When I was in high school around the middle of the last century (sad but true), I had a first date with a very pretty girl from my algebra class. I was driving the family car and we were on our way to the movies when she said, “I just want you to know that I adore you.” Wow! I had never been adored before and what a way to start a first date (this was not Karen, my wife of 51 years—we would not meet for another two years). When we got to the movies and walked in, I asked the girl who adored me if she would like some popcorn. She replied, “Oh yes! I just adore popcorn!” Whatever inflation my ego had undergone was deflated in an instant. She liked me at least as much as a snack food. Not quite the “adoration” I had thought she meant. We do play fast and loose with a lot of words, especially those that tell of what we like, love, admire, adore, dig, find sick, or whatever. We tend to lump a lot of different kind of feelings into the word “love” as we love macaroni and cheese, the new Mustang, the first three seasons of “Mike and Molly,” our parents, our children, our mates, our friends, our coworkers, and Krispy Kreme. The Greeks had four words for “love” that did a pretty good job of matching the right word with the right feeling. There are four Greek words for love that are important for Christians to understand. They are agape, phileo, storge, and eros. If we are going to understand the Bible and the biblical world, it is important that we understand what these words mean and how they differ. Not gonna do all four, that would make this a thesis instead of a blog. So a little on “eros”. . . the Greek word for sexual love or passionate love is eros, and we get English words such as “erotic.” The Greek word eros does not appear in the biblical text, but it has had such an impact on English (and me) and our view of sexual love that it is important to mention.
The important Greek word that refers to the love of God, one of the kinds of love we are to have for people, is agape. Agape is the very nature of God, for God is love. The big key to understanding agape is to realize that it can be known from the action it prompts. In fact, we sometimes speak of the “action model” of agape love. People today are accustomed to thinking of love as a feeling, but that is not necessarily the case with agape love. Agape is love because of what it does, not because of how it feels. It is also called “unconditional love” the love that cannot be undone by our own actions, no matter how bad they might be. If you love someone unconditionally, that person can hurt you, make you angry, disappoint you, embarrass you, or turn against you, but he or she can never make you stop loving. That’s the relationship we have with Christ. We can never rid ourselves of His love, as He is always with us waiting, wanting, and willing for us to turn to Him and ask forgiveness.
A mother who loves a sick baby will stay up all night long caring for it, which is not something she wants to do (it’s not a fun thing), but is a true act of agape love. The point is that agape love is not simply an impulse generated from feelings. Rather, agape love is an exercise of the will, a deliberate choice. This is why when Christ commands us to love our enemies He is not commanding us to “have a good feeling” for our enemies, but to act in a loving way toward them. Agape love is related to obedience and commitment, and frequently feeling and emotion. There are Christians who say they love God, but their lifestyle and Facebook posts say something completely different.
Love is the distinctive character of the Christian life in relation to other Christians and to all humanity. The “loving” thing to do may not always be easy, and true love is not “mushy sentimentalism.” There is often a cost to genuine love. For example, punishing criminals to keep society safe is loving but not easy or pleasant. That is not to say that agape love cannot have feelings attached to it, and the ideal situation occurs when the loving thing to do also is what we want to do. Christians, if authentic, are known for their love to one another. I’m starting to repeat myself here, but this is something that I take to heart and want to try to do all that I can to ease the hate and hurt I am reading about every day. Do what you can to love however you can (just not the way you love popcorn) and be kind to everyone, especially those who don’t deserve it—they need it the most.