love on

“Loving on” someone. It’s one of the top Christianese expressions that people love to “hate on.”

love on“Hate on” means “to complain about,” if you didn’t know already. But “love on” means to show someone that you care about them by using encouraging and affirming words, or by putting an arm around them or giving them a hug, or even just by spending quality time with them to show you care. You might say that whereas the emotion or attitude of “love” can often be invisible or hidden, “loving on” someone is a visible, concrete, obvious demonstration of that love.

I think I get why some people dislike this term. For one thing, the preposition on seems like a grotesque addition to the already perfectly ordinary and useful verb love. If you love someone, then of course you’re going to say nice things to them and do nice things for them. Why tack an unnecessary preposition onto love? It’s gaudy! It’s grammatically superfluous! Come on, people—let’s avoid the needless complexification of language! Amen. So that’s the first strike against love on—it looks and sounds weird and unnecessarily elaborated.

The second strike against love on is that this particular phrasal verb has another, shall we say, connotation in the secular circles outside of Christianity. Let’s just say that the non-Christianese meaning of love on is basically the same as getting it on. Get my drift? To be blunt, it has a sexual connotation. And so for people who are familiar with the Christianese usage of the term as well as the secular usage of the term, the dissonance between the holy, pure, selfless agape-style love on and the sexy, smoldering, passionate eros-style love on is highly disagreeable. We’re talking “fingernails down a chalkboard” degree of discomfort here.

Regarding the term’s origin, as you can see in the quotations I’ve gathered below, I’ve been able to trace the Christianese usage of the term back to the early 1990s. It’s entirely likely that Christians were using the term “love on” in conversations prior to 1993, it just might not have been used in print. If you can find a printed usage of the term earlier than 1993, then please e-mail me and let me know where you found it!

Given that love on does have its salacious secular sense, I myself choose not to use the term at all because I don’t want to accidentally create a double-entendre in conversation that could distract someone (or cause them to “stumble” if you are familiar with that Christianese expression). That being said, if I’m talking with another Christian and they use the term love on in its Christianese sense, I wouldn’t correct them about or give them a lecture about it. That’s not my style. If someone wants to get a grip on their Christianese, then they can browse this website or buy a copy of the Dictionary (on that note, volume 1 of the Dictionary should be out later this year).

See below for the full dictionary definition of “love on.” What are your thoughts about this notorious Christianese verb?

 

love on v. phr. Sometimes also just love on. To demonstrate care, concern, or platonic affection for someone by using words, actions, or non-sexual physical touch.
Note that in a secular sense the verb love on can be used to refer to physical intimacy of a romantic or sexual kind.
1993 Mize The Church Without Spot or Wrinkle 80 : Treating them like royalty is only a small part of what God has planned for you when you invite them over for dinner. It’s a chance for you to love on them. Did you know that agape love never fails? Love on them like you would Jesus. 2003 Tenney God’s Favorite House 106 : She reached up with those chubby little six-year-old fingers and grabbed my face…. She just smothered me in kisses, and I gave her a hug before trying to go back to my paper…. I loved on her a little more and she just rubbed my face with her little hands and looked up at me with those big brown eyes. 2003 U.S. Congress, House Committee on Government Reform “Black Men and Boys in the District of Columbia and Their Impact on the Future of the Black Family” (hearing) (12 Sep.) 71 : We get them at a tough age, but the first thing they start doing with them, and the way we win them over when they come in with those attitudes is, we love on them and we love on them a lot. We do a lot of fun things. People in the community will send us, you know, tickets to Orioles games. We’ll take them them here, take them there. 2005 Sumpolec The Reveal 31 : We wandered around the different wards, talking to the kids, holding them. Pastor Dave told us that with so many children and so few workers, the kids never really got held, and so that was our mission that day—to hold them and love on them. I prayed for each little baby I picked up. 2006 Mumford Agape Road: Journey to Intimacy with the Father 243 : “Could I have one of those hugs?” I reached out and grabbed him, loved on him, ruffled his hair, and waltzed him around lifting him off the floor. He began to laugh. The prison chaplain who was with me later told me that in prison no one ever physically touches another person in a positive manner…. That young man gained enough courage to ask me for a manly, Christian hug. 2006 Davidson In the Hands of God 68 : I will never forget the celebration of her life as her funeral took place on Easter Sunday. We returned to Atlanta to mourn and grieve with our friends. We wanted to minister to them. We wanted to love on them and hold them and cry with them. 2007 Stefanov Diapers on the Clothes Line: My Journey Through Infertility 26 : When first Hannah and then Rachel had problems similar to my wife’s, we prayed for them and encouraged them. I have always and still do believe that the Lord is going to heal them. But having said that, we have always sought to encourage them and to love on them when they’ve had to walk through the trials of their PCOS [=polycystic ovarian syndrome] and infertility. 2008 Bayles The Greatest Commands 102 : This crippled woman also teaches us the value of church attendance…. I’m sure there were many there who loved on her and encouraged her. In fact, that’s the real purpose of meeting together. The Bible says, “Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together.” 2009 Kirkland Broken Walls 112 : If you are a father, put down this book and go find your children and hug them like never before. Love on them until they ask what is wrong with you. Then share with them that teaching them how to walk with Jesus is more important to you than your job, your golf game, or even your reputation. 2009 Solomon Living with the King 31 : Our God does not hold back His loving kindness towards us. He loves on us big time, to the max. He is free in loving us. 2009 Toyne They Call Me Pastor Sandy 133 : We automatically take a baby in our arms and love on them. They offer us nothing but trust and want to hear us speak good and loving words to them. 2009 Solomon Living with the King 13 : He [=God] does not defraud or hold back His love, for loving on us is not optional with Him. He started this thing going called covenant with us, He made promises to us that can not be broken. 2009 Glenn In Real Time: Authentic Young Adult Ministry As It Happens 114 : Gerald is a retired Southern Baptist Pastor…. He shows up on Tuesdays, walks around, introduces himself to these kids, listens to their stories, prays with them, and loves on them. And they love him because they know he is the real thing. 2010 Hirsch, Hirsch Untamed: Reactivating a Missional Form of Discipleship 148 : The women in our community house decided to gather together a number of non-Christian colleagues in order to build relationships, love on them, and ultimately, over time, help them become more like Jesus…. We never abused our relationship with them by imposing our views or inappropriately “evangelizing” them in the narrow understanding of this term. 2010 Pankau Beyond Self-Help: The True Path to Harnessing God’s Wisdom 103 : They certainly prayed for her healing, prayed for Mike’s strength, prayed for the girls to have peace through it all; they also visited and encouraged and loved on them. In so doing they collectively helped lift the burden from the family. 2011 McNeal Missional Communities: The Rise of the Post-Congregational Church 114 : Stew and his family took in a single mom and two little girls. He tells what happened next: “Our missional community loved on her and served her and helped her. She ended up coming to Christ and we baptized her in our backyard.” 2011 Powers The Perfect Devotional for People Who Aren’t 100 : Make it a point to search out the outcast, the off-to-the-side person, and just love on them. If nothing else, just show them that you care, and that will open doors for you to speak into their life. 2011 Degraw Time to Set the Captives Free: How to Start a Deliverance Ministry 103 : People who are coming into your sessions need to have that peace and assurance. Many of them have never experienced the love of Christ and don’t know that people can genuinely care for them. Comfort and love on them the way Jesus would. 2012 Holeman Theology for Better Counseling: Trinitarian Reflections for Healing and Formation 126 : As trying as the sharing of this participant could be, the group nonetheless embraced her for who she was…. The group “loved on her” through their acceptance. 2013 Gresh, Weibel The One Year Devos for Teen Girls s.v. July 7 : Let’s admit in the past the church has done an exceptionally poor job of welcoming people who look different from the norm…. Our key verse today [=Isaiah 9:2] promises that we can love someone right into the light. Action Step: Love on someone who is not “like” you today.

17 thoughts on “love on

  1. I always figured “love on” was like “climb on”—syntactically we don’t need the preposition, but it makes it sound more tangible, like you said.

    I also recall Robert Duvall’s character using this phrase in his 1998 movie The Apostle.

    • Good tip, K.W.! I’ll see if I can track down a way to quote the movie. That’s probably a reference that a lot of folks will be familiar with. ‘Preciate it.

  2. There is a third reason that I hate this particular turn of phrase. It’s because “Love on” turns love into something you do *to* someone, and that just depersonalizes the whole thing. If you’re doing love to someone, you’re not loving them, and you’re most certainly only doing it for your own benefit.

      • You’re welcome. This is something that bothers me about Christianity in general. The minute love becomes something you do, it stops being love, and many just don’t seem to understand that. It’s the easy way out.

        • Duskglow, I think this can be true in some situations. Certainly, some people will express a desire or intention to love on someone out of self-interest and personal gain, perhaps even an inflated sense of righteous duty (or possibly even to manipulate others). Or maybe they think the act itself constitutes love, regardless of (or even in spite of) their emotion. Is any of that what you mean? But it can also be a genuine act of selflessness– giving of one’s time to comfort, encourage, display affection rather than merely speak it (in what could otherwise be seen as lip-service). “For greater love hath no one than this, to lay down his life for his friend.” (John 15:13) I think laying down our lives means choosing to act in the interest of others. Self-sacrifice. The “doing” of love, though, must be motivated by the sincere caring for another– something done *for* them. Otherwise, yes, acts done *to* someone may not be love at all. I will add, I have filtered myself from using this term when I doubted the hearer’s knowledge of the term as I intended it to be used. It’s interesting to hear others’ thoughts on it.

  3. I think for me it’s more of the first turn-off that keeps me from saying it. To put it bluntly, it sounds “hick.” For me it is the near equivalent of one of those over-friendly waiters who have the audacity to squat down by your table and ask you at eye level, “You still workin’ on that?”

    • I bet some of the same people who say “love on” also say “fixing to” (or the even more hick “fixin’ to”). How about this dialogue:

      Pastor: Hey Bill, I want you to love on that new family that just started coming to church.
      Bill: Shore thing, Pastor. We were just fixin’ to love on ’em come Saturday invitin’ them over for fried chicken and fruit punch.
      Pastor: Well, Bill, if that don’t beat the fleas off a dog. You lookin’ to get another story on your mansion in heaven?
      Bill: Aw shucks, Pastor. Just bein’ neighborly is all.

      • That’s cute! Yes, “Fixin’ to” would be right up there with them, though I’ve heard that phrase more in Texas than anywhere else I’ve been!

  4. I think “loving on” is actually a Southernism, what you would call “hick,” that got mainstreamed by Southern televangelists. I can remember old aunties and grandmas laughing at my cousin “out there in the barn lovin’ on that dog all day.” To me it connotes cuddling and snuggling, not hateful discipline and false teachings and I resent this misappropriation of the word.

    • Thank you for your helpful note on this term’s southern origins. And as you no doubt know, you are not on the only one to disapprove of this term’s appropriation by users of Christianese! I appreciate that you took the time to comment. ~Tim

  5. Every time I hear this phrase, I cringe. I am from a Christian faith that doesn’t use many of these “Christianese” phrases, so this was a new one for me once I started listening to Christian radio (KLOVE). My first response—and every response I’ve had since then, though now I’m familiar with the term—has been to recoil mentally. It brings to mind the “getting it on” connotation mentioned here, every single time. To make things worse, it’s so often used in a completely inappropriate way for the subjects in the sentence to be “getting it on.” I can only imagine what those even further from native Christianese speakers must think—not the message we want to be sending, that’s for sure!

  6. I’m glad I looked up this phrase and came across your discussion. I thought maybe I was the only one who was concerned about this. I have friends who use it a lot and I’m sure they mean well, but I think it is often misunderstood. It is painful to me every time I hear it, because I was molested as a nine year old girl by a 16 year old boy, and the family member who walked in on the abuse told me many years later that he saw us loving on each other. That in itself was hurtful, but to hear that expression in a “Godly” expression of caring about others can be pretty damaging. I am grateful for your honesty. It has been helpful.

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