Striving for a Greater Love
You’re probably expecting a mushy article about love, being that today is Valentine’s Day. Unfortunately, I am unable to deliver that today, for there is a far more pressing issue at hand. The greeting card companies have co-opted the notion of love, and have reduced it to the passion between a man and a woman. In culture, through movies, television, and other media, society has equated love with sex. During children’s sermons, when I have asked children about love, a common response is “Ewww!” Who knows what they are thinking, but it points to a misunderstanding of love. When I ask what love is, how do you define it?
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, expresses love as the greatest of gifts.
Paul describes love, saying:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8a
Notice that Paul’s definition of love is not tied to relationships; rather, it is a way of life. It is something that we as individuals strive for, though we often fall short.
Paul recognized that this agape or “Christian love” is powerful but different from philo, which is an emotion. Thayer’s Greek lexicon points to this relationship being one between a love that is a choice and a love that is brute emotion. In fact, when God speaks of love, God is speaking in terms of agape love. The same is true of Paul, as when he expresses love, he does so without emotion. For Paul, this love is a choice, one that all Christians are called to choose.
The struggle between the emotional love of philo and the thoughtful agape is central, since agape love points to something which transcends time and space, whereas philo love is linked to the passion of the moment. In essence, philo love is the love that we often think about this time of year. It is a love within the confines of the moment, time, place, or person. In relation to our Christian understanding, philo love is valid and part of agape love, but philo love does not encompass all of agape love.
Agape is like what the mother feels when her six-year-old son breaks a piece of her good china. The emotion that the mother holds is far from the philo love. Instead, the mother is alarmed because her son was climbing the cabinet after she had told him not to, pulling down the pretty piece of china to its doom. Here, the mother’s love transcends the moment, and turns to one of care and protection.
Agape love is also the love that the father has for his daughter when she gets into her first car accident. Though it was clearly her fault, the father sits by her bedside nursing the daughter’s needs, not telling her what she already knew. The father’s love is one of patience and hope for recovery. Any momentary anger about the accident is put aside to offer comfort.
Striving for this agape love is so crucial for our society to rediscover. It is the love that learns to care for others, even when you don’t necessarily agree with what they do with their lives. It is the love that looks for solutions, and not blame; the love that calls us to community, working together for a common good.
So as we celebrate this day devoted to love, remember that what we celebrate today is the philolove of the moment, but what we strive for as people of faith is a greater and more excellent love. It is a love of patience and kindness. It is a love that is not envious, boastful, arrogant, or rude. It is not selfish, irritable, or resentful. It doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoings. It rejoices in truth, bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. It is a love that surpasses time, place, and person. Agape is the love found with our God in heaven.
Remember, it is the agape love that Christ calls us to when he says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”(John 13:34).
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen