part 3 of a series
"For God so Loved the world..." -John 3:16
"All you need is Love" -John Lennon
"It doesn't really mean anything."
If you grew up in the late 80's-early 90's you were most likely exposed to the movie "Ghost" starring Demi Moore, Patrick Swayze and Whoopi Goldberg. During one scene, Moore's character tells Swayze's character, "I love you" (all the females who loved this movie can now commence with the ooooohing and aaaaaaaahing), to which he replies, "Ditto." She then presses him on why he never says, "I love you" and his answer is about the only line in the film I clearly remember, "Everybody says that, but it doesn't really mean anything."
It doesn't really mean anything. The first symptom of a changed definition is confusion of meaning. The film-writers were on to something, and as is typical throughout history, the arts precede philosophy, and we realized how a word that is so intrinsic to our nature, like "love", can lose it's meaning. We use the word love for everything.
Girls- "I love those shoes with that dress!"
Guys- "I love [insert favorite sports team here]"
Everybody- "I love ice cream!" (seriously, if you don't love ice cream I don't know if you can be American. It's in the Constitution, or it should be)
Then we turn towards our loved ones, people we cherish more than life itself, and we say, "I love you." What we have done, linguistically, is equate that loved one with a bowl of Rocky Road! The definition of love has been so broadened that it has become shallow and meaningless.
The Deification of Emotion
So, what do we do with such a shallow term? Do we discard it as useless? Do we abandon it, as so many other words that have gone before (e.g. when was the last time you heard someone say "forsooth" during a conversation?). No, amazingly enough, we have gone the opposite direction with love, and we have elevated it to a status above any other term.
First, let me point out that love, as it should be defined, does enjoy an elevated status in the Scriptures. Paul wrote an entire chapter on it in I Corinthians, where at the end he points out, "now these three remain, faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love." (13:13). But the love he refers to is not the shallow view of love. It is not the love that "doesn't really mean anything." But it is this shallow, diminished view of love that has been elevated in our culture.
Society has taken the term, "God is Love" (I John 4:8) and has turned it on it's head to say, "Love is God" thus elevating a shallow, emotional feeling to the status of deity. The problems this generates are tremendous. I have seen church-going people use love to justify adultery ("but I love him), overindulging their children ("I will feel that they won't love me if I don't give in"), and even homosexuality, ("God won't condemn our behavior because we love each other.")
But the repercussions of such a view not only generates problems within the church, but outside of it as well. When church leaders take a stand and condemn lifestyles that are forbidden in scripture, whether it is pre-marital sex, cohabitation before marriage, or homosexuality, those leaders are perceived as intolerant, bigoted and even hypocritical. How is this possible? Because the world views us as blaspheming against their god of an emotional and shallow form of love.
True Love Is...
It would be wonderful if I could sum up the definition of love in one sentence. Many have tried and there are some great efforts out there that attempt to do just that. But in trying to form a Biblical view of love, I am confronted by the fact that the ancients used multiple words that are translated today as love. For instance, the Greeks had four words for love:
1. Agape- This is the unconditional love that God has for us. It's a love that says, "no matter what you do, I will love you, even if you don't deserve it." This is the love described by Paul in I Corinthians 13
2. Phileo- A love shared by good friends. The words camaraderie and friendship best describe this love. To the Greek philosophers this, not agape, was the highest form of love.
3. Storge- A familial love. The love you share with your closest relatives.
4. Eros- A physical love- This word is where our English term "erotic" originates.
When we talk about God's love, we mean "agape". When we talk about the love we should have for our fellow Christians, we are talking about "agape + phileo" or "agape + storge". When we talk about the love a husband has for his wife it is "agape + phileo + eros." As you can see, "agape" is the common denominator for the love a Christian is to share, and it is "agape" that we are to share with those outside of Christ.
But this Biblical view of love is not empty emotionalism. No it is something that is active and requires something of us. Read first Corinthians 13 sometime and note how many verbs are used in conjunction with love. Take note of John's command in I John 3:18- "Little children, we must not love in word or speech, but in deed and truth." Biblical love acts, even when it doesn't "feel" like it. This is what will separate us from the world, when we can show love, even when someone is deemed, "unlovable". In fact, that is how we will overcome the false definitions of love that are floating around, we will let our actions speak louder than words.