I was helping at my children’s school last Friday, when one of the first graders raced up to me, arms open wide, and gave me a hug. Then she thrust a piece of paper into my hands. “I LOVE YOU!” said the giant, red words with a picture of a smiling girl underneath.

“This is for me?” I asked, surprised.

Grinning, she nodded.

When I got home, I hung the picture on my refrigerator. Growing up, I don’t remember hearing those words – I love you – very often. I’m not sure my mother grew up hearing them, or my father either. I certainly didn’t hear them at school. And it amazed me that this 6 or 7-year-old would share these remarkable words with me – the lady who shows up on Fridays to give her class a spelling test and practice reading.

The more I looked at her picture, the more I thought about those three little words and how, on the shelf above my desk, I keep a similar letter I’d written, at about the same age, to my mom: I love you. When my children were first learning to write, they too scrawled many wobbly-lettered notes to me, saying the same. What a wonder, I thought, that children’s first efforts to scrawl a self statement is often to express who or what they love. I love mom. I love Dad. I love you.

And how sad that the older we grow the more we learn to guard our love after our first fledgling offerings are so often met with rejection, greed, hostility or indifference. And so we stop loving. Or we love lesser things. Things we can control. Things that satisfy our hungers. Things we hope won’t hurt us.

If God wrote a note to us, I’d expect it too would say, “I love you.”  Scripture says that we were created to be like him. We’re his children. So if the truest essence of myself is to love, it stands to reason that the essence of God is to love too. In fact, that’s just what the Bible says.

“We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love. God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them,” I John 4:16 (NLT).

It isn’t merely God’s nature to love. God is love. He is both the source and the expression. And all of our first-grade, wobbly-lettered efforts are an imitation of him. Maybe like me, you didn’t hear, “I love you,” much growing up. Or you’ve heard the words only to be disappointed by another person’s failure to live up to what those words are supposed to mean. Or perhaps you know someone searching for this kind of love.

This Valentine’s Day, I’m here to tell you that it exists. And the best part? This love from God is for you. It’s really for you. Get to know him, and you’ll know the kind of love you were made for — arms open wide.

Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of midcoast Maine. The Backward Easter Egg Hunt, the second book in her Lantern Hill Farm picture-book series, is available for preorder now. Connect at www.meadowrue.com