“Don’t you just love when it snows?”
“Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, but bears it out even to the edge of doom.” (Sonnet 116, Shakespeare)
“I love fish sandwiches!”
The English language broadly applies love to a whole host of subjects. From a favorite type of pen to a funny Facebook post to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we say “love” to all of them. While we indiscriminately love food and people and pets and trees and cars and playing Wordle, the Greek language offers seven different words for love to better categorize and explain what we mean when we express affection: eros, philia, ludus, storge, philautia, pragma, and agápe.
The first six words define romantic love (eros, ludus, pragma), love between family and friends (philia, storge), and even self-love (philautia). But agape love is bigger.
“Agape” is the Greek word for love that is most often used to describe God’s love. It is an inclusive, altruistic, empathetic, selfless love, a love that doesn’t expect something in return, a pay-it-forward kind of love.
Agape love is defined by Paul in the famous “love” passage of 1 Corinthians 13. So often this passage is read at weddings, and it certainly is the goal of love between two people who are getting married, but that wasn’t the intention of Paul here. This agape love is the love followers of God are supposed to have for all of humanity—neighbors, friends, family, marginalized people, and strangers. It bears reading and repeating, Paul insists that without this love, anything we do isn’t worth anything:
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8 NIV).
That love feels otherworldly doesn’t it? Maybe agape love is too hard for us to do alone, which is probably why God sent his Son, you know, because “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:16-17 NIV).
Peter struggled with agape love, too, and needed Jesus to believe in him. After Peter denied Jesus three times before he was crucified, Jesus asked Peter twice, “Do you agape (love) me?” Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know that I phileo (love) you.” Peter didn’t seem to believe he is capable of agape love. The best he could muster was the love of a friend. The third time, Jesus changed the question, “Do you phileo me?” It almost broke Peter’s heart to be asked all those times if he really loved Jesus. Jesus saw his heart and challenged Peter to put that love into action. “Feed my sheep,” he told Peter. Love grows that way, fueled by the Holy Spirit.
Maybe it’s okay that we have just one word for love in our language. If we love all people and things God made with an agape kind of love, it becomes the umbrella of all manifestations of love in our lives.
God’s love is an everlasting love, an abounding love, a rich love, an unfailing love, a maintaining love, a love that has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep God’s commandments. God loved the flowers of the field enough to clothe them better than Solomon in all his splendor. All of creation is birthed from God’s love, all declared good and very good. And nothing can separate us from that love.
Agape love is God’s love, the love prayed for by Paul in Ephesians 3:17-19, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”
How wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ? Does it reach the farthest stars? Into the deepest ocean? Beyond our boundaries of what we deem loveable? Longer lasting than life itself? Love was there before the first sudden burst of light into the void; love will last beyond the final blink of light at the end of eternity. Can we even grasp it? Is it limited in any way?
Perhaps an indiscriminate love is actually what God wants for each of us to experience. Love the sunrise, the shadow, the orphan, the widow, the brother, the parent. Love your pet and yourself and your God and fish sandwiches. The world was made from love and for love. May you be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God’s love.