Saturday, February 23, 2019
What Is Love?
As we in the United States celebrate National Heart Month and are still basking in the glow of Valentine’s Day, it is appropriate to consider what love truly is. We use the term very loosely, as in “I love chocolate!” Great songs, poems, and books have been written about love, but what do the writers mean by love? There are three Greek words describing love: eros, phileo, and agape.
Eros refers to erotic or sexual love and is seldom used in the Bible, but this type of love is often exploited in songs, movies, and TV of today. In isolation, eros is not really love at all, because it is a form of lust that demeans its object as merely an end to satisfy one’s own needs. It often borders on hate, as we see when lust led Amnon to rape his half-sister Tamar (2 Samuel 13). When he had what he wanted, he hated her even more intensely than he had once desired her (v. 15).
Yet when eros is accompanied by love within the marriage relationship as God designed it, it forges an unbreakable, exclusive bond between man and wife, causing them to become one flesh (Genesis 2:21-25; Mark 10:6-9). This type of romantic and physical marital love is beautifully depicted in the Song of Solomon. Many regard this poem as an allegory describing the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church (Ephesians 5:22-32).
Phileo appears often in the Bible, referring to brotherly love. It is the root word of “Philadelphia,” meaning brotherly love. Many of our human relationships, such as those between brothers and sisters in Christ, schoolmates, or other friends or family, are based on phileo. Despite our sin nature, this type of affection comes fairly naturally to most of us because we find the resulting relationships to be rewarding. Often we form such relationships with like-minded people with whom we have much in common, and we enjoy their company because they think and act like we do.
Even unsaved people have natural affection for their family and friends. However, Scripture warns that in the End Times, that affection will grow cold, and men will love pleasure more than they love God or one another (2 Timothy 3:1-3). We see this today when mothers abort or abandon their children for convenience or fathers slaughter their family, because they have no love even for their own flesh and blood.
The expectation in relationships governed by phileo is that we will help one another, encouraging each other (2 Corinthians 1:4), praying for one another (James 5:16), bearing one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), and exchanging gifts or uplifting messages. Friends may often provide substantial help when needed, such as errands, moving, home maintenance, food or medicine when one is sick, or even a job opportunity or financial assistance.
I know of someone in our former church, a mother in her forties, who is an amazing example of this type of brotherly love. Her close friend and sister in Christ recently married a diabetic, and several months later, he developed kidney failure that became so severe that he needed a kidney transplant. His wife was not a good match to be an organ donor, but her friend was, and she gave her kidney so that her brother in Christ would live and so that her sister in Christ would not lose her husband! Praise the Lord, all are doing well!
But even when the giving becomes lopsided because one is going through tougher times than the other, the unspoken assumption is “You scratch my back – I’ll scratch yours,” or “I’ve always been there for her, so she’ll always be there for me.” If we are honest with ourselves, we may realize that some of these relationships are actually more like a contractual partnership than a true friendship, and we may begin to resent the “friend” who takes much more than she gives.
The truest form of love described in the Bible is agape, or self-sacrificing love that gives freely and completely while expecting nothing in return. Sacrificial, anonymous giving may be motivated by agape, provided it is not done to bolster one’s ego, pride, or self-righteousness.
The apostle Paul warned that even if we give away all our possessions to feed the poor, and even give our own body to be burned, it does us no good unless we do it out of sacrificial love, translated as charity (1 Corinthians 13:3). When we face Jesus Christ at the judgment seat for believers, even magnanimous deeds like these will burn up in the fire of judgment (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) unless they were motivated by true love for God and for one another.
Jesus told us to love and pray for our enemies (Matthew 5:44), even though they would destroy us if they had the chance, much less thank us. (Praying for our enemies to be exiled to Siberia doesn’t count!). Jesus told us that the greatest form of love, which He exemplifies, is to lay down your life for your friends (John 15:13).
Many people would take a bullet to spare the life of their child or wife, because they love that person more than they value their own life. Many soldiers end up sacrificing their life to protect their fellow troops or country. But in these examples, the sacrifice is usually impulsive rather than premeditated, and protects a person or idea of great worth to the person making the sacrifice.
In contrast, true agape, like that shown by Jesus Christ, sacrifices while fully aware of the cost (Matthew 16:21) and of the absence of reward. It commits to the sacrifice well in advance (Isaiah 50:6-7), and benefits those who hate rather than love the one who dies. He sacrificed Himself for His enemies (Romans 5:6-10), so that all who are saved by trusting in His death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) as the only Way to Heaven (John 14:6) can have eternal life!
Next week, we’ll explore the concept that a better question than “What is love?” may be “Who is Love?” and that the answer is Jesus Christ!
© 2019 Laurie Collett