Thoughts on Love

Speaking of Valentine’s Day… I’ve been writing quite a bit lately – working on a manuscript on the mysterious topic of intimacy. Today I was grappling with the ideas of love. As I worked through my notes I found some descriptions and definitions for the various Greek words for love. Here’s a sampling…

OT Theme – The Prophets, particularly Hosea and Ezekiel, described God’s passion for his people using boldly erotic images. God’s relationship with Israel is described using the metaphors of betrothal and marriage; idolatry is thus likened to adultery and prostitution.

EROS (ἔρως) –

  • Intense physical desire. It’s the same word we get our English word “erotic” from. The Song of Solomon (or Songs) is a passionate and powerful recounting of a man and a woman falling in love that includes the erotic aspects of their love.
  • In their book Holy Eros, James and Evelyn Whitehead speak of a different slant on eros than is typically defined in Evangelical circles…

Although we usually associate eros with the engines of sexual desire, it is much more than that: “It is an ebullient, eager, and sometimes disruptive energy that moves us again and again toward more life…the energy of eros also opens pathways to our passionate God.”
“The human journey is sustained by eros and grace.”
Eros names the vital energy that animates all creation.”
Eros lies at the source of our desires — for friendship and love, for fruitful work, for life in abundance.
“Grace names the healing energy that flows from our loving God, transforming the world through compassion and hope.”
Eros and grace embrace in the heart of God.”

  • The Whiteheads proclaim that the Holy One is involved in the affairs of humanity as they survey the Biblical themes of grace and divine extravagance. In a section on “The Body’s Romance with Eros,” the authors discuss the potencies of sensuality and sexuality; the movements of eros in energy and tension; our body image and the body sacramental; and the eros of pleasure as a pathway to presence and gratitude. It is so good to read about positive ways of thinking and practicing eros in everyday life.
  • The Whiteheads also connect the passions with hope, suffering, anger, and compassion. The vital energies of eros infuse us with the transformative power of hope, the ability to cope with suffering and pain, the chance to use anger as a spur to righteous indignation, and the call to love our neighbors and reach out to strangers.
  • In a section of the book titled “The Rhythms of Eros,” the authors deal with presence and absence as a means of honoring light and darkness; holding on and letting go as learning the rules of engagement; feasting and fasting as nourishing the Spirit; and shadows of eros with a look at ways vital energy can go awry. The Whiteheads are convinced that our erotic lives stir within us wonder, imagination, creativity, curiosity, and generosity. (I haven’t read the book yet – found an excellent review at this site.)
  • C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves describes eros as love in the sense of ‘being in love.’ He says this is distinct from sexuality, which Lewis calls Venus, although he does spend time discussing sexual activity and its spiritual significance in both a pagan and a Christian sense. He identifies eros as indifferent. This promotes appreciation of the beloved regardless of any pleasure that can be obtained from him/her. It can be bad, however, because this blind devotion has been at the root of many of history’s most abominable tragedies. In keeping with his warning that “love begins to be a demon the moment [it] begins to be a god”, he warns against the danger of elevating eros to the status of a god.

PHILEO (φιλία) –

  • A brotherly/sisterly kind of love. Philadelphia is the city of “brotherly love.” While males and females can’t be non-sexual in relationships; we can be non-erotic. Phileo love is friendship love without the “weirdness” – and where we feel safe.
  • My take on the writing and speaking of (Vineyard pastor, author, and speaker) Ed Piorek is his different, and quite helpful, slant on PHILEO love… In attempting to define the Father’s love in the experiential sense we are focusing on his PHILEO – his demonstrated tender affection for us. The PHILEO of the Father for the Son is described in John 5:20. The ministry of Jesus apparently flowed out of a continual experience of his Father’s PHILEO. Within the intimacy of this relationship, Jesus could sense his Father’s presence and hear his Father’s voice, thus perceiving what the Father was saying and doing. Henri Nouwen also speaks to this as he defines prayer as listening for the voice of God who calls you his beloved.
  • C. S. Lewis on PHILEO – Friendship is a strong bond existing between people who share a common interest or activity. Lewis explicitly says that his definition of friendship is narrower than mere companionship: friendship in his sense only exists if there is something for the friendship to be “about”. He calls Companionship a matrix for friendship, as friendship can rise in the context of both. Friendship is the least natural of loves, states Lewis; i.e., it is not biologically necessary to progeny like either sorge (e.g., rearing a child), eros (e.g., creating a child), or agape (e.g., providing for a child). It has the least association with impulse or emotion. In spite of these characteristics, it was the belief of the ancients, (and Lewis himself), that it was the most admirable of loves because it looked not at the beloved (like eros), but towards that “about”—that thing because of which the relationship was formed. This freed the participants in this friendship from self-consciousness.

STORGE (στοργή) –

  • Describes affection and was applied especially to the mutual love between family members. In the New Testament, this word is used in the negative as astorgos, of steárgo (to cherish affectionately) and means hard-hearted toward kindred and is translated “without natural affection”(Rom 1:31 marg.), inhuman (2Ti. 3:3 RSV), unloving (2Ti. 3:3 NKJV) The word is also used in combination with philos. philostorgos (5387), “tenderly loving” (from philos, “friendly,” storge), is used in Rom. 12:10, rv, “tenderly affectioned” (kjv, “kindly affectioned”). (Vine’s complete expository dictionary of Old and New Testament words).
  • C. S. Lewis describes STORGE as affection and fondness through familiarity, especially between family members or people who have otherwise found themselves together by chance. It is described as the most natural, emotive, and widely diffused of loves: natural in that it is present without coercion; emotive because it is the result of fondness due to familiarity; and most widely diffused because it pays the least attention to those characteristics deemed “valuable” or worthy of love and, as a result, is able to transcend most discriminating factors. Ironically, its strength, however, is what makes it vulnerable. Affection has the appearance of being “built-in” or “ready made”, says Lewis, and as a result people come to expect, even to demand, its presence—irrespective of their behavior and its natural consequences.

AGAPE (ἀγάπη) –

  • Describes a unique type of supreme love involving a conscious and deliberate choice to do good for another, a commitment based on the willful choice of the lover, not the qualities of the person receiving the love.
  • This word, interestingly enough, was used quite sparingly by ancient secular Greek writers. It’s original definition identified a kind of abstract virtue out of Greek thought.
  • Over the years, this word has been redefined to describe a different kind of love in relationship to God.
  • AGAPE love is a sacrificial love that reaches out to people who don’t deserve it – a love that puts the interests of others first – a love that forgives and starts over. AGAPE love means caring, forgiving, spontaneous, redeeming love, which is the essence of God’s nature.
  • AGAPE love may be best described in John 3:16, “For God so loved that world that He gave His only begotten Son…”
  • C. S. Lewis on AGAPE, or charity, is the love that brings forth caring regardless of circumstance. Lewis recognizes this as the greatest of loves, and sees it as a specifically Christian virtue. The chapter on the subject focuses on the need of subordinating the natural loves to the love of God, who is full of charitable love. Lewis states that “He is so full, in fact, that it overflows, and He can’t help but love us.” Lewis compares love with a garden, charity with the gardening utensils, the lover as the gardener, and God as the elements of nature. God’s love and guidance act on our natural love (that cannot remain what it is by itself) as the sun and rain act on a garden: without either, the object (metaphorically the garden; realistically love itself) would cease to be beautiful or worthy. Lewis warns that those who exhibit charity must constantly check themselves that they do not flaunt—and thereby warp—this love (“But when you give to someone, don’t tell your left hand what your right hand is doing.”—Matthew 6:3), which is its potential threat.

An acquaintance of mine, Walter Hansen, says this — Much is made about the difference between friendship (PHILEO) love and divine (AGAPE) love, but this is overdone. The words are used interchangeably for Jesus’ love. For example, the sisters of Lazarus sent a message to Jesus to tell him, “the one you love (PHILEO) is sick” (John 11:3). Then the gospel writer tells us, “Jesus loved (AGAPE) Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” The point is that Jesus loved in many different ways. All the words for love in every language of the world together are still insufficient to describe the love of Jesus.

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