An old friend – evidently in the Facebook sense of the word only -- recently attacked me publically for being unchristian because I am conservative in my politics – I’m unloving -- which I am from time to time -- which we all are from time to time, but caring about the well-being of others in the name of Christ does not demand that I steal from Peter to pay Henry to give the rest to Paul who always votes for Henry. That isn’t what I call love. It isn’t what the Bible calls love either.
Understanding biblical love requires knowledge about language. Though English is one of the richest, most flexible languages to develop on this earth, it isn’t very exact. Koine Greek, the main language in the New Testament, is, because of its history (Alexander the Great developed it to make communication with his troops foolproof), so it’s useful to look at the Greek words that are translated love in English.
Love, that simple English word, is an emotional word that can indicate how we feel about anything from cookie dough ice cream to our firstborn child. The key word there is feel. But the biblical words that are translated love aren’t all about emotion.
Before I go into that, let me point out something: we can love, in the English, emotional sense of the word, and not make anything better for anyone. I can watch those heart-rending videos from Somalia and feel a devastating sense of concern for those fly-speckled children, but that feeling by itself does not affect their lives at all. Even giving money only helps if it’s funneled through the right organization to the right people at the right time. The emotion of love is neither a virtue – even animals appear to feel compassion -- nor is it a practical solution.
Practical solutions require thought, not emotion. That’s why even friends end up talking past each other when it comes to major social problems. But aren’t we supposed to love one another? Yes – however, let’s look at the biblical words – the actual ideas that the writers of scripture, and through them, the three members of the Trinity, were trying to pass on to us.
The love-word used most frequently in the New Testament is the word agape, It is the most virtuous kind of love (1st Corinthians 13). It requires nothing of the one loved; it has naught to do with personal preference, nor does it have any connection to pity. Agape is an expression of respect for the handiwork of God; it is a remembrance that He designed the soul of every person ever born and each soul created is His potential masterpiece. Agape faces every person – regardless of appearance, culture, intelligence or personality – with a sense of awe and reverence, of care and concern, of devotion to the long-term well-being of that person, who was built in the image of God. That is how Christ loved us as He staggered, cross-laden through the streets of Jerusalem. Agape is an attitude of intellect, not an emotion. Agape is not reliant on the lovee, it is unconditional, so it is not unfair that Christ has commanded us to be lovers – this kind of love is not optional, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, it is entirely doable.
On the other hand, philos is more optional, more gradual – we are to grow to love God in this way, to learn enough about Him to love Him, trust Him, as we would a friend.
Philos is the total appreciation for the object of our affection; it is not necessarily a virtue. We phileo another because he or she meets our standards, standards for physical attractiveness, personality compatibility, intelligence, ability, morality – whatever boosts our balloon. It is an expression of appreciation of the virtues of another – it is not based on our own goodness like agape is. Philos is the love that the members of the Trinity have for each other – an appreciation for the complete perfections of the other members (1st John 4:19). It is a blessing we receive, not one we give and it is emotional, as are all our appreciations. That’s why we can love pizza, our best friend, and our dogs – each has qualities we recognize and respond to favorably.
We need to keep these two kinds of love separate, which is hard to do, thinking in English.
According to C.S. Lewis, a third kind of love is storge, the love a parent feels for a child, a child for a parent, or a sibling for a sibling. Storge ,though not used directly in the Bible, is demonstrated over and over in the Old Testament as the foundation for the family. If we responded to our children the same way we respond to other human beings, they become very vulnerable indeed, or imagine the sibling squabbles if under it all they didn’t love each other? Yikes. Storge is not a virtue as much as it is both a blessing and a precautionary part of our programming. We are not commanded to love our children; we are built to do so.
This is not to say that parents don’t have an emotional, philos appreciation for the beauty, the brightness, the accomplishments of a child, nor does it mean that we don’t have to rely, in the rough moments, on the grace of agape in dealing with our children. When we have to, we can love them because we choose to, not because they please us. But storge is that overwhelming sense of oneness we experience when we first see our babies. Storge expresses the connection between God the Father and God the Son. It expresses God’s love for believers because we are in Christ and therefore are recipients of God’s storge for His Son.
Of course, no discussion of love is complete without reference to eros, even though the Bible doesn’t make mention of it, either. Eros is sexual love. Eros, like storge, appears to be hard-wired into the human nervous and endocrine system, and is as often a sin as it is virtue. We definitely don’t have to be told to respond to the opposite sex appreciatively – quite to the contrary.
But to get back to my angry friend – Love and politics make totally incompatible bedfellows. In a rational society, our political stance on any issue must be based on logical thought, not on emotional response. If love is involved at all it must be pure agape, because agape allows us to think through and come up with long-term, bullet-proof solutions; it even allows us to determine accurately whether or not a perceived problem even needs solving – i.e. is Bloomberg’s ban on large sodas in New York 1) an expression of his love for his people? 2) is it going to have a positive effect on people’s health? or 3) will it just create more garbage for the city to clean up?
But that’s another post.