Love is a popular subject today. Never before in history have we heard so much about it yet seen so little of it in action. Often we use the word rather loosely. For instance, a person may say he loves his family, his new car, or even pepperoni pizza! Hardly anyone specifies the kind of love he means. Newspapers have been known to headline “love murders” or “love suicides”—a rather strange concept indeed! It is obvious that the word “love” means different things to different people. Yet love is a foundational concept in the Christian gospel as well as the single most important ingredient in a successful marriage. We therefore ought to find out what love really means.
In the last chapter we spoke of spiritual maturity. It is not by accident that we selected love as our next subject, for both concepts are closely related. Like maturity, love is a process rather than a state. People don’t actually “fall in love”; they grow into it instead. Maturing love involves growing from a state of receiving much and giving little toward a state of cheerfully giving everything and demanding nothing in return. This whole process is a part of maturity.
A baby must be loved or it will die. It receives love, but it has none to give in return. The cuddling which mothers interpret as an expression of love is really only the baby’s intuitive effort to get food and gratify self. Newborn babies love only themselves. As the baby grows, however, he becomes more aware of his mother. She cares for him, feeds him, and provides companionship for him through most of his waking hours. This new awareness involves growth and development. A child’s first expressions of affection will therefore usually be directed to his mother.
Soon the father comes into view, and the child’s world broadens to include this new authority figure. Later he begins to reach out to brothers and sisters, then to playmates (usually of his own age and sex). Soon he’ll want to be in a gang of his peers, most of whom will probably idolize some hero of their own sex. Then he explodes into adolescence, and peers of the opposite sex are no longer dreaded enemies but attractive and alluring friends. One day the announcement is made, “I’m in love.” Is it really love? What has happened? What is love?
As you probably know, the Greeks had at least three different words for love, each describing a different aspect or level of love. Since we have only one word for love in English, we will face some degree of confusion in interpreting the biblical uses of the Greek words unless we learn the distinctiveness of each.
The first word, eros, is found in secular Greek literature but is never used in the Bible itself. Eros is totally human love. It often refers to sexual love, as the English word “erotic” implies. The basic idea in eros is getting something for yourself. While it may involve a genuine feeling for someone else, that feeling is kindled by the attractiveness of that person and by the excitement, pleasure, and satisfaction which we believe that person will afford us. Eros poses as love for another but is actually love for oneself. It says, “I love you because you make me happy.” Its foundation is some characteristic in the other person that pleases us, such as beauty, charm, warmth, kindness, or talent. If that characteristic is taken away there is nothing left, and it dies. This kind of love looks primarily for what it can get. It may give a little, but the motive is usually to get something in return for what it gives. If it fails to get what it wants, it may turn to resentment, bitterness, or hatred.
Unfortunately, many young people choose a life partner on the basis of eros. Emotional involvement based on body chemistry reaches its full potential very rapidly, and the intensity of the eros causes it to be misconstrued as genuine love. The couple may know very little about each other, but they insist that their love will carry them through. Unfortunately, it usually doesn’t, since it was never true love in the first place. The romantic bubble bursts when the “ideal” person turns out to be far less than ideal—thoughtless, rude, unromantic, inattentive, and unshaven! Since neither partner will be getting what he expected, both will probably want to call it quits, and another marital disaster will be added to the towering pile.
It is my practice to interview couples who ask me to marry them, and then to provide the premarital counsel which I deem appropriate. If some glaring problem is uncovered, I endeavor to deal with it to the best of my ability. After talking to Dave and Betty I had serious misgivings about marrying them at all. It became obvious that Dave’s main desire in marriage was the gratification of physical desires. Betty was closing her eyes to this because of her determination to escape an unpleasant situation at home and because of the flattery she felt from Dave’s attentions.
In a private session with Betty I warned her as tactfully as I could against marrying immediately. Maybe time would help them understand each other better and bring things to the surface that should be dealt with before the pressures of marriage complicated them. And certainly if Dave loved Betty he would be willing to wait a little while for her. But Betty became indignant and told Dave of my insinuations. They decided to have nothing more to do with me, and instead asked someone else to marry them. I lost touch with Dave and Betty after that, but subsequently I learned that two years and two children later Betty was a divorcee, struggling to finish her education while providing for her children. Eros had failed to sustain their relationship.
Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to avoid a pitfall like this, for our whole culture is geared to convincing us that eros is love, that being loved is more important than loving, and that being loved depends on being attractive. So we buy suits, dresses, hair spray, toothpaste, mouthwash, makeup, deodorant, and other assorted aids to make us more attractive, so that hopefully someone will fall in love with us and make us happy. This exaggerated emphasis on eros accounts for a large percentage of all broken marriages.
The “Playboy philosophy” is eros in action. It holds that a woman is an attractive plaything for a man’s gratification and pleasure, and that sexual approaches are synonymous with “making love.” But love is more than sex. No relationship built on the physical alone can last very long, for physical desires are subject to satiation and loss of interest. When this occurs, the relationship will begin to deteriorate rapidly unless an intimacy of spirit and soul has also developed.
Marriages established only on eros will probably experience difficulties from the start. The courtship and engagement periods should instead be used to establish communion of spirit and soul. Then the physical union after marriage will be the crowning glory of a growing relationship rather than the worn-out link of a decaying relationship. If you made the dreadful mistake of marrying on the basis of eros alone, however, there is some encouraging news for you. Love can grow. It won’t grow automatically, but it will grow if you cultivate it. The only hope for your marriage is to move on to higher levels of love.
Philia, the next higher level of love, relates to the soul rather than to the body. It touches the human personality—the intellect, the emotions, and the will. It involves a mutual sharing. The closest word in English would probably be “friendship.” While the noun form is used only once in the New Testament,55 the verb “to love, to like” and the adjective, “loving, devoted” are used many times. This is the degree of affection which Peter claimed for Christ when the Lord asked, “Peter, do you love me?” Peter responded, “You know that I like you,” or “You know that I’m your friend.”56
There is some eros in philia. We choose friends because of the pleasure we derive from being with them. There are personal qualities in them that we appreciate, intellectual and cultural interests that we share, and mutual self-expression that we find satisfying. We derive something enjoyable from the relationship, but we are also willing to give our fair share. This giving is not free from selfish motivation, but the selfishness is largely obscured by a sense of togetherness. Philia is a higher level of love than eros in that “our” happiness is involved rather than merely “my” happiness.
Many comparatively happy marriages are built on philia. In fact, it is a good idea if a husband and wife are friends. I know some husbands and wives who say they love each other but aren’t even friends! They really do not seem to enjoy each other’s company. A marriage cannot survive unless love has grown at least to the philia level. If you are a young person contemplating marriage, you should take the time to discover whether you truly like the person with whom you intend to join yourself for life. A few months is not long enough to learn the little faults and shortcomings that might irritate and exasperate you after marriage. You have heard that love is blind, but in reality only eros is blind. It closes its eyes to faults, laughs off shortcomings, and rationalizes potential problems. Philia, on the other hand, honestly faces all these things and decides whether they are overshadowed by constrasting strengths. If they are, philia determines to live cheerfully with the weaknesses in the everyday give-and-take of life.
Philia is love’s halfway mark—give a little, get a little; a fifty-fifty proposition. A couple can make it on this kind of love as long as each one does his part and the circumstances of life remain fairly steady. If one partner fails to contribute his share, however, or if unusual stress is introduced (financial crisis, serious illness, in-law tensions, sexual problems, child-rearing problems, etc.), the friendship suffers. Philia can’t take the strain. It finally becomes selfish and demanding, and comradeship turns to conflict. The only hope for stable, successful, fully satisfying marriages is to grow to the highest level of love.
That level of love is agape. It does not seek pleasure for itself, but instead delights in giving. It is not kindled by the merit or worth of its object, but originates in its own God-given nature. Agape keeps on loving even when its object is unresponsive, unkind, unlovable, or completely unworthy. It desires only the good of the one loved. It lives to make the loved one happy, whatever the personal cost or sacrifice. It doesn’t give fifty percent and expect fifty percent in return. It gives one hundred percent and expects nothing in return!
Watch out for counterfeits! Some will try to give this kind of love in order to get more love in return. It may appear to work this way, but that is not the motive of true agape. Some may try to give pseudo-agape because they enjoy the ego-satisfaction of being considered benevolent or of having someone dependent on them. True agape is totally unselfish and uncalculating.
You say, “But that’s not even human.” You’re right! No human being in the world can originate true agape. Agape is given by God alone. In fact, God Himself is agape.57 The Bible is filled with descriptions of God giving, sacrificing, and providing for sinners like ourselves.58 When we receive Jesus Christ as our Savior, God pours His agape into our inner being: “We feel this warm love everywhere within us because God has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.”59 God’s love is then displayed in our daily experience.
But how do we actually display the love of God? We know we need this kind of love in our homes if we want them to be truly Christian and genuinely happy, but we simply do not seem to be able to give it. Instead, we display an insatiable hunger to be loved, a craving which psychologists say is basic to human living. We try every means we can think of to get the love we crave, but most of our efforts only backfire and further alienate the one whose love we seek. We’ve learned by bitter experience that we cannot make someone love us.
The solution is found in God’s Word. “We love him because he first loved us.”60 God’s love for us generates love in our own hearts. Is your heart filled with bitterness, resentment, or hard feelings? God loves you, just as you are, in spite of your sinful, selfish attitudes and acts. God loves you! Contemplate His love, enjoy His love, revel in His love, drink deeply of His love, thank Him for His love. The wonder of it all may make your sins even more hideous and vile in your own eyes, but you will confess them, and in love He will forgive and cleanse you, and the wonder of His forgiving love will overwhelm you even more. Soon you will find yourself abandoning your entire being to Him, letting Him fill and control you, letting Him live His life through you. Then real love, agape, will flow through you to those around you, for the fruit of the Spirit is agape.61 The result will be a new you, one who knows how to love in the highest and noblest sense of the word.
Our motive for this transformation should not be to change those around us, but this will nevertheless be the effect over a period of time. The principle we have just discovered from God’s Word is that love produces love. Other passages teach the same truth. “A man will always reap just the kind of crop he sows!”62 When we sow love we reap love. “If you give, you will get!”63 When we give love we will receive love. We need to open our hearts to the love of God and let Him express His love through us to our partners in marriage. He will use it to transform our marriages into the beautiful relationships He planned them to be.
55 James 4:4.
56 John 21:15, 16.
57 1 John 4:8.
59 Romans 5:5, TLB.
60 1 John 4:19, KJV.
61 Galatians 5:22.
62 Galatians 6:7, TLB.
63 Luke 6:38, TLB.