What is Love?

By Mike Willis

There has been so much written in recent articles pertaining to doctrinal matters that I wanted to take the time to write about one of the Christian virtues in this editorial. I could think of no better virtue to comment on than love; indeed, love is the queen of the Christian virtues. What is love?

The definition of a word can be destroyed by allowing it to become so broad in meaning that it encompasses virtually every meaning in the book. This has practically happened with reference to the English word love. Our word love is used to discuss everything from the sexual union of a prostitute with someone she does not know, one’s reaction to the pleasant taste of a food (“I love ice cream”), and one’s feelings toward his wife to one’s relationship with God (God’s love for man and man’s love for God). With the meaning of the word love so broad as it is, we should not be too surprised to find that many things described as love have nothing whatever to do with the Christian virtue commanded by Paul in many places (1 Cor. 13; Gal. 5:22). The need to properly define the word love is obvious.

Defining the Word

The Greek language had several different words to describe the various shades of meaning conveyed in our English word love. The word eros (from which the English word erotic was derived) is used to refer to the passionate love that is predominate in sexual relationships. The word storgos is the primary word to describe the love that exists in a family. The man who is astorgos is without natural affection; he does not have the proper love toward his family as he should have (cf. Rom 1:31). The word philia refers to the love that is attracted to another because what he sees in that other person or thing is pleasant to him. Kenneth Wuest described philia as this kind of love: it is

a love which consists of the glow of the heart kindled by the perception of that in the object which affords us pleasure. It is the response of the human spirit to what appeals to it as pleasurable …. It is a love called out of one in response to a feeling of pleasure or delight which one experiences from an apprehension of qualities in another that furnish such pleasure or delight (Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, Vol. III, “Golden Nuggets From the Greek New Testament,” p. 62).

Though each of these words suggests concepts associated with love, none of them reach the height of the Christian virtue commanded by Paul in his usage of the word agape.

Let us turn to define this Christian virtue so that we can better grasp its meaning. One of the very first things that we learn about the Christian virtue known as love is that it is not an emotion. Let me emphasize this thought again. Agape does not describe an emotion! There is no ethical achievement when a man sees something in someone or something which gives him pleasure and he responds to that in a favorable way. Something would be wrong with any person who did not respond favorably to that which gave him pleasure. Yet, Christian love is a virtue-a particular moral quality regarded as good; like all other virtues, it must be developed.

Whereas eros, philia, and storgos refer to emotions, agape refers to an act of the will. This is significant. An emotion cannot be commanded. I cannot say to a man, “Hate!” and expect him to immediately start hating someone he has previously loved. Hate is an emotion; it reacts to one on the basis of how one is treated. However, God commands that we love-even to love our enemies. Consequently, agape is not an emotion; it is an act of one’s will.

This agape, this Christian love, is not merely an emotional experience which comes to us unbidden and unsought; it is a deliberate principle of the mind, and a deliberate conquest and achievement of the will. It is in fact the power to love the unloveable, to love people whom we do not like (H illiam Barclay, More New Testament Words, p. 15).

With the idea that Christian love is not an emotion, let us now inquire into exactly what agape is.

The attempts to define the word agape and its cognate agapao are manifold. This love is built on respect and reverence. It is a “reasoning attachment, of choice and selection. . .from a seeing in the object upon whom it is bestowed that which is worthy of regard” (R.C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament, pp. 41-42).

“Agapao” speaks of a love which is awakened by a sense of value in an object which causes one to prize ft. It springs from an apprehension of the preciousness of an object. It is a love of esteem and approbation. The quality of this love is determined by the character of the one who loves, and that of the object loved (bluest, op. cit., p. 60).

As an example of the kind of virtue intended by love, let us consider God’s love for man. The scriptures record, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Anyone familiar with the Bible knows that God did not see anything in this world which gave Him pleasure. He only saw a body of men who had rebelled against His holy commandments and were, therefore, enemies of God (Rom. 5:8-9). What was there in man which could possibly attract God that we should be pleasurable to Him? Nothing! Consequently, we do not read that God had philia toward man but that He had agape. What God recognized was that man had been created in His own image and, therefore, had an immortal soul that was precious in His sight. This was what moved Him to love us-the preciousness of man’s soul.

God’s love for a sinful and lost race springs from His heart in response to the high value He places upon each human soul. Every sinner is exceedingly precious in His sight.

“Phileo” which is another word for love, a love which is the magazine response of the human spirit to what appeals to it as pleasurable, will not do here, for there is nothing In a lost sinner that the heart of God can find pleasure In, but on the contrary, everything that His holiness rebels against. But each sinner is most precious to God, first, because he bears the image of his Creator even though that Image be marred by sin, and second, because through redemption, that sinner can be conformed into the very image of God’s dear Son. This preciousness of each member of the human race to the heart of God is the constituent element of the love that gave His Son to die on the Cross (Ibid., p. 61).

The kind of love mentioned with reference to God is a virtue; it is an act of the will. God’s natural feelings toward those who rebel against His holy commandments would be that of antagonism toward man; yet, He acted, not on the basis of feelings, but on the basis of love. Consequently, He sent His Son to die for us.

Now let us make the transition toward man and the application to ethics. The way which seems most reasonable to make the application is to present a human situation as nearly parallel to that of God’s relationship toward man as possible. In. Matt. 5:43-48, Jesus commanded,

You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy:” But 1 say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you; In order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax gatherers do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Christian love does not shut its eyes to the faults of others. Love is not blind. It will use, rebuke and discipline when these are needed. The love which shuts its eyes to all faults, and which evades the unpleasantness of all discipline, is not real love at all, for in the end it does nothing but harm to the loved one (William Barclay, More New Testament Words, p. 22).

Notice several things regarding the love that is mentioned here. (1) It it directed toward one’s enemies. There are those who try to excuse themselves from obligations to love others because they do not “feel good toward them.” Feelings have nothing to do with the matter. Who ever felt good toward his enemies? Yet, the one who is trying to practice this Christian virtue of love is expected to love his enemies. (2) It is commanded. Jesus did not ask that we “try” to love our enemies; He commanded that we love our enemies. Hence, the love of which we are speaking is not an emotion; it is an act of the will. (3) It is based on respect for that which is precious in another rather than emotions. The natural reaction to one who slaps me on the right cheek is to slap him back. The reaction which the Christian is to give to such an enemy is to turn to him the left cheek also. Similarly, the natural reaction of a man toward his enemies is that of hatred or vengeance. This is precisely the point in which love becomes a Christian virtue. Love is the conquering of the natural reactions toward another by an act of the will as a result of which the man seeks the best for those with whom he associates.

Having understood the nature of love as compared by God’s actions toward those of us who, being sinners, are His enemies, maybe we are better in a position to understand how love is to govern our every action. The Christian virtue of love always seeks the highest good for those to whom it is directed.

There are a good many things which pass for love which are not really love. There is a disposition to treat love toward one’s brother as some kind of sweet, syrupy sentimentalism. Indeed, this is especially true with reference to the comments that some make when it is necessary to rebuke the doctrinal or ethical errors of a brother. Some act as if the man who rebukes the errors of another does not have love for him. This may be true but it is not necessarily true. As a matter of fact, a good many of the rebukes which are made spring from Christian love. The brother recognizes that this brother needs to be rebuked to call him back to the way of truth in the same manner as Paul, from a spirit of love, withstood Peter to the face (Gal. 2:11-14). Paul manifested the spirit of love toward Peter in rebuking him. Had he ignored Peter’s conduct, Peter might have continued in his sin and lost his soul; we do know that Peter stood condemned. Yet, Paul’s rebuke called him back to the way of righteousness; he restored his brother, covered a multitude of sin, and saved a soul from death. We simply must recognize that sometime it is for the best good of a man for him to be rebuked and punished! When it is for the man’s good, the one who loves him will administer such a rebuke and punishment.

We understand this fact about love with reference to parental discipline of unruly children; we need to learn the same with reference to the unruly spiritual children of God.

There are few jobs which I have ever done that required a greater discipline of my spirit than that of going to a brother in sin and telling him that the church would have to withdraw from him if he did not chose to repent. Every fiber in me wanted to ignore the man’s faults and let him go his way. Precisely at this point do I recognize why Christian love is a virtue. It requires the conquering of my personal will to subjugate it to Christ’s will. How different is Christian love from the many things which we mean when we speak of love in our daily conversation.

Truth Magazine XXII: 8, pp. 131-133
February 23, 1978