What is love? It seems like everyone has their definition of love. These differing definitions of love can lead to disagreements, distance, and open hostility. Nowhere is this division more evident than within the Church.
Amidst the pandemic, racism, the Me-too movement, LGBTQ issues, and an election year, is there anything more timely than examining what love is?
To answer the question, “what is love” we will consider LOVE in the English and Classical Greek languages and use what we learned to rewrite 1st Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter, for clarity.
What is love: The Ever-changing English Language.
Part of the difficulty in defining love is that the English language is continually changing. Words fall out of use. The meaning of words change. Words are commonly borrowed from other languages. New words are added every year.
The vast vocabulary and diversity of words available in the English language can bring clarity or confusion to the recipient.
The quest for clarity has led to the creation of dictionaries and thesauruses, many of which are available online. Thesauruses, a writer’s best friend, are used to characterize the distinctions between similar (synonyms) or opposite (antonyms) words. An Urban Dictionary exists for slang words and phrases in common usage but not (yet) in a standard dictionary.
What is love: The Preciseness of the Classic Greek Language.
In the time of the Roman Empire, Greek was the worldwide language of commerce and culture. Does this sound familiar?
The ancient Greeks used multiple descriptive words to define love. They used Eros for romantic or erotic love, Storge for love of family, Philia for brotherly love, and Agape for unconditional love.
Romantic love is the concept with which we are most familiar. A boy meets a girl, the boy loses the girl, and then the boy finds the girl again, and they live happily ever after. Or the sad version where a boy finds a girl, the boy loses the girl, and the girl takes off with the boy’s dog and pickup truck.
Love of family is when a group of individuals bond due to shared biology. They desire to protect and provide for each other. They are present in the joys and sorrow of life.
Brotherly love finds its basis in shared experiences that form a lasting bond. It is like a volunteer family without shared biology. Philadelphia, known as the ‘City of Brotherly Love,’ came from the word Philia.
We instinctively understand romantic, familial, and brotherly love, but we struggle with the concept of Agape.
Agape love is the concept of charity, good-will, or altruism in our culture.
Author C. S. Lewis said, “Agape is the love that exists regardless of changing circumstances.”
Agape is unconditional love. A love not dependent on our performance or worthiness but solely on the character of the one extending that love.
This understanding of Agape takes on added significance when examining the most famous and oft-quoted passage concerning love found in 1st Corinthians, chapter 13.
A recent google search on the phrase, ‘What is love’, returned over ten billion entries.
What is love: Rewriting The Love Chapter
In 1st Corinthians 13, the Greek word Agape is the only word the author uses in this passage. The passage is much clearer with unconditional love inserted where the single word love appears in our translations.
I rewrote and personalized the passage for myself in the hopes that it might bring additional clarity for you as well.
“If I’m an accomplished storyteller and can speak persuasively, but I don’t have unconditional love, I am like a babbling two-year-old or a car alarm in the middle of the night.
If I can accurately predict the stock market’s movement, and if everyone recognizes that, not only am I the smartest man in the room, but I am a bold man of action; but I don’t have unconditional love; I am insignificant.
If I give to those in need and sacrifice my mental and physical health working to provide for my family, but I don’t have unconditional love, I have taken a net loss.
Unconditional love is taking the time to let others act and giving gentle feedback. Unconditional love doesn’t want a new car because my neighbor has one, or brag if I’m the one with the new car.
Unconditional love isn’t so arrogant that it acts with contempt toward others.
Unconditional love is willing to let others make meaningful choices. It will cheerfully attend a sporting event or shopping excursion that wasn’t on my bucket list.
Unconditional love does not delight in lousy behavior but rejoices with the truth.
Unconditional love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things that we experience. Unconditional love never ends.”
I don’t pretend to have all the answers in defining love. But reading this passage, I am convinced that: Unconditional love will cause us to be gracious to others and not allow us to hate or mistreat someone who does not hold our same convictions.
It is difficult to understand how hateful we can be to each other when discussing love.
Call to Action
None of us deserve unconditional love. But God offers it to us freely. Shouldn’t we offer that same kind of love to others who may or may not deserve it?
Amid the pandemic, racial tensions, the me-too movement, LGBTQ issues, and upcoming political elections, what steps can we take to show unconditional love toward those who hold different beliefs and positions?