An “Ask Mac” blog post, responding to a question from within the CornerstoneSF community. Have your own question about faith or God? Submit it here.
Beloved, let us love one another; for love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. By this the love of God was revealed in us, that God has sent His only Son into the world so that we may live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:7-10, NASB)
Google’s most searched question about Christianity and God is: “What is love?” This question has received 3.5 to 5 million queries in each of the last three years.
Before attempting an answer in the light of the Bible, or the life of Jesus, we should probably pause and ask: “Why is this the number-one question?” What is the deeper question we might really be asking? Perhaps, pause and ask yourself what that question means for you? There may be many answers, for there are many kinds of love.
While there may be many meaningful things to do in life, what we most need to be in life is loved. And the source from which we most profoundly need love is the God who created us.
The Four Loves
In the English language we have the one word “love,” whereas ancient Greek (the New Testament’s original written language) had four distinct words for love. Three of these had established definitions we can follow today to help us understand aspects of love. But the fourth word, which the early Christians seized upon and infused new meaning into, had not been as fully defined before.
That word was “agape,” which until the First-century application to Jesus’ “passion” - His sacrifice to rescue humanity from sin and death – was a synonym for other types of love. But this new meaning becomes strikingly clear when we view it in contrast to the other loves, especially “eros.”
“Eros,” which would become the dominant motif for love in the Western world from the 12th Century on., had a “romantic love” connotation. At its core, eros “recognizes the value in the one loved and seeks to possess” (see Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros, Westminster, 1957). “Agape,” in marked contrast, sees in the unlovable, the lost, and the fallen the opportunity to “create value where there is none” (Nygren). Agape sacrifices itself for the object of its love. Thus, Jesus says plainly, “Greater love has no man than he who gives up his life for a friend” (John 15:13).
But there is a further contrast between the two. Eros fuels the heart of broken humans who seek to fill a God-shaped vacuum with “love” for people and things. Agape, however, is a love that only God can generate. It is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) that He gives to men and women, who must then give it to one other and then back to God. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4).
Does this mean eros love is evil? No, it can be healthy if we avoid worshiping it as the great end of human existence. Or, as Denis de Rougemont said, “When it ceases to be a god it also ceases to be a demon.” Eros can be what draws two people together in love. But if they rely solely on it, their relationship will end up like a million heartbreak songs. “You’ve lost that loving feeling …”
A Secure Love
The Apostle John, in his first letter, locates all love (agape) squarely in God’s rescue of humanity through His Son Jesus. Let us note, with Paul, that God’s love did not come to us at our best – or even with an attempt on our part – but:
For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. (Ro. 5:10, NASB)
There is, therefore, security in God’s love, unlike in the love of most of humanity. And when agape does come from other humans, it is not manufactured by them but by God. Because only God can produce it, we must ask for it in harmony with the other loves, for they will all work together if agape is allowed to master the rest.
For example, if a man loves his wife with the self-sacrificial love God alone provides, he will not seek to coerce or control her. Instead, he will look for ways to create value in her life, not focusing on what he is or is not getting from her. This does not mean that he should be dishonest about his own real needs, but he may look first to Christ as his primary source of love and security.
We started with the Apostle John’s first letter concerning love, and it is good to end with what he says a few verses later:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us. (1 John 4:18-19 NASB)
In any love relationship, punishment almost always involves rejection, or the fear or threat of it. God’s agape-love in Christ is a perfect love that transforms us, not only through forgiveness, but through adoption. This means we have in Christ a secure inheritance that can never be taken away. Christians can live as the freest and loved people on the Earth not because they have earned or achieved anything, but as recipients who have said “yes” to God’s love. And it is from that place of security and freedom that God calls us to love others in the same way.
For Further Study
Lewis, C.S., The Four Loves (HarperOne, 2017)
Merton, Thomas Disputed Questions, (Harvest Books, 1985) See essays on power and meaning of love.
Nygren, Anders, Agape & Eros, (Westminster Press, 1957). This book is out of print and very expensive to buy, but is free to download in PDF format or ePub at the linked address.
deRougemont, Denis. Love in the Western World, (Princeton University Press, 1983) (least important at $45.00 unless you really want to understand the romantic myth.)