Recently, a song entitled “Love Poem” has risen to the top of my “Heavy Rotation” playlist on Spotify. It’s gotten me thinking about this peculiar form of communication and its origins. Who wrote and received the first love poem? (Was it cheesy? Were red roses involved?) More fundamentally, where does the desire to express love through words come from?
Most of us would agree that we enjoy the feeling of receiving love, whether by family, friends, partners, and - you might vehemently deny this - tutors. These feelings are also dangerously addictive. From a young age, I’ve craved love and affirmation from those around me, especially through the language of praise. I noticed that if I performed well at something, I’d receive praise and thus feel more loved. Unbeknownst to me, I was becoming a show pony, establishing my sense of worth through frivolous words. On the other hand, any words of criticism were like sharp knives that pierced through the armour I’d put on, exposing a deep-seated insecurity about being unworthy of love.
While these unhealthy patterns of behaviour festered, I also became exposed to the fallibility of human love. My parents’ turbulent relationship made me aware that the love we seek from other people can easily disappoint, especially when it is self-serving. Thus, my need to fill a void with human love that could never satisfy spelled disaster: I became a self-critical perfectionist constantly fearing rejection from others. When I was 17, this had repercussions on my mental health and I experienced panic attacks for the first time. Increasingly close to hurting myself, I was prompted to see a counsellor at my school.
At our second meeting, she happened to ask if I were Christian, probably making an educated guess from my name. (Having shared this with a couple of British friends, I’ve been told that this is professionally unacceptable in the UK. One blessing of coming from Singapore, perhaps!) I was surprised by her question as “God” was the furthest from my mind at that point, though I replied I was nominally so, having gone to church irregularly in childhood. She then whipped out a Bible and asked if she could read something from the book of Psalms with me, to which I nodded.
I didn’t realise it at that point in time, but she was reading a poem. The Psalms are a collection of 150 poems originally written in Hebrew by God’s people and meant to be sung. I can’t remember which one it was, but this one in particular was broadly about God’s enduring love for the weak and troubled. While comforted by the passage, I was skeptical about God. However, this began a slow journey towards Him. The counsellor encouraged me to attend church again and I happened to mention this to my mother. She was more enthusiastic about it than I’d anticipated, and we decided to attend a service at the church opposite my school the following Sunday. At first, I felt uncomfortable and disoriented sitting through the service. But as the weeks passed, I found myself looking forward to church on Sundays - the discomfort slowly transformed into a steady, pulsating sense of joy whenever I stepped into this strange space where people worshipped God and learnt more about His love together.
Like in the Psalm the counsellor had read, it’s striking how poetry included in the Bible still speaks to our experiences today. But poems that communicate God’s love don’t just stop there.
An excerpt from Psalm 91 (Verses 1 and 2):
1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
2 I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”
In my thirst for words of love from other people, I’d been blind to God’s own everlasting love poem to us: the person of Jesus. You might be wondering how they are related, but Christians claim that Jesus is God with us and he is bafflingly referred to as the “Word” in the beginning. Picture this: God, our creator, came in the flesh to be with His people who rejected Him, choosing to die for us so that we can all receive His love poem. When we reciprocate God’s love, we will have an intimate, enduring relationship with Him that transcends all other forms of love.
Sunday upon Sunday, I began to understand that God’s love is the only form of love that can or will satisfy. This opened my eyes to God’s other “poems”. In the Bible, creation is described as “poiema” - Greek for workmanship - from which the poem is derived. The universe is a profound poem beautifully crafted by God. Furthermore, each human being is also described as “poiema”. As part of His creation, we are all His poems. Each word, each punctuation mark, each stanza break in our life is intentionally chosen by our maker.
It often doesn’t seem to be the case in times of suffering. During the year I was experiencing panic attacks, I remember sitting in the car outrightly rejecting God - how could He allow this to happen? But often, I find that I can only appreciate the full artistry of God in hindsight, looking back on the past. From another angle, perhaps each period of trial and difficulty is like a word read in isolation: we can only appreciate its place in the context of the whole poem.
I find myself incredibly heartened that God has never stopped extending His love poem to me, despite me having done nothing to “qualify” for it. When my father walked out of our home, it occurred to me that I had never heard him say that he loved me, despite my attempts to elicit forms of affection through performance. In contrast, as a recipient of God’s love poem, I know that I do not need to strive. I can also be vulnerable, though it’s a huge challenge to live this out, especially in Oxford! I was incredibly lonely and homesick in my first year, because all the people I’d relied on to affirm my worth were back in Singapore. Beneath the facade of put-togetherness I was crumbling and unstable, my old foe constantly taunting me: you’re not good enough to be loved. It has taken a year of adjustment and retrospect to know that these are untrue in the grand scheme of God’s love. Becoming a Christian might not make the insecurities go away. But rather, I rest in the truth that God’s love is so much better and beyond our wildest imaginations.
I thank God everyday for the Love Poem he has given me and you - His very self.