If you’ve ever read The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis (or, more recently, Jen Wilkin’s excellent 2018 book In His Image) then you’ll be aware that in spite of popular opinion love isn’t love. Lewis (who wasn’t the first to clarify this distinction, but popularised it) wrote of the four Greek words for love, providing helpful categories in which we can place the ambiguous, indiscriminate, and unhelpful ways that we use ‘love’ today. I love my wife. I also love pie. Having one word in English to capture such a broad linguistic use is surely problematic, and perhaps especially so for the Christian life. Arguably, we could use more words to better define what we’re talking about, and lately I’ve been reading Scripture with a desire to understand the difference between love and love; especially when it comes to the call of Christ to love my children, my wife, my church, my community, and those who don’t love me in return.
Love in Four Words
When we look to the Bible, the first two words, storgē (family affection, like the parental love for a child) and erōs (romantic love) don’t appear in the New Testament at all. Philía (brother/sisterly love) appears 54 times in the New Testament. More on these in another post. Most important for the Christian life is the fourth word: agápē. The greatest of the four loves, this word captures the love of God and appears 259 times. So with this clear emphasis, it’s worth exploring and defining what agápē seeks to communicate.
Beginning with God, we quickly see that the love which God has bestowed on us should never be thought of as merely an emotion. Rather, in God, we see that agápē is an act of will. Before creation, God chose to be for us. Paul writes
…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In agápē he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”
(Ephesians 1:4–6, emphasis mine)
He chose to create us, to love us, to give himself to us and for us, and to ultimately bring us into his loving self-existence. God hasn’t loved us because he felt good feelings towards us, because we were attractive or somehow inherently deserving, but because in his graciousness, he chose to. Further, once we truly recognise our own depravity and the sinful state we are in apart from the saving love of God, we are forced to re-evaluate not only why we love God, but also how we choose to love others. Jesus sums up the entire meaning and thrust of the Old Testament—all of God-breathed Scripture up until his arrival—in two overarching commands:
And he [Jesus] said to him, “You shall agápē the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall agápē your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
(Matthew 22:37–40, emphasis mine)
So we’re looking at a specific form of love. Not the inadequate English word that we use to describe affection for our spouse and appreciation for sport within a breath of each other, but the selfless, patient, kind, forgiving agápē of God. Knowing this, we can no longer subconsciously categorise people as ‘lovable’ and ‘unlovable’. And this parsing of persons doesn’t simply apply to our neighbour (which Jesus defines as everyone in his parable of the Good Samaritan, by the way) but it must extend as far as God’s love extended toward us; to our enemies. Hear Jesus command in the gospel of Luke:
But agápē your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
(Luke 6:35, emphasis mine)
So what exactly is this love we’re called to live out? What practically defines it over-against storgē, erōs or even philía in our daily lives? The most help comes from Paul’s treatment of this word 1 Corinthians 13:
Agápē is patient and kind;
agápē does not envy or boast;
it is not arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Agápē bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Agápē never ends.
(1 Corinthians 13:4-8, emphasis mine)
Having delivered much teaching on living the Christian life, Jesus adds weight to his words by driving home the point that loving all people in this way—before, and even without, the requirement of reciprocation—is not simply how we love others, but also how we demonstrate our love for God. He says “If you agápē me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:21, emphasis mine) When I respond with a frustrated tone to my wife because she’s doing something I would do differently, I reveal that I believe agápē is earned. I see a pattern of behaviour inconsistent with my expectations, and I withhold patience and kindness, instead offering irritability or resentment. But when I remind myself of God’s unconditional love for me, I should be stirred to love my wife—to agápē her according to 1 Corinthians 13—in my tone as well as my words, because how many times she’s done that thing is irrelevant to Jesus’ command and example. Put simply, in light of my being unconditionally forgiven and loved, I now unconditionally forgive and love.
What is love? Love is obeying the commandments of Christ, because of the love we have received from Christ, resulting in our conforming to the image of Christ. This necessarily precludes much of what the world would seek to store in the container of ‘love’. It goes against our nature, flies in the face of society’s attempt to expand love to broader definitions, and it costs us in time, resources, preferences, comforts, and expectations. At the same time, when we begin to follow Christ through laying these things aside we are rewarded with increasing joy perfected in real love because our ultimate delight and satisfaction can only be found in him who loved us and freed us by giving his life to save us.