What is love in Christianity? In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us the love God has for us and we are called to have for each other.
If you made a list of “The Top 10 Greek Words Normal Churchgoers Know,” agape would be on that list. It’s the word Jesus uses for “love” in his last quote from “the ancients”: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy’” (Matt. 5:43). If the purpose of the Old Testament law was to reveal God’s heart, there’s probably no command that does that more directly than, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).
So, how do you avoid God’s heart on this one? Make your “neighbor” the only one you need to love. “Sure I’ll love my neighbor. But the second he crosses me, he’s not my neighbor anymore, so forget that guy.” People wanted this loophole so badly that they made it part of a proverb: “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”
No rabbi sanctioned hating your enemies. This was street-level stuff. “Enemy” is a visceral, emotional word. Maybe they hate you or you hate them, but somebody hates somebody. Loving my neighbor is fine, but of course I’m going to hate my enemies. That’s what you do.
“Loving my neighbor is fine, but of course I’m going to hate my enemies. That’s what you do.”
But that’s not what God does. Nowhere else in the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus so clear that he is calling people to the heart of God. He wants us to become “sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:45), mirroring his character. And there is nothing deeper to God’s character than love. If we’re going to understand what Jesus is calling us to, then we’re going to have to understand the word “love.”
So . . . deep breaths. Here we go . . .
What is love in Christianity?
We can start with the point everyone makes (and rightly so): Love, particularly agape, is more than just a feeling. Love does things (1 John 3:18). Specifically, love involves selfless action. In fact, it’s not that this action simply doesn’t benefit the one doing it. It costs them something. According to Jesus, the greater the cost, the greater the love (John 15:13). So M. Scott Peck’s definition of “love” (slightly paraphrased) is “the willingness to extend one’s self for one’s own or another’s spiritual growth” (The Road Less Traveled, 81). I like this definition because it distinguishes love from, say, co-dependence, which doesn’t benefit anyone.
“It’s not that this action simply doesn’t benefit the one doing it. It costs them something.”
So, yes, love is not just an emotion. Unfortunately, theologians often seem like they try to cut the emotion out of agape altogether. Good luck with that. Next time you tell your spouse, “I love you,” try substituting that with, “I am mechanically committed to your well-being.”
There goes date night.
That’s simply not how the word is used—either the English word “love” or the Greek word agape. To understand the word, we need to be clear about how love actually works—we could call this the “structure” of love.
What is love in Christianity? Let’s look at love’s structure.
First, you perceive some positive characteristic of the thing loved. As a result, you feel good about that thing. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll call this emotion “affection.” If that’s as far as you get—affection generated by a positive characteristic—that’s eros. It’s more like “desire” or “enjoyment.”
Now, if you have one foot on “positive characteristic” and the other on “affection,” the more you shift your weight toward affection, the more we’re looking at philos. This is a very common word for love. The noun is actually the word for “friend.” It implies a lot of affection, but really not much else. No use in the New Testament puts much emphasis on any action that results from this affection.
“Agape puts one foot on affection and the other on selfless action.”
Action takes things a step further. Agape is the word that puts one foot on affection and the other on selfless action. Yes, agape emphasizes selfless action, but it never takes its foot off of affection. In fact, the word is comfortable putting all of its weight there. Thus, you can have agape toward things—like Pharisees who love the good seats (Luke 11:43) or Demas, who loved the present age (2 Tim. 4:10). Likewise, sometimes agape is synonymous with the very emotional philos (John 11:3/5; 20:2/21:20). There are times when agape clearly emphasizes affection (Matt. 11:12; Luke 7:41-47; 1 Pet. 1:22).
There are, in fact, no verses in which agape clearly doesn’t include affection. Affection is always at least somewhere in the periphery. Agape simply means “affection that generates selfless action.” If you don’t want to imply affection, you use a different word—like “duty” or “service.”
If you don’t want to imply affection, you use a different word—like “duty” or “service.”
So our definition of love as “affection that generates selfless action” fits how the word is actually used, but it raises some problems. The first is that we are temporal beings. Our feelings, including affection, come and go. They make for an unstable foundation. So, to make a serious relationship work, this “selfless action” must become a commitment. The purpose of this commitment is to sustain the selfless action even when we’re not “feeling it.” This is a good thing. It is a virtue. (At least some writers take this to be the exact meaning of storge).
But this human practical reality leads some theologians to say that “love” is “selfless action generated by a commitment.” This may be the best we can do but (a) it ignores most of the ways the word is actually used and (b) it cannot be true of God.
What is love in Christianity? Let’s look at the eternal love of God.
God’s love is not generated by anything prior to it—commitment or otherwise. It’s not the outcome of some more fundamental characteristic of God. It is his essence. As an eternally existing Trinity, God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). As humans, we can’t ground our love in feelings because our feelings come and go. When my internal resources are depleted, there goes my compassion. God doesn’t have that problem. His internal resources are infinite. His affection is eternal, un-generated. For God, love comes first.
“His love makes us lovable.”
Which does something very interesting to the structure of love. The statement “I love you” usually includes the very beginning of the diagram. It often means, “I perceive something lovable in you.” But how could it mean this for God if God’s love is not based on any prior condition? Unlike eros, where affection is the response to the lovable quality, God’s agape works backward. Our lovable quality is a result of his affection. His love makes us lovable. I am lovable because I am loved by him.
So there is no reason to try to keep the emotion out of God’s love. In fact, as we’ve seen, keeping the emotion out of love robs it of its true character. If you remove the affection from love, you will never grasp “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (Eph. 3:18). It’s one thing to say that God is mechanically committed to our well-being. It is infinitely more powerful to say that God actually loves us.
“Our actions are powerless to blunt his affection.”
Even those who hate Him. John 3:16: “God so loved the world” (John’s shorthand for the forces that are opposed to God). Romans 5:8: “God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Our actions are powerless to blunt his affection. God’s love is more like a parent who says to their child, “I know you’re broken, but you’re still precious to me.” And so he gives sun and rain to us all (Matt. 5:45).
What is love in Christianity? Let’s look at the love to which God has called us.
This is the love Jesus calls us to—love that is not contingent and therefore is not limited. Not love that is reciprocal—that loves only those who love us (Matt. 5:46). Not love that is tribal—that only loves our brothers (Matt. 5:47). But love that is universal, complete. Or, as the Greeks would put it, love that is “perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
This love is the command. “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12; 2 Jn 6). This love is everything the law was trying to do (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14; James 2:8). As Christians, we are grounded in this love (Eph. 3:17), and it is the context in which we do everything else (1 Cor. 14:1; 16:14; Gal. 5:6). If we don’t have it, we have nothing (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
“If we don’t have it, we have nothing.”
But the second problem theologians have with the definition of love as “affection that generates selfless action” is that you can’t command a feeling. But this forgets the whole point of Matthew chapter 5—the Kingdom of God is not about rules. It is about taking on the heart of God.
Even so, this is too much. Maybe God has un-generated affection even for those who hate him, but I don’t. For me to love in this way—to have affection for my enemies—would take an honest-to-goodness miracle. Not our culture’s sentimentalized “be the miracle” nonsense. God has to actually intervene in human history and give me his heart.
This is exactly how Richard Wurmbrand processed his experience at the hands of his communist torturers. He does not say that, in the midst of horrifying pain and brutality, he shifted his mindset. He does not say that he eventually mustered all of his faith and piety. He says that, one day, a “miracle occurred.” He suddenly started seeing his torturers through God’s eyes. He saw the humanity in the people who were breaking his body. And they were beautiful. This was not from him, and he knew it.
What is love in Christianity? “He suddenly started seeing his torturers through God’s eyes. . . . This was not from him, and he knew it.”
Jesus wasn’t kidding: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). And what is this fruit? The very next paragraph is an extended discussion about love. By the end, it’s clear: love is both command and fruit (John 15:16-17). All we do, all we can do, is remain in him. There’s no telling how long it might take and what Jesus might need to do in us in order to get us there. But if we are going to love as he loved, we must abide and God must act. There is no other way.