I have more than a few friends who like to remind all of us each Valentine’s Day about the bloody origins of the day, it’s namesake’s suffering, and the bold marketing cash grab of the day in North America. I make fun of their “Debbie Downer” reminders but they’re not wrong about all of it.

Their point is meant to act as a reminder that the hearts and the candy and the romantic dinners are rooted in something much deeper…and even darker.

The story of the Catholic St.Valentine isn’t exactly cut and dry. In fact, there isn’t a whole lot of information on any martyr named Valentine and historically we actually recognize three men named “Valentine” who may have contributed to the lore and whom were canonized by the Catholic church.

Details are sketchy. Some accounts claim Valentine was martyred for continuing to perform marriages for Roman soldiers after the Emperor outlawed marriage amongst his troops (in the hopes of forcing complete loyalty to the state rather than family). Some accounts say Valentine wrote the first “Valentine” when he sent a love letter to a young woman as he awaited execution. Others say Valentine was martyred while trying to deliver the gospel in ancient Ireland.

Whatever the real story may be, there is a common thread running through each account. An important aspect of love is sacrifice and yes – suffering.

Although these days we rarely connect this day to religion, this is truly representative of the sacrifice of the Lord these men worshipped. Valentine(s) modeled the love of a God who made the ultimate sacrifice in order to come near to his people. When those people were acting with cruelty and selfishness, God chose to disrupt the cycle of sin by giving up something that would cost him dearly…his son. That unexpected act of rebellion against the corrupted state of humanity is reflected in the rebellion of a man (or men) who would not accept the state as the ultimate authority on love.

Valentine sacrificed his life as his Lord did, in pursuit of an invincible love.

On a smaller scale, the lessons of Valentine can be applied to our personal romantic relationships. Our Hollywood-ized vision of love these days seems to be all about passion and butterflies and sexual chemistry. Perhaps a large part of why divorce is so prevalent in our society is the skewed view people have of what it means to love someone. We have a sense that once the passion and the butterflies dissipate, our love has somehow diminished.

In reality, that is exactly when love begins. Being “in love” is a selfish feeling. It is your own itch you are scratching. You want to be with that person because when you’re together you feel good. You have to be with that person because you just don’t feel right without them. Your desire to be intimate with that person is rooted in satisfying the desires for this amazing partner that seem uncontrollable.

There’s nothing wrong with those feelings. They’re normal and necessary. But they are not love. Love is something else.

It is only when those feelings of raging passion begin to fade that you can begin to understand the true nature of love. Love is not a feeling, but a choice. Love is not love if there is no sacrifice of the self involved. In fact, sacrifice is the very definition of love. Is love really love if it comes easy?

“You’re just so easy to love and that’s why I love you” doesn’t seem like a difficult way to live. There is no cost involved. If your partner said that to you, you might not be offended but it certainly wouldn’t impress you. Effort is directly related to importance. When we buy costly items, we put more effort into maintaining them…they are important to us because we sacrificed to have them.

The same goes in love. “Sometimes it’s hard to love you and even then you’re still worth more to me than anything in the world”…doesn’t that sound more valuable than the former statement? That’s because your partner is telling you that they are sacrificing something of themselves to love you. They are sacrificing being right, or being comfortable or doing whatever it is they want to do. They are sacrificing time, pride, self-gratification. They are choosing you daily, even on the days when both of you might prefer to go your separate ways.

There are few things more powerful than the making the choice to love a person in spite of their flaws and faults.

It is how God loves us; how he chooses us every day. It is how Valentine(s) chose to love God’s people every day, even in the face of execution. It is how we are called to love each other. It isn’t hard to sacrifice for someone you feel passionate about, someone you genuinely like. Try making a sacrifice for someone you don’t like, even if it’s just your spouse on a day when you don’t particularly like each other (and those days come and go in any marriage). It is only then that you can really begin to scratch the surface of what love truly means.

This Valentine’s Day, enjoy your candy hearts and balloons and all the marketing gimmicks that come along with it. There’s nothing wrong with all that.

But let us remember what the real message of this day should be…that a love that costs us nothing is no love at all.

A love that we are willing to sacrifice everything to preserve? There is none greater.