I think almost all of us aspire to be healthy, whole, functioning people, and an important part of realizing this is experiencing and learning to love well. One would think that this would be as easy as falling off a bike but love is a multifaceted expression, after all, we talk about loving potato chips and loving our spouse. Obviously (hopefully), there is a significant difference in the quality and expression of love for potato chips and our spouse! So, with such a broad use of the word love, it is important to be specific and clear when we talk about love. Going a little deeper than the blissful satisfaction from the starchy, salty goodness of potato chips, having a solid living/working definition of love is helpful for a deeper more meaningful life. I like Thomas Jay Oord’s definition from his book Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement. Oord’s definition is:
“To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being.”
Often we find it necessary to add an adjective to love to help qualify what we mean when we use the word. Regardless of the adjective, when looking to love well, our love should meet the three aspects of Oord’s definition:
- to act intentionally
- in the context of relationship
- promoting overall well-being
There are a variety of expressions of love that in their best, healthiest sense fit with Oord’s definition. You are probably familiar with some of the Greek words for love, some of which are used in scripture. The top three many consider in church settings are Agape, Phileo, and Eros. I have written about these in the past, and most recently demonstrated each of these as facets of divine love - you can read it here.
For fun, let’s explore the word Agape. This is a bit of a mystical word in many Christian circles and I think at times it is applied narrowly, and we miss that the verb agape is often used in counter-intuitive ways in the New Testament. In ways that may unseat our narrow interpretation and use of the word.
Typically agape is understood as the opposite of self-love, unconditional, the kind of love that only God expresses, unmotivated, God as the sole initiator. These are fairly common religious ideas that many of us have grown up with.
Traditionally, many turn to 1 Corinthians 13:5 “Love (agape)... It does not insist on its own way.” It would seem that Paul, using agape is affirming the traditional self-less understanding of agape.
Let’s take a look at Ephesians 5:28 “In this same way, husbands ought to love (agape) their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves (agape) himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body.” In both of these instances, Paul uses agape in a way that appeals to self-love - to love one's wife as they love themselves, love one's own body.
Let’s look at other places where agape is used, Comparing it to the traditional definition of agape.
Matthew 22:39 - And the second is like it: ‘Love (agape - Agapēseis) your neighbor as yourself.
Luke 6:32 - If you love (agapate) those who love (agapōntas) you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love (agapōntas) those who love (agapōsin) them.
Luke 7: 4b-5 - When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves (agape) our nation and has built our synagogue.
John 3:19 - This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved (agape - egapesan) darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
John 12:43 - for they loved (agape - egapesan) human praise more than praise from God.
2 Timothy 4:10 - for Demas, because he loved (agape - agapēsas) this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia.
Hebrews. 1: 9 - You have loved (agape - ēgapēsas) righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.
Rev. 12:11 - They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love (agape - ēgapēsan) their lives so much as to shrink from death.
It would seem from the above examples that the word agape is used in a couple of different ways demonstrating that a narrow definition and application of the word agape is not consistent with the way it is used by New Testament writers. Sometimes, as we see above, agape implies a passionate desire like Eros, sometimes it is used in a context where it can be expressing self-love. Sometimes agape is unconditional and sometimes it is quite conditional. We engage the text critically to determine the context in which agape is being used to determine what it is being used to communicate.
I think if we are honest, we can see that we too use the same words for different meanings and intensities depending upon the context we use them. Furthermore, as humans, our love is a mix of various kinds of love, that often our motives are not 100% pure as far as our religious altruism is concerned - especially with a loaded word like agape/love. This is not a bad thing, it just is the way it is.
God is love
Remember, there is no inherent hierarchy in the various expressions of love. In their healthiest manifestations and in the right contexts each of the different expressions can be authentically loving. (I can also demonstrate that even agape love in the wrong context can be unloving).
Given the ambiguity of the use of agape in scripture, does this mean we throw out the word agape? I don’t think so. I do think however it’s really important that we resist becoming religiously exclusive and we are clear in the way that we define it. For guidance on this, particularly how we express agape, let’s return to Oord’s definition of love as I paraphrase Our love (agape, phileo, Eros, etc.) “is best when we act intentionally, in sympathetic response to others (and God), to promote overall well-being.”
This can free us into a much wider bandwidth of the love that is very much an expression of God and it can help us better discern and respond well to the invitations of the Spirit. All this to encourage us to not get bogged down in the minutia of religious altruism and to get on with loving well.