News and Views
What Christians Mean by “Love”
Thursday, May 17, 2012
One of the currently most over used words in the English language is "love." It is regularly used to mean "like" or "enjoy" as in, "I love chocolate," "I love to dance," "I love turquoise." Many, especially men, use it to mean "sex" or "lust." It's the word used to describe the extreme emotion and desire experienced when we "fall in love." It is commonly considered an emotion, along with the erroneous idea that we can't control our emotions or feelings.
The Ancient Greeks had four words which are translated "love" in English. "Eros" was the Greek word for sexual love, "storge" the Greek word for family affection, "philia" the Greek word for friendship, and "agape" was the Greek word for the all giving, unconcerned with getting, love of God for people, love of people for God, and the love we need to learn to have for others.
"Agape" is the word for love used when Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Matt. 19:19; Mark 12:31) C.S.Lewis makes some very astute comments about this kind of love in "Mere Christianity" when he observes that there are times when we do not even like ourselves, may be quite disgusted with ourselves, but still look after ourselves. He goes on to note that this love is not an emotion, but a state, not of feeling but of the will "which we have naturally about ourselves, and must learn to have about other people." This is different from liking or affection. He concludes, "The rule for all of us is perfectly simple. Do not waste time bothering whether you 'love' your neighbour; act as if you did." Lewis also notes that feelings often follow actions, that we usually feel more positively toward those we treat in a loving or kindly way as an obedient act of the will.
"Agape" is also the word for love which Paul used when he wrote, "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." (1 Cor. 13:4-7 NIV) I recall a non-Christian psychiatrist calling this description of love unrealistic and impossible, and so it is for most natural human beings. However, the Christian, having experienced this kind of total and unconditional love from God through Christ, and having the support of the Holy Spirit dwelling within, can reasonably aspire to grow in ability to love in this way as ongoing acts of will.
So when the Bible or the Christian speaks of "love", it means the will to choose to treat others with kindness, gentleness, thoughtfulness and consideration, to choose to do the right thing by others, and to extend this care and concern unconditionally. It is to be every bit as concerned about the other person's welfare as we are for our own, in loving response to knowing God's love in our lives. It is not liking or enjoying or sex or infatuation. It is not an emotion or feeling, but an act of will and an act of obedience. The wonderful thing is that as we act lovingly in this way, feelings and emotions tend to follow, and we find ourselves genuinely liking and appreciating people more and more.
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