PERHAPS FEW WORDS IN the English language have been used, and misused, more than the word love. Even on the wholly human level, love can refer to the most sublime of feelings and actions of a man or woman for their “soul mate” or for a father or mother for their children. The same word is also often used for frivolous things as a flavor of ice cream or a popular sitcom TV program.
Love is even used as a euphemism for lust. Sexual intercourse is often called making love—and certainly it is in some cases. But perhaps in even more cases such intimate human interaction is more the result of lust than of love. And often when a (young) man says to his female companion, “I love you,” what he really means is “I love me, and I want you for me.”
Love is also one of the most common words in Christian circles. All who have attended Sunday School or heard evangelistic preaching knows that “God so loved the world.” And everyone who knows much at all about Christianity knows that Jesus taught, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But what is similar and what is different between Christian love and the way love is generally talked about in the world?
In other words, what does love mean on the lips of those who are consciously speaking as Christians? And what does love mean when it appears in the Bible—and it is certainly used a lot there: in the New Testament alone, love appears more than 300 times.
The Meaning of Agape
As is widely known, there are different Greek words in the New Testament which are translated love in English. The noted British author, C. S. Lewis, wrote a book published under the title The Four Loves. While others write only about three types of love, Lewis explains that there is a Greek word for family love, another term for love between friends, and a word that especially expresses sexual love. And then there is agape, the word that is used for what is specifically what we might call Christian love.
Most Americans know that Philadelphia is called the “city of brotherly love,” as the name of the city comes from philia, one of the Greek words that means love, joined with the word that means brother. And educated speakers of English know the word philanthropy, which comes from the same Greek word for love and the word for humankind.
The word erotic is also a widely known, and used, English word. That English word, and other similar ones, comes from the Greek word eros, which basically means sexual love. Eros was also the name of the Greek god of sexual love.
Storge, the Greek word for family love, has not spawned any English terms, so it is not so widely known. And even though there are examples of this kind of love in the New Testament, the word itself is not used there. This is the first of the “four loves” discussed by Lewis, and he calls it simply “affection.”
But agape is the word, with its cognates, that is most characteristically used in the New Testament when referring to God’s love of humans or the love expected of Christians for God, for one another, and even for enemies.
The meaning of agape is depicted in various ways. It is primarily defined as unconditional, self-sacrificing, and/or volitional love. Other types of love are based on, or stem from, some condition: the person is loved because he/she is a family member, a friend, or a desired sexual partner. Those types of love generally are self-seeking, bestowed with the intention of being reciprocated by the family member, friend, or partner. But the main point of this chapter focuses on the word volitional, which has to do with one’s will. Other types of love are primarily feelings of benevolence based on the attractiveness of the others as family, friend, or lover. But agape is a matter of the will.
In my seminary days I came across an excellent explanation of the meaning of agape by John Hick, the British philosopher of religion. Hick contrasts eros, which he characterizes as “desiring love,” and agape, which he calls “giving love.” (This idea is similar to that of C. S. Lewis, who distinguished between “Need-love” and “Gift-love.”) Eros is “evoked by the desirable qualities of the beloved,” but agape is “unconditional and universal in its range.” Further, agape “is given to someone, not because she or he has special characteristics, but simply because that person is there as a person. The nature of agape is to value a person in such ways as actively to seek his or her deepest welfare and fulfillment.”
I still consider this to be an excellent description of agape, one that is as good as any other I have ever come across.
Strength to Love
In an earlier chapter, I referred to Martin Luther King Jr.’s book of sermons, Strength to Love. One of the chapters is titled “Loving Your Enemies,” based on Matthew 5:43-45. In that sermon King explains that “love is not to be confused with some sentimental outpouring.” What’s more, this love is “something much deeper than emotional bosh.”
After writing about the difference between the Greek term agape and two other words translated love, the Greek words eros and philia, King then seeks to make a clear distinction between the meaning of the English word like from the meaning of love as a translation of agape.
King notes that Jesus did not say, “Like your enemies”—which is a good thing, King emphasizes, since it is “almost impossible to like some people.” No, in commanding us to love, Jesus was speaking about agape, which is “creative, redemptive goodwill” for all people. Thus, it is entirely possible to love people we do not like.
Many years ago when I was talking about this in a sermon to a small congregation in Japan, one woman started shaking her head in disagreement. In discussing the matter later, she was adamant that loving is basically a feeling we have toward other people and that loving others is the basically the same thing as liking others. But she was wrong, and it is very important to realize that for followers of Jesus loving is not a feeling or even an emotion. It is an attitude and is expressed in action.
Until fairly recently, I ate about every kind of food. Even though I hear I was a rather “picky” eater as a child, that certainly was been the case for decades. But there is one food above all others that I do not like: raw cucumbers. Although I don’t think she did, my mother could have forced me to eat cucumbers; parents regularly devise ways to get children to eat foods that they consider good for them. But what if she had demanded that I like cucumbers? That would have been an impossible demand. Even though she might have been able to get me to eat cucumbers, there is nothing she could have done to make me like them.
So what about Jesus’ commandment that Christians are to love other people, even their enemies? If loving is an emotion, such as liking is an emotion, that would have been a command impossible to carry out, and therefore it would have been meaningless. One cannot command someone else to have certain emotions, feelings, or likes. But attitudes are different. We can change our attitudes by our wills, and we can act on the basis of attitudes in ways that run contrary to our feelings.
If love is an attitude—if, as Hick says, its nature is to value a person in such ways as actively to seek his or her deepest welfare and fulfillment—then, if we choose, we can will to love others, even our enemies. Certainly, that is not easy to do. It is more natural to act upon our feelings.
Hatred is a feeling, and we sometimes act upon that feeling. But Christian love is not a feeling; it is an attitude. Since it is often easier to act upon our feelings than upon our attitudes, though, King wrote helpfully about the necessity of having the strength to love.
Love in Action
Love is faith in action. I make that assertion on the basis of what we read in the book of 1 John in the New Testament. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (3:18). And then there are these provoking words in the Book of James: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:15-17).
We often have feelings of concern or sympathy for other people. We like to think of such feelings as being intimations of Christian love. And they may be—if they lead to action. But it is far easier, and far more common, to have “loving” feelings than to express love in action. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has Father Zosima say that “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Dorothy Day was an amazing woman. It was only after she was an adult, and a mother, that she became a baptized Christian. Subsequently, she grew into a very dedicated believer who, indeed, expressed her faith by works of love, especially for the poor and marginalized people of the country. She is best known for starting the Catholic Worker movement, including the Catholic Worker magazine.
A biography written about Day is titled A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. As was true for many throughout history, Christian love led Day down a hard and difficult path. Love in action truly became a “harsh and dreadful love.” Love for others led her to participate in protests against war-making activities and to demonstrate for peace and justice. She wound up in jail on many of those occasions; the last time she was jailed she was seventy-five years old. None of that activity, though, was for herself; it was love for others, “giving love.”
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a supporter of the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., who was much younger than Day. But he was assassinated twelve years before Day died. And, truly, the love he preached about and the love he put into action was a harsh and dreadful love. From a human standpoint, King did not have to become a leader in the civil rights movement opposed so strongly by the whites in the South. He didn’t have to be involved in the protests and demonstrations that led to his being arrested and jailed several times—even after he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Or, thinking back to one of the greatest saints in Christian history, Francis of Assisi constantly showed love in action after he renounced his father’s wealth and the “cushy” lifestyle he had been enjoying because of that affluence. As his deep experience with Christ produced love in his heart, that love manifested itself not just as warm feelings toward others but in action for the benefit of others.
Love for Francis, too, was a harsh and dreadful thing—especially in the eyes of others. But it was harsh for him at first. He seemed to have a visceral reaction toward lepers, but as he moved toward complete obedience to Christ, love compelled him to greet and even to kiss lepers, those who had so repulsed him previously. And some of his first acts of love after his “conversion” were among the lepers who lived outside the city walls of Assisi where Francis had lived and where he could have continued to live in relative ease. He, as so many other saints through the centuries, knew well that love is much more an attitude and action than a feeling.
Christ’s Command to Love
Earlier in this chapter, I wrote about the difference between loving and liking, pointing out that whereas liking is a feeling, love is an attitude expressed in action which can be commanded. And, of course, more than once Jesus did command his disciples to love. Most clearly, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus declared, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12). There is not much “wiggle-room” here. The command is not only that Christians should love others but indicates also how they must love them. Even more, Jesus goes on to add in the next verse, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
So, far from being only a feeling, Jesus talks about love as an attitude that leads, when necessary, to laying one’s life down for the person loved. That is, truly, love in action. And that is the kind of action we see in Jesus’ love. It has been persistently taught that at the core of Christianity is the atoning death of Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners. Jesus’ love was not just warm feelings toward others. It was a thoroughgoing love which led to the action of dying agonizingly for the sake of others.
Further, even though Jesus did have special affection, it seems, toward some of those closest to him, such as Peter, James, and John as well as Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, the love that led him to the cross was not just for them. It was for all people. That love was even shown for his executioners as he prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Jesus no doubt felt a minimum of affection for his executioners, but that did not keep him from praying for that which was best for them. Jesus’ attitude of forgiveness and his prayer at that time shows the nature of Christian love. And then the death of Christ, broadly seen, is the expression of God’s love toward humanity. In the words of Romans 5:8, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
In addition, consider this statement about love toward the end of the New Testament:
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:9-11).
Yes, clearly, love is more an attitude and action rather than a feeling.
 This figure comes from the online word search of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and it includes words, such as beloved, in which love is a part.
 First published in 1960, Lewis’ book has been published in various editions and is still in print.
 Lewis talks about this distinction from the first page of The Four Loves.
 The Philosophy of Religion (3rd ed.; Prentice-Hall, 1983; the 1st ed. was published in 1963 and the 4th ed. in 1989). Hick (b. 1922) was born in England and taught for many years in both British and U.S. universities.
 First published in 1963, King’s book was re-issued by Fortress Press with a new Foreword by Coretta Scott King, King’s wife, in 1981. Subsequent quotes are from page 50 of the latter edition.
 (Image Books, 1974). The author is William D. Miller (1916-95), who taught for many years at Memphis State University.