What’s in a Word?: Why I dont want to ‘just love on you.’

I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I thought it was time I posted one of my cranky posts critiquing the way we Christians use language. Words are important and when we use them badly we end up communicating something we don’t want to communicate. Worse, sometimes a bad phrase might start us thinking about things the wrong way. Yet at other times, our words aren’t really harmful, they just don’t make a lot of sense.

Case in point:

I just want to love on you.

Excuse me?! You want to what on me? You hear this said in church with several nuances in meaning depending on the context:

We just want to love on this community  (translation: we want to pick up garbage , smile a lot and have a free car wash)

We just are going to love on her ( translation: a guest speaker  has a ministry we should support so we are taking a ‘love’ offering to benefit their ministry)

I  want to love on them (translation: they are  facing some trying circumstances and I want to help care for their needs).

These things are good. We ought to seek tangible ways to bless the community, give generously to ministries who are fulfilling God’s mission in the world and we should look for ways to care for the vulnerable in our midst.  We are called as Christ followers to love one another (John 13:34-5) and numerous scriptures exhort us towards mutual care.  But do we have to say it that way? Honestly!

Here is my problem. The phrase “I just want to love on you” is unnecessarily modified in two places, the first makes it untrue while the second makes it incomprehensible.  When you say you ‘just’ want to do something, you imply that you are wanting to do that thing and that thing only.  Like when my five-year-old daughter says I just want to sing, that is the only thing she wants to do. When we say ‘I just want to…’ do we really mean with all our being this is what we want? Or are we just using a stock phrase which doesn’t mean much (like when we ask “How are you?” and are just being polite)?

“On’ is our second modifier.  What does it mean to love on someone? The word-picture I get is not really something that you hear discussed much in church.   What we mean by the term, ‘love-on’ is ‘express love.’ Certainly ‘love on’ expresses love, but not exactly the love we mean to express.

But we also modify it when we say this is what ‘we want.’  By these words we express desire and our ideal, but we allow for some dissonance from reality.

These modifying words soften the phrase. If you consider our examples, consider someone saying:

We will love this community

or

I love her

or

We will  love them

These phrases have power and speak of  commitment. Love is a powerful word which names our relationship to family, friends, church and world. When we add modifiers we soften our love, putting limitations and making  it  more manageable.  Tell me you love me and I feel like you have committed to me in a powerful way. Telling me you just want to love-on me does not boast any commitment on your part.

By our syntax we have manufactured an easy way to love our neighbor that doesn’t require our whole person. Loving someone is a relationship and a lifestyle. Loving on someone is an event. Events are easy. We need relationship.