We have many words for “coffee”: dark roast, blonde roast, decaf, cappuccino, espresso, iced caramel macchiato, Frappuccino, cold brew, skinny latte … On Valentine’s Day you may have given your sweetheart a gift card to Starbucks instead of flowers or candy — along with a note/card declaring your love for this person. Interestingly, English has a plethora of words for coffee, but only one word for love. Does this indicate the value we place on “coffee” versus “love”?
I don’t know how many words Greek has for coffee, but they have seven words for love: philautia: self love, philia: friendship, loyalty, storge: philia between kinfolk, eros: sexual passion and desire, ludus: flirting, playful love, pragma: long standing love and intimate understanding, and agape: unconditional/selfless love.
Norman Geisler (a contemporary systematic theologian and philosopher) offers this description of the different nuances of these words: “Erotic (eros) love is egoistic. It says, “My first and last consideration is myself.” Philic love is mutualistic. It says, “I will give as long as I receive.” Agapic love, on the other hand, is altruistic, saying, “I will give, requiring nothing in return.”
The ancient Greeks actually feared eros, passions so strong that you lose control and are consumed by the desire to be with another. Think of our more modern sayings of “loosing yourself in love” or “being a slave to love.”
Valentine’s Day tends to most celebrate the loves of feeling for another. Philia, storge, ludus, pragma, and eros all involve our feelings for another — from deep understanding, to warm hearts, to playful attraction, to highly charged connections.
Scriptures are replete with calls to love God, but what if we don’t have warm feelings toward God. What if we forgot to send God a Valentine? How about if we “friend” God on Facebook, will that suffice? We may have feelings for God, but what if we don’t.
There is agape love. Agape love is different than the other six in that it doesn’t require feelings or emotions. Feeling may accompany agape love, and that may be because one of the other loves is also involved. We may both agape and ludus or philia someone, but we can also agape someone that we have no feelings for.
In Latin, agape is “caritas,” from which we get “charity.” C.S. Lewis called agape “gift love”; God’s love of creation, humanity, and you is a gift! Agape is generally assumed to mean moral goodwill proceeding from esteem, principle, or duty — rather than attraction or charm. Agape means to love the undeserving, to love despite disappointment or rejection. While agape has more to do with principle than inclination, it never means the cold kind of love from duty or obligation alone. It is not a forced or obligated love, it is a love of choice.
Not based on feelings, agape is a choice. God chooses to agape us! God may also have warm feelings for us, but even when we totally disregard God, we when torn away and wholeheartedly embrace worldly axioms that are the antithesis of what God desires, God still chooses to love us.
And God desires that we choose to love, to agape, in return. We may love God in a way that does involve feelings. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist tradition, spoke of a “strange warming of my heart.” But if we don’t have such a feeling it doesn’t mean we are lacking in faith or that we are deficient in some manner. In her diary, Mother Teresa wrote that she never felt close to God, she didn’t experience a warming of the heart, or God’s near presence, but she still had agape for God, and those who society had marginalized.
When I was in high school, the junior class sold carnations for Valentine's Day. Some, often the more popular persons, would get lots of carnations. Others would receive none. A group of us pooled our money and purchased carnations for people we thought were not likely to receive a carnation. We didn’t eros these classmates, we probably weren’t in philia with these others either. In hindsight, we just might have ventured into agaping for the first time, without even realizing it.
To agape is a choice. When we agape another it is a choice to honor, to respect, the other as one of God’s creation. We do this irrespective of how the other may act towards us. Agape is not looking for something in exchange or return.
Our creator could have formed us so that we would philia, storge, or ludus God, that we would automatically love God. But, that’s not what God wants. God wants us to choose to love our creator, to choose to honor, to choose to respect, to choose to value. Let us agape God — and those God created.