlison’s main concern is that people’s felt needs are made into idols of self-service, and that we go wrong when we excuse bad behavior when our needs are not met. He writes,
It ingrains the perception that our lusts are in fact needs, empty places inside where others have disappointed us. The empty emotional tank construct is congenial to our fallen instincts, not transformative. It leaves what we instinctively want as an unquestionable good that must somehow be fulfilled. It not only leaves fundamental self-interest unchallenged, it plays to self-interest.
Instead, we should try to change our behavior by confronting our needs with the gospel, repenting of our evil desires, and trusting Christ for our sufficiency—not, what Powlison will derisively call, “lust languages.”
This where I think Powlison goes wrong. Of course, it is not easy to see since most of us believe that self-interest is a bad thing, and that putting to death our selfishness is how we move forward. But there is a fundamentally important distinction between “selfishness” and “self-interest” that greatly influences how we understand our social circle and human nature.
Powlison seems aware of this distinction when he tries to give Chapman the benefit of the doubt by stating Chapman is not advocating “naked self interest”—the kind of thing anyone would find deplorable—but instead tones it down to “civilized self-interest.” Naked self-interest is the kind of thing that Pimps and Ponzi schemes are made of. Civilized self-interest has more to do with an agreement that invites reciprocation. Powlison aptly explains, “5LL replaces naked self-interest with civilized self-interest. ‘I give, hoping to get’ is a step above ‘I only give if I’ve gotten,’ but it’s not all that different.”
Actually, it is very different.
Powlison takes quite a bit of time to chide Chapman for failing to pass “Human Nature 101” but he would do well to look after his own class work before he unloads both barrels. What he calls “civilized self-interest,” or self-interest in general, is part of the fabric of the human psyche. General self-interest is defined as the natural human capacity to look to interests that bring about human flourishing and personal livelihood. We are made with certain basic needs that our self-interest rightly propels us towards. We need food, water, clothing, and shelter to survive and thrive. We are not idolaters for wanting to avoid hunger, thirst, nakedness, and homelessness. We take the necessary actions to obtain the means to fulfill these needs in the most basic way.
Take another example from the field of economics. We live in a generally free society that has a generally free market. When we make a purchase we make a peaceful exchange according to our self-interest. The seller has the interest for profit and the buyer has the interest in some good or service. Ronald Nash helpfully summarizes this principle in this way,
The peaceful means of exchange may be summed up in the phrase, “If you do something good for me, then I’ll do something good for you.” When capitalism is understood correctly, it epitomizes the peaceful means of exchange. The reason people exchange in a real market is because they believe the exchange is good for them. They take advantage of an opportunity to obtain something they want more in exchange for something they desire less.
Nash goes on to critique socialism as being committed to a violent means of exchange.
But exchange can also take place by means of force and violence. In this violent means of exchange, the basic rule of thumb is: “Unless you do something good for me, I’ll do something bad to you.”
Powlison is rightly concerned about this mentality creeping into the 5LL scheme. But it does not have to be that way. Jesus’s rebuke to self-interested love is made against the self-righteous belief that self-interested love fulfills the intent behind the love commands in law of God. His teaching is concerned with a kind of love that goes above and beyond mere self-interest and seeks the good of those who do not deserve it.
We should all keep Jesus’s command in mind, especially in our marriages. But we should also recognize that most people do not approach their marriage partner in the courting process by looking for someone who would do absolutely nothing for them, or worse, even harm them. It is natural to seek out someone attractive, who has certain virtues, is faithful, seeks the good, and values companionship. No one goes into a relationship or a marriage without any self-interest at all. Marital relationships are formed by the mutual promise to meet one another’s needs, and are cemented by the character of self-sacrifice the other takes to meet those needs. We can grant along with Powlison that obedience to Christ’s command will hold the marriage together during a time where needs go unfulfilled and selfishness rules. But we must acknowledge that it is a give and take relationship. It is not give-give-give and take-take-take. And the sentimental idea that it is a “give and give” relationship is mistaken since we expect that what is given ought to be received!
Therefore, if Powlison allows for a concept of self-interest as a divinely granted quality that concerns the preservation of human dignity we can avoid this severe conflation. We can grant that Powlison rightly warns us of a mentality that conflates “civilized self-interest” with “naked self-interest,” and thus avoid the wretched excuses we can make for our abuse of others. But it will not do to castigate the fact that we are made with certain relational needs and the capacities to meet those needs in ourselves and others.