In our impoverished English language we use the word love in many different ways. I love my spouse, I love my dog, I love chocolate, I love my new shoes, I loved that movie I watched last night, I love God. Surely we don’t have the same feelings about all of these things, yet we use the same word. In the parts of the Bible that were originally written in Greek, there are four different Greek words that we translate love:
- Storge – refers to the love that is felt between family members and close relatives.
- Philia – refers to the love that is between friends.
- Eros – refers to deep emotion or passion that is felt between lovers and spouses.
- Agape – refers to the kind of love that God has for us.
The greatest of these is agape and is the Greek word used in the well-known love passage of 1 Corinthians 13.
Incorporating Agape into Each Day
Agape, an action verb, is about giving, not about getting. God showed us what agape is by His incarnation as Jesus Christ and by His death on the cross to pay for our sins. Agape is not just a feeling, it is what God is. He acts towards us in the way that He does not because of how He feels about us, but because of who He is; because He chooses to love us with an agape love.
If we choose and seek God’s help, we can combine agape with any one of the other three kinds of love. We can go beyond how we feel about others and truly love them in the way that God loves us. C.S. Lewis put it this way in his wonderful book Mere Christianity:
The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you love your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find out one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.
Agape and Storge
Family dynamics can be a challenge. We love our parents, our in-laws, our siblings with a storge kind of love. Yet we can often feel like we just want to live our own lives and not be bothered with their needs. When agape enters the picture, we find ourselves reaching out to help family in need, even if it requires us to give up something.
A couple of years ago, my husband and I had an opportunity to reach out to help one of his brothers and one of my sisters at the same time. One involved the gift of a car that we no longer needed and the other involved a gift of cash to help with unexpected expenses needed to move. Without the love of God, we could have easily dismissed these needs and let them fend for themselves. But because God has blessed us, His agape shone through our actions.
Agape and Philia
One year during my yearly beach weekend with some old friends, I had an opportunity to practice agape with someone towards whom I feel philia. Before I left home for the weekend, I received an email from one of my friends saying it would be really great if the house we were renting was all warmed up, with the water turned on and 7-layer bars baking in the oven, when they arrived. These friends had a much longer drive than I did, and she knew I would arrive at the house several hours before they did.
I can tell you that I did not feel like driving by myself at night in the pouring rain to Cannon Beach. I did not feel like hunting around outside in the wind and rain for the water valve to turn on the water. I really did not feel like baking cookies in the gas oven in a kitchen I am unfamiliar with. But I chose to do all of those things anyway because I love my friends and wanted to make them happy. I combined the philia I felt with agape I have learned from God and received blessings in return.
Agape and Eros
In our society today a high percentage of marriages end in divorce. Often the reason cited is that one spouse doesn’t love the other anymore; that feeling they had when they met is gone. The type of love that can disappear in a realationship is eros. Now eros is important for couples to be attracted to each other and get married, but it cannot, by itself, sustain a lifelong commitment. To create a lasting marriage, a couple must combine eros with agape.
To keep wedding vows to remain together “for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health” truly requires agape. Recently my spouse had to go into the hospital for a heart procedure. I did not want to spend an entire day, from 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., in a hospital. But because of agape we have cultivated in our marriage, I couldn’t conceive of leaving the hospital and not being there for him when he came out of surgery. And I know he would have done the same for me.
Who do you need to love (agape) today?
Each day we need to make a conscious effort to incorporate agape love into our interactions with those around us. Who is God calling you to love today? Don’t feel like it? As Nike would say, “Just do it.” After all, love as an action verb can be a blessing to others that is returned to you in even greater measure than you give.