Balancing Acts

tom bby Tom Beutel

How Do I Love Thee?

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” John 21:15 (NIV)

Some things we just take for granted; even in our Christian faith and practice. We understand and affirm certain ideas and practices as a matter of course; they are inherent in our Christian life; they “go without saying.”

Unfortunately, this is too often the case. Certain ideas and practices that are in fact central to our Christian faith and practice, do go without saying; that is we don’t talk all that much about them or examine what they really mean. We casually throw about words and ideas as if we truly understand them, but, when pressed, often have difficulty pinning down exactly what we mean. Forgiveness which we looked at last month is one of these things we take for granted; another is love.

In the exchange that begins in the scripture cited above, Jesus seems to be asking Peter if he loves Him. Jesus asks Peter this question three times, and each time Peter answers that he does love Jesus. But, there is a catch which is not obvious from the English language translations that we all read. In the original Greek, Jesus asks Peter if he “agapes” him the first two times. Peter responds that he “phileos” him; that is, that he is fond of Jesus, that Jesus is his friend.

So, what does this mean? In English we use the word love in a variety of contexts. We loved that movie we saw the other night; we love pistachio ice cream; we love our pet dog, our son or daughter, our spouse; we love God. Surely, we do not mean the same thing by each of these uses of the word love.

The Greeks had four different words for love that captured various nuances and emphases related to love. Briefly, these are:

  • storge:      affection, especially as a parent for an offspring or an offspring for a parent
  • philia:      friendship
  • eros:      romantic love
  • agape:      sacrificial, unconditional, intentional, not based in emotion

In his classic book, The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes and discusses these four loves (the last he refers to as “charity” in keeping with the King James translation of the Bible). One description he gives of storge as affection is:

            a mother nursing a baby, a bitch or cat with a basketful or puppies or kittens; all in a squeaking,

     nuzzling heap together; purrings, lickings, baby-talk, milk, warmth, the smell of young life.

What a word picture of cozy love! What we might refer to as the “warm fuzzies.”

Philia, or friendship, is volitional. We choose our friends, often based on mutual interests, likes and dislikes. Philia was considered by the ancients to be the highest form of love, detached from base emotions which were considered to be of less ascetic value than that which was purely rational.

Eros, which Lewis distinguishes from sexual intimacy, could be described as simply “being in love.” Lewis says of the man who is “in love” (eros), “If you asked him what he wanted, the true reply would often be, ‘To go on thinking of her.'” For those who are familiar with Walt Disney’s Bambi, Lewis’ idea of eros would coincide with Friend Owl’s explanation of two courting birds being “twitterpated.” In explanation, Friend Owl says,

Nearly everybody gets twitterpated in the springtime. For example: You’re walking along, minding your own business. You’re looking neither to the left, nor to the right, when all of a  sudden you run smack into a pretty face. Woo-woo! You begin to get weak in the knees. Your head’s in a whirl. And then you feel light as a feather, and before you know it, you’re walking on air. And then you know what? You’re knocked for a loop, and you completely lose your head!

Finally, agape is that love which is not only volitional like philia, but also sacrificial, intentional, unconditional. It is the love that we most often associate with God as in He “gave His only Son.” It is the love we associate with Jesus’ crucifixion in the sense that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

Thomas Oord defines agape as an “intentional response to promote well-being when confronted by that which generates ill-being. In short, agape repays evil with good.” ( This way of defining agape certainly resonates with peacemakers. Jesus commands us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Paul echoes this in Romans 12:14 where he writes, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse,” and in Romans 12:20, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”

Now, perhaps, we can better understand what is going on in John 21. Jesus asks Peter if he has a sacrificial, unconditional, intentional love for Him. Peter refers that Jesus is his friend. Ouch! But, in reality isn’t that what many of us do, at least some of the time? We say we love God or Jesus, but not wholly, unreservedly, sacrificially (agape). God is our friend (philia). Perhaps we even, in a way, feel affection (storge) for God as our heavenly parent or Jesus as our heavenly brother. But whole-hearted sacrificial love?

Agape is the type of love that the Bible focuses on and, therefore, that our Christian faith and practice should focus on. It is agape that is used in foundational verses such as:

  • Matthew      22:36-40: love God, love neighbor
  • Matthew     5: 43-45:        love enemies
  • John            13:34-35      : love one another
  • I John         4:8             : God is love

It is also agape that is used in I Corinthians 13 which provides a practical description of what Christian love looks like:

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it    is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always    perseveres. I Corinthians 13:4-7 (NIV)

As peacemakers and as Christians, let us resolve to be people of agape love, for God first, but also for others, friend and enemy alike.


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