“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you,” John 13:34
Love One Another – One word does not say it all! In our society, almost everything that we describe by the verb “love” is based on Greek concepts. Our possessive desires (“I love that dress”), our infatuations (“I love fast cars”), our quest for gratification (“I love being rich”), our passionate fixations (“I love my job”), even our identification with relationships (“I love you”) almost always is an expression of either eros or phileo, the two rock-bottom pillars of a Greek worldview. That’s why the New Testament authors, who were thoroughly Hebrew in their thinking, chose the obscure word agape to express the kind of love that does not fit the Greek categories.
Eros is not about erotic love. Yes, it includes erotic sexual attraction, but it is really about the desire to possess. It is “love” that seeks to own, to take and to use. That is not always a bad thing. After all, I love wisdom. I love beauty. I want to make both part of my life. As an expression of possession, this kind of love is focused on me. I am the beneficiary of the action, even if it involves a consensual relationship with another. Eros is a fickle partner simply because eros makes its bed in my heart – and I can’t be trusted. Don’t believe me? Just ask yourself how many infatuations you have experienced (not just about other people), how many passions you have passed through or how many daydreams have ended up nightmares. Eros is the seductive hope of a better self projected onto something outside me.
Phileo doesn’t make it either. Of course, brotherly affection is important. Sometimes phileo is almost used as a synonym of agape. But it is very rarely used to describe love of God. Love of God is most consistently described with agape. Phileo pictures the love I have for those who are like me. It is brotherly in the sense that I share a common bond. Today we might say, “I really like you,” and mean that you and I have a lot in common. It’s the kind of love that belongs to match-making according to “areas of compatibility.” But things change. What we like today is not what we liked ten years ago. That’s why phileo friends drift apart – and, by the way, so do phileo-based marriages. Phileo might be a step away from the self-enhancement eros ego, but it is not strong enough to produce the love that lasts forever.
If you want to understand how agape really differs from eros and phileo, you need only consider one statement from Yeshua: “Love your enemies.” When it comes to enemies, eros and phileo are bankrupt. I simply cannot love those I hate or those who would keep me from being what I wish to be if all I have in my arsenal is eros and phileo. This is why Greek religion could never deliver on the concepts of forgiveness and redemption. The gods could not be permanently placated because they were never really on my side or in my favor.
What can we take away from this little examination? Let’s start here: Who is my enemy? The paradox of life is that my “perfect” enemy is the one given to me in marriage. That person is uniquely placed to prevent me from wasting my life in eros and phileo. That person knows my victories and my failures, my ego excuses and my deflations, my hopes and my fears. There is no other person on earth better equipped to slap away my blind desire to possess. There is no other person on earth better positioned to prevent me from surrounding myself with like-minded admirers. My spouse is the perfectly designed grinding wheel to smooth all my rough edges, even when it hurts.
Now we begin to understand the context of agape. Agape love is displayed by loving the one who has the greatest power to harm and the greatest potential to heal. Why does marriage model my relationship with God? Because it is God’s intention to turn perfect enemies into perfectly united lovers. That’s what He did with us. That’s what we are supposed to do too.
Topical Index: Love