What is Love?
"Love" is undoubtedly the most used and abused word when it comes to discussing the ethics of the Bible. Endless studies have been written on the meaning of the various terms translated as "love" in the Old and New Testaments. Yet endless confusion remains about their meaning.
Consider, for example, the Hebrew term hesed, which turns up regularly in the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms. It is typically translated "love" (though sometimes we find the rendering "mercy," as in Psalm 23:6, "Surely goodness and mercy [hesed] shall follow me all the days of my life," in the King James Version). Yet careful study of this term in both biblical contexts and elsewhere indicates hesed has a much narrower definition than the English term "love" conveys.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, hesed refers to a sort of love that has been promised and is owed--covenant love, that is in Hosea 1:1: "When Israel was a child, I loved him and out of Egypt I called my son." Covenant love is the love God promised to give to his covenant people, and which they in turn were to respond with in kind, loving the God of the Bible with all their hearts, minds and strength. Hesed does not suggest some kind of generic love of everyone. Like marital love, covenantal love is given within the context of a relationship where it is already promised and where the recipient is commanded to respond in kind. Covenant love, like marital love, is neither optional nor unconditional; it is obligatory. This is not to say hesed is compelled--just as in a marriage, love cannot be forced--but it is commanded. This love may be freely and graciously given, but, from the biblical point of view, there is no such thing as free love.
It is sometimes difficult for a modern person, who associates love with uncontrollable feelings, to understand how the Bible can command love of God, neighbors, even enemies. But in the Bible the many terms translated as "love" do not refer primarily to feelings. They refer to decisions of the will. This voluntaristic notion of love is recalled in modern wedding services, where the bride and groom say "I do" and "I will" when they are asked to make their vows, not "I feel like it." In the Bible, when God's people are called upon to "love," they are being asked to do something loving and responsive to the love of God, whether they feel like it or not. Consider Matthew 5:44: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven."
In Greek, as in Hebrew, there are several terms for love. Preachers and teachers usually explain that eros refers to physical love, philos to brotherly or sisterly love, and agape refers to some sort of transcendent spiritual or even divine love. Of all these terms, it is agape that has inspired the most sermons and wedding homilies, yet it is probably the least well understood, in part because it does not crop up much outside the New Testament in that period. What, then, does agape really mean?
First, agape is said to be a love that God has for humankind in general: "For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son" (John 3:16). Thus, the term differs from hesed in that it does not refer to a love already promised to a specific group of people.
Second, this term is used not just of God's love for us but also for the human response to this love and can be used for love shared and expressed between human beings (John 21:15, where Jesus asks Peter, "Do you love [agapas] me, more than [you love] these [others]?"). Sometimes agape seems virtually interchangeable with philos. In Matthew 5:43, agape is used to refer to love of neighbor; in Matthew 5:44, quoted above, it is even used to refer to love of enemy. The latter passage makes it very clear that agape is not just a covenant love owed to a particular person or group with whom one is in a committed relationship. No, agape often refers to a more unconditional, even self-sacrificial love. It goes well beyond "love your neighbor as yourself."
Which brings us to the most misused passages of all: 1 Corinthians 13, one of the all-time wedding favorites: "Love (Agape) is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude... " Despite its popularity at weddings, 1 Corinthians 13 has nothing to do with marital love. It is rather Paul's instruction to all Christians on "the more excellent way" in which they should exercise their spiritual gifts. It is part of a discussion that begins in 1 Corinthians 12:1 ("Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed") and continues through 1 Corinthians 14:40. Agape here is the love all Christians should exhibit as they prayerfully and carefully use the gifts God has given them. I recall Professor Victor P. Furnish of Southern Methodist University once saying that agape, whether divine or human, is not like a heat-seeking missile, prompted by something inherently warm or attractive in the "target" audience. It is that sort of other-regarding and self-sacrificial love that John 3:16 (another wedding favorite) says characterizes God, and that should characterize all human beings in their response to God and to others: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son."
First Corinthians 13 is about precisely this sort of love, not marital love, and, as has often been noted, this sort of love has nothing to do with attractiveness or attraction. It is often bestowed on the unloved and the unlovely. It is an expression of grace, which means undeserved and unmerited benefit or favor bestowed on someone. In a world of reciprocity, and "you scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours," such love seems to break the cycle of payback, and reaches a person as a true gift, one that comes without strings attached. This is the greater agape the Bible refers to, and it is surely no exaggeration to say that it is a love humans are not capable of apart from divine example, assistance and enablement.
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