In a recent skype conversation with Anna, one of my daughters in law, I mentioned that I was re-reading ‘The Four loves’ by C.S. Lewis which unpacks the meaning of the Greek words in a way that helpfully shows both the similarities and the differences between mere human love and the love of God. He does not belittle the love that is purely human – a love for a pet dog can be enriching and a true expression of our humanity – but it does not parallel God’s love toward us nor the love that is a vital aspect of Christian fellowship with fellow believers. But some of the great strengths of Lewis – his immense learning and astonishing breadth of reading – can sometimes be a barrier to those (an increasing number in our time) who struggle to read and engage with books such as this, which seriously stretch and challenge the mind.
When Anna asked me whether it might be possible to summarise Lewis’s book in one of my blogs, I considered the task well beyond my capabilities. However, I do confess that I struggle when I hear Christians proclaiming that a key element of the good news is ‘God loves you’ when they do not go on to explain what they mean by it. I do not disagree with the statement as it stands, but I find myself wondering whether the speaker actually knows what it means, or, even more crucially, what the hearers understand by it. Love is a catch-all word, which so lacks definition in our language, that anyone hearing it used in relation to God, might be excused if they fail to grasp the enormity of what it means in that context.
Part of the problem lies in the fact that the New Testament was written in Greek, and Greek, both in its classical and everyday varieties, has four separate words for love. We could of course also use a variety of words to distinguish what we mean when speaking about love of various things in English. I am fond of my pet dog, I like fish and chips, Lancaster is my favourite town, this is a great little gadget, my mum is the best and I adore my wife would all serve instead of saying that I love them. Unfortunately, in practice, we often neglect to utilise other expressions and make love to serve in all circumstances.
So, recognising that I am not up to summarising Lewis, I nonetheless decided that I might try and set out something on the same theme, drawing on his and other writings on the subject. I realised that this blog would have to be longer than those I normally write, so this time I am only sending out one rather than the four I usually do.
Of the four different words in use at the time, the New Testament writers only made extensive use of two of them, agape and phileo. One, storge they only used occasionally, and that was in compound words, and the other, eros, they did not use at all.
The reason the last two, storge and eros, were used minimally or not at all is understandable. They express the most human or natural aspects of love. That does not imply that those loves are wrong, far from it, but they are expressions of love that relate to anyone and everyone regardless of whether they are a Christian, or whether they have any belief in God or not.
Storge is the word that expresses affection and in particular a natural affection that might be based on many things. It could be used of a man and his dog or horse, of a parent and their child, or of comradeship between two old soldiers. It could embody the concept of two people standing side by side in mutual affection as they share an interest. There is no indication whether the shared interest might be good or bad or indeed, whether the people themselves are good or bad. In that sense, it is a neutral word. Two people who share this love may be crooks, murderers, or the most benevolent and kind persons in their community, but storge gives no indication of their values nor passes any judgement on their morals. It does indicate a clear affinity and affection, but not anything that necessarily arises out of the people themselves.
When it is used in the New Testament, storge is used in compounds to emphasise the presence or absence of this basic human love. In His letter to the Christians at Rome, Ch 1 v 31 Paul includes the negative, without love or natural affection, as one among a long list of attributes of those who have rejected the revelation and knowledge of God. Similarly, In 2 Timothy 3 v 3 he again uses the negative to describe one of the terrible signs of the last days. Many of those who persistently reject the love of God, will ultimately find themselves even unable to express the most basic of human affections. On the one occasion he uses storge positively, (Romans Ch 12 v10) it is again in a compound but this time, instead of with a negative, it is joined to one of the other words for love, phileo. It is included in a list of positive attributes that Christians are to manifest – a love that includes both affection as friends and love as family.
Eros, though in common use in both classical and everyday Greek, does not occur at all in the New Testament. As with storge, eros denotes a love that is rooted in our humanity, but whereas storge focusses on a shared interest or something where two companions might stand side by sideor be members of the same family, eros expresses the love and attraction between two people who are face to face where the focus is on each other.
It is the love between a man and a woman, which finds its highest fulfilment in giving and receiving between each other. The word is frequently found in Greek tragedies or romantic poems. The Greeks had a delight in physical human beauty and also in the sexual and sensual desires that could be aroused by that beauty. As such, the word eros was employed to express every aspect of that. The absence of it in the New Testament does not indicate disapproval, for the Bible is clear that God created man and woman to embrace, enter into and continue in a relationship that is described as becoming one flesh – the highest fulfilment of eros.
Its absence is explained when we realise that in addition to the natural, good, human expression of love between a man and a woman, eros also came to express a more mystical understanding of love, which incorporated a union with the gods. This was sometimes linked with fertility cults, some of which paralleled those practiced by the heathen nations in the Old Testament and which were consistently condemned by the prophets. The love between God and humanity was a long way from the eros of the mystery religions, and other words needed to be found.
The first of the Greek words that the New Testament writers take up and use extensively in a Christian sense is phileo. It is used both to show affection between natural family members and those who are spiritually related through having one Father in heaven. Its most simple and perhaps most expressive translation is ‘brotherly’ love (though of course equally valid as ‘sisterly’ love as well).
Whereas storge may be used to express an affection that grows out of mere familiarity where there is little that may actually be attractive in the one we love, phileo tends toward a love that incorporates an attraction to something of value (either good or bad) in the object of our love itself. So it is used (1 Tim Ch 1 v 8) for loving what is good, or (1 Tim Ch 6 v 10) for loving money. It is used commonly both within and outside the New Testament to express love of a family member, where there is a relationship already in place. On occasions when it is used in a very general sense such as Titus Ch 3 v 4, to express the love of God toward humankind, it clearly indicates that this was not based on the righteous things that we have done, but on the mercy of God.
The word used more usually in the New Testament to convey the love of God is agape. In the King James version of the Bible this was sometimes translated as charity. Whilst that may jar a little to the modern mind, it was not a bad translation, for at the heart of the meaning of agape, is the thought of action, where one person carries out a generous move for the sake of another. It is possible to be charitable, to send money for the benefit of total strangers and to do so without emotion or feeling, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Of course, emotion, sometimes very deep emotion, may be involved, especially compassion, and that may be the driving force of our action, but that is not what is described by agape. Compassion and tender feelings are conveyed by splagchnizomai or eleeo, meaning to have one’s innermost being moved, or to have mercy.
God is not passionless. When Jesus ministered on earth, he was repeatedly described as having compassion on a person, and compassion involves real feelings. However, compassion is not the principle word used of God’s attitude toward humankind, that is love, agape, and that type of love is ultimately expressed by action rather than feeling. So when John writes that God so loved the world (John Ch 3 v 16) he continues by describing the action of God – He gave His Son – rather than describing the feeling of God.
The meaning of agape as gracious action rather than good feeling, is clearly seen in the command of Jesus (Luke Ch 6 v 27 ff) to love our enemies and to do good to those who hate us. We are told to bless them and pray for them, not to like them or have affection for them. God is concerned for generous actions not merely positive feelings. (The amazing thing is that when we obey Jesus and bless and pray for enemies, our attitude to them may often begin to mellow into affection as well.)
Agape, was little used in the Greek outside of the New Testament, and so the biblical writers were able to make it peculiarly their own in order to express and explain the love of God; a love which led Him to give His Son as a sacrifice for the world. The action of God is in stark contrast to mere human loves, which are often driven by the attractiveness of the one loved or the inner feelings aroused by that one. God’s love is rooted in the decision to love, which arises out of the goodness and grace of the one who is loving, not the one being loved.
Any person who is fortunate enough to be in a mature, loving marriage, will know that such a relationship can combine all the loves. So too, in our relationship with God, we may dare to believe that affection, friendship and attraction may develop, but that is not the starting point. In the beginning, it comes down to choice. God chooses us and demonstrates that He has done so through the actions of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is why the cross must always be central in the proclamation of the good news. The cross is God’s love in action. Our response must also be demonstrated through action. Regardless of how we feel, the appropriate response is to leave everything, change our priorities and become a follower, a disciple. The choice to love God and demonstrate that in action is agape. It demands priority over all other forms of love and, as such may sometimes involve forsaking family, friends and those who are the objects of our affection.
It is only when we understand the distinction between aspects of loving, that the teaching of Jesus will make sense. We are to love Him more than mother or father or wife and children (Matthew Ch 10 v 37) and take up our cross and follow Him. It is not that love for family is wrong, far from it; one of Jesus’s last acts from the cross was to make provision for His mother (John Ch 19 v 26). Whilst choosing the course of action driven by the agape love of God, Jesus accepted that it involved the deepest pain of separation from His Father in heaven, and that it overruled the phileo love for His mother. However, by entrusting her into the care of His cousin John, He lessened the pain and heartache involved in such a decision.
Because agape love is the greatest of loves, it will often involve pain, as choices for right action take priority over the loves based on relationships, affections, feelings and desires. But agape love is not opposed to the other loves, and though it has priority, it will often also incorporate those other loves. At such times, right action may be infused with great joy and all the very best of our emotional being as well.
When we talk to those whom we are seeking to bring into faith in Christ, it is crucial therefore, that we make it quite clear what it means to be loved by God. We are the cause of His sacrificial love that chose the way of the cross for His Son. The only possible appropriate response to that love, is to receive it as the gift that it is intended to be, and to make our own offering of love in return by choosing the way of the cross for ourselves.
Declaring the love of God without rooting that love in the act of the cross of Jesus and our incorporation into it, will ultimately breed discontent and disappointment. People will inevitably become disillusioned if they try to live on the basis of how God might feel about them and how they might feel in return, instead of living on the basis of what God has done for them and how they should respond to that.