This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Love. Click here to see the entire series.
The major problem in dealing with the doctrine of love is the fact that biblical Greek uses four different words that are translated as “love” in our English translations. Each of the four words conveys a very different concept. Much is lost in the translation by translating each of the words with the same English word. We would be far better off if we consistently used a different English word for each of the Greek words. There are also some compound words in the Greek language that can be translated into the English word “love”. For my purposes here I will stick with the four words described by Lewis: Eros/Erotic love, Phileo/Friendship love, Storge/Affection love, and Agape/(no equivalent in English and best simply transliterated).
Eros, phileo and storge are all natural human emotions. All human beings throughout all of human history have experienced these natural emotions. Greek philosophers, especially Aristotle, devoted great amounts of mental energy to describing the nature of each of these emotions. As natural human emotions these three feelings have several things in common:
- The origination of these emotions is beyond the ability of the individual to control. In other words, these emotions simply appear on the emotional radar screen of an individual without being summoned or self-consciously produced. Philosophers have disagreed as to the source of the different emotions (debating the various merits of bodily and soulish sources for them) but there is practically universal agreement that they simply come into existence because of some externality that creates them. I do not simply wake up one morning and find myself in eros. I find myself in eros because I saw a beautiful woman and had a physio/chemical reaction within my body/soul to what I saw. Furthermore, I did not decide to create the eros. It created itself as a result of the externality that came into my life.
- Although it is impossible to control the origination of these love emotions, it is possible to control the expression of them. I might feel tremendous eros towards my co-worker in the office. However, I value my job and make the decision to suppress my expression of that emotion to her in order to retain my job. I may suffer the effects of “lovesickness” by virtue of the fact that I am suppressing the emotion, but I prefer to suffer some lovesickness rather than suffer unemployment and poverty. So I conclude that some externality triggers the existence of an emotion and then I have the ability to either express or suppress that emotion. I recognize that many men and women, who desire to live like brutes rather than men and women, talk and act as if suppressing emotion is impossible. I will ignore their protestations since they are little more than an expression of juvenile desires to have their own way at all times.
- The choice to express or suppress my emotions is a moral choice. Sometimes expressing an emotion is immoral (behaving erotically towards my married co-worker). Sometimes expressing an emotion is moral (telling a family member that I storge him). Sometimes repressing an emotion is immoral (withholding affection from a new born child). Sometimes repressing an emotion is moral (deciding to not commit adultery). A Christian is required by the Scriptures to exercise emotional self-control. Therefore, for each emotion that a believer encounters, the origination of which is impossible to control, the believer must decide what it is and whether to express or suppress it. Expressing and suppressing emotions consistent with the revealed will of God in the Bible is a mark of a mature Christian individual.
Agape is different from all of the other Greek love emotions in that it is not an emotion at all. In fact, agape is described as a behavior. I Corinthians 13 is the “love chapter” that most believers are very familiar with. It is striking that as love (agape) is described there, there is not a single reference to an emotion. Indeed, every characteristic of agape is a behavior. Look at the list. Love is: longsuffering, kind, not jealous, not boastful, not proud, not rude, not self-seeking, and not easily provoked. Furthermore, love does not keep a list of wrongs suffered and does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. Each of these descriptions of agape actually describes a behavior by a human moral agent. A person loves (agape) properly when he behaves properly. This is of vital importance in the doctrine of love and is usually lost in practical evangelical theology today.
Several things follow from what has been said above. First, whenever we talk about the biblical doctrine of love we must be very careful we know which love we are talking about. Because there is such a great difference between the emotional loves and because one of the loves (agape) is not an emotion at all, it is vitally important that we be clear which word is being used. John 21: 15-17 serves as a good example of how confusing it can be to interpret a passage when we do not know which Greek word for love is being used.
This passage deals with the restoration and forgiveness of Peter after his denial of Christ during the passion week. You all know the story where Jesus asks Peter three times if he “loves“ Him? The standard interpretation of this passage is that Jesus asks Peter this question three times in order to make up for the three times that Peter denied Jesus. That interpretation, however, really misses the point of what is going on in the dialogue between Peter and Jesus. Here are the questions and answers as they are in the Greek:
Question # 1: Peter, do you agape (as evidenced by your behavior) Me more than the other apostles?
Answer # 1: Yes Lord, You know that I love You as a friend (phileo).
Question # 2: Peter, do you agape (as evidenced by your behavior) Me?
Answer # 2: Yes Lord, You know that I love You as a friend (phileo).
Question # 3: Peter, do you love Me as a friend (phileo)?
Answer # 3: You know that I love you as a friend (phileo).
John records that Peter “was hurt” when Jesus asked him the third time if he loved Him. Why was he hurt? The standard interpretation is that he was upset that Jesus kept asking him the same question but that he realized Jesus had to ask him the question as often as he had denied Jesus. However, when the actual words are examined, we see that something entirely different is taking place.
Jesus asks Peter three different questions. His first question was if Peter agaped Him more than the others. That clearly is a reference to Peter’s earlier statement that even if all others deserted Him, he would not. Peter, no doubt embarrassed and ashamed of his earlier bravado, did not answer the question; he simply asserted his friendship love for Jesus. Jesus then scaled down the question and asked him if he simply agaped Him at all? Peter also did not answer that question. How could he? His behavior clearly indicated that he did not agape Jesus. If he did agape Jesus he would never have deserted Him! Finally Jesus scales the question down to the level that a humbled Peter found himself in. Jesus simply wants to know if Peter loves Him as a friend. Peter is hurt because he has already told Jesus two times that he does! At last, here is a love that he can declare for Jesus with genuine enthusiasm. Peter reasserts his friendship for Jesus the third time and Jesus drops the issue. However, Peter has undoubtedly figured out the point of Jesus’ mild rebuke. All of this is missed in the English translations of the passage.
The second thing that follows from the different Greek conceptions of love is that God does not command His people to “love” someone or something that requires the self-production of an emotion (eros, phileo, or storge). For example, God does not command that I fall in love (eros) with Betty Sue. How could He? It is beyond my control as to whether I will fall in love with Betty Sue or not. However, if I do fall in love (eros) with Betty Sue, I am responsible for how I deal with that emotion and God most certainly has issued many commands related to my behavior with respect to that emotion. It should not surprise us that when God commands His people to “love” (both Himself, others, and our enemies), He uses the word agape. Clearly God is not commanding us to produce some sort of emotion or feelings towards Him or others, including our enemies. Equally as clear, He is commanding us to behave in a certain way towards Him and others, including our enemies. This is a vital point that is utterly lost in the evangelical doctrine of love.
Agape is by far the most common word for love in the Bible and it almost universally describes the nature of our relationship with God and others. When God commands us to love Him, others, and our enemies, He is commanding us to agape them. That means that He is commanding us to behave in a certain way towards them. He is not commanding us to try and conjure up some warm feelings that we can then toss in the general direction of others. By this point you should be realizing that you could be free from the evangelical dread, and its associated spiritual depression, of continually being incapable of producing warm feelings for people that you despise. How you might feel towards another person is irrelevant. What matters is how you behave towards them. Do you agape them? Are you patient and kind? Do you seek your own way with them? Do you keep a mental list of the wrong things they have done to you? Your behavior determines whether you love them or not. A Christian should never suffer from an anguished soul because he finds unpleasant and immoral emotions in himself for others. The question is, what do you do with those unpleasant and immoral emotions? One who loves (agape) makes the moral decision to suppress immoral emotions. The person who hates expresses immoral emotions and feelings. Behavior determines love.