What is love?
Christians like to go Greek when trying to understand the things of God. So here we go.
The Greeks, in their sophistication, would be appalled at the crude generalisations of love in the English language. While there are several different Greek words to describe “love” in the Bible, let’s look at the four main and distinct types, popularised by CS Lewis’ “The Four Loves”.
EROS LOVE: PASSION
Eros is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, but can be inferred through the vivid imagery of Song of Solomon, and some other Old Testament examples (which were not originally written in Greek).
Eros refers to a sexual love between mates that draws them together in physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy. Pop culture has capitalised on its power over rationality, elevating its sensuous passions to a reverential status in modern societies.
Lewis talks of eros as a neutral but powerful force capable of urging individuals to evil as well as good. It comes to us naturally, instinctively, but we must learn to control it given the potential dangers.
In its purest form, however, it is distinct from lust or pure sensuality. Instead it is the cumulation of love – the capstone – to be enjoyed by spouses in the bond of marriage, wisely built upon a foundation of the other “loves”.
It must be awakened at the right time (Song of Solomon 8:4), lest it be doomed to crumble.
PHILEO LOVE: FRIENDSHIP
“The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved (phileo) him as his own soul.” (1 Samuel 18:1)
Phileo is the strong emotional connection felt for something – close friends, a place, or rum and raisin. Often considered the highest form of human love, phileo is highly un-natural because it doesn’t really increase survival value. Yet, it dramatically elevates the human experience.
While eros is more concerned with physical intimacy, phileo is felt most deeply in the heart – the warm fuzzy feeling that embraces you when your family members surround you, or when you receive a letter from an old friend.
Biblically, phileo describes the bond of David and Jonathan that gave rise to the covenant extended to Jonathan’s descendants long after his death (2 Samuel 9).
STORGE LOVE: FAMILIARITY, DEPENDENCY AND KINSHIP
Although storge love does not directly appear in the Bible, Paul introduces it together with phileo, as a mark of true believers. “Love (phileostorgos) one another with brotherly affection.” (Romans 12:10).
Storge refers to the natural affinity or affection for things we find close to ourselves.
With storge, there is the desire to build up, encourage, protect, provide for and grow another person. There is accountability. We see from the Bible that good marriages, families and discipling relationships should involve a good degree of storge among members to flourish, even if phileo has already been felt.
A widespread lack of storge is seen as unrighteousness (Romans 1:31) and a tell-tale sign of the end-times. In 2 Timothy 3:3, Paul describes the hypocrites who have a form of godliness but denying its power as heartless, or without love: Astorgos.
AGAPE LOVE: ACTION, SUBMISSION, TRUTH
Finally, there is agape, which has no greater expression than the sacrifice of one’s life for others (John 15:13). It is not a feeling or a matter of dependency, but rather an act of will involves the suppression of one’s rights for the good of another.
It is the least natural of loves, and yet the one most highly regarded in the Bible and in various parts of society where charity and humanitarian work is encouraged.
Lewis calls agape divine – God’s love. While phileos is the highest degree of human love, God calls us even higher, to love selflessly and unconditionally, even when it is a very tall order.
Agape is the love Jesus talked about in Luke 10:27, in the two greatest commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself.”
Agape describes the unfailing, unbounded, charitable, everlasting love of God (Romans 8:38-39) for mankind, and the command for His people to love God in return wholeheartedly, fearlessly (1 John 4:18), and above all else (Revelation 2:4).
It is the paradoxical love for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), and that commanded for husbands towards their wives (Ephesians 5:25). It is how we are to speak truth (Ephesians 4:15).
“GOD, REDUCE ME TO AGAPE”
Okay, if agape only comes from God, what can we even do about it?
Our starting point is that it’s a commandment, and therefore He must provide the means to fulfil it. When we say God is love, we really mean that God is agape (1 John 4:8). He is the one pure source of perfect agape love, and calls us to drink from Him.
Our prayer must be: God, reduce us to the highest love.
Without agape truth, relationships are built on the superficiality of infatuation and we are unable to experience the great depth of being known and loved as we are by God.
He shows us what this means in John 21:15-17, where the original Greek meaning is obscured by most English translations.
Jesus asks Peter twice, “Do you agape me?”, and twice Peter responds, “Yes, Lord. You know I phileo you.” On the third time Jesus concedes with “Do you phileos me?”
Peter was grieved – because Peter knew his love was inadequate. To truly “follow” Jesus demanded a radical, sacrificial kind of love – one that humans cannot conjure up by themselves.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21:18)
Lewis speaks of the need for a Christian to submit the three “natural” loves of eros, storge and phileo, to the love of God – agape love – lest we manipulate them to selfish ends. Without agape, eros can lead to lust, promiscuity and crimes of passion, storge can become purely based on practical utilitarianism, and phileo can result in jealousy, pride and unhealthy peer pressure.
Feelings come and go, but they must be firmly rooted in agape love.
Without agape truth, relationships are built on the superficiality of infatuation and we are unable to experience the great depth of being known and loved as we are by God. Our worship to God then becomes an empty shell of form devoid of substance, because we lack real inner experience. It never feels real because it probably isn’t.
We are called ultimately to agape God, not treat Him with storge, phileo, and definitely not eros. Feelings come and go, but they must be firmly rooted in agape love.
Therefore, pursue agape – the rudder with which God guides the strong natural compulsions of our being towards redemption.
Let agape be the spark that ignites, and the fuel that sustains. Let it be the bedrock of your other loves. It’s counter-cultural, but it’s true.
Agape God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbour as yourself.