The Unique Goodness of Christian Love

Name the religion – Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian or others, you will generally find love prized there. Even among agnostics and atheists you will find people who speak affectionately of love; though they don’t love God, they usually love – at least some, people. Pretty universally we love family and friends. Many even boast of loving their pets more than they do some of their family members. I’ve seen some families where that was altogether understandable. We are creatures that tend to love, to love “love.”Christianity speaks of love in a way not common among human beings or even of other religions. Fail to engage strong Bible teachers in your Christian life, and you may well miss this powerful difference. The power of this unique biblical love is not hidden in our English translations of Scripture, yet there is a notable problem with the translations.The New Testament was written in a day when the Greek language was as common as English is today. The Greek language has four major words that get translated “love” in our English Bibles. And one of those Greek words refers to the kind of love God has for us, the kind of love we have “shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit” when we embrace Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (see Romans 5:5). The noun form of that Greek word is agape. It might be surprising to know that this very prevalent word in the New Testament is rarely found in Greek literature apart from the Bible, and yet it is.Agape love, God’s unique kind of love, is very different from the kind of love represented by the other three Greek words. Let us visit those three words briefly in case you are not familiar with them: Phileo is the Greek word that refers to that familiar powerful love between close friends. In the Proverbs we find reference to a “friend that sticks closer than a brother” (18:24), a perfect example of phileo love. Eros refers to that romantic, even sexual, notably passionate love. Storge refers to a “natural love,” love we normally experience in our family. It is worthwhile to note that this word is only found in the Scripture twice, and in both places, it is a different version of the word. In Romans 1:31 and in 2 Timothy 3:3 we find the word “astorge”; the “a” before the word negates it. Thus, in both places it refers to the absence of storge; people were lacking this natural love of even their own family. And in both places the text refers to a state among human beings where the loss of this “natural affection” was a noted part of God’s judgment falling on humanity. This natural affection, storge, is something reasonably healthy people experience automatically, love for one’s family. As people move away from God, become more hostile toward Him, they often adopt other affections that are destructive, destroying even the “natural love” of family.In those three loves we just visited, what is common is that the love we have is one built on attraction or personal reward. We choose friends, love friends, in large measure by their attractiveness to us (physically and/or personality characteristics). We find them interesting or fun or energizing. Who can miss the personal payoff in eros? And love for our family is automatic for most of us (natural); we don’t have to talk ourselves into it. Have a new baby in your family – love is instant and typically intense. Have a new grandbaby in your life and love is off the charts! This is a love that has an unmistakable personal reward. It is a delightful kind of love related to the object of that love.Agape is different, thankfully different. Agape love is essentially one-way love, from the lover to the beloved. It is not related to the lovableness of the beloved. This kind of love is firmly rooted in the heart of the one who loves. Though a response to this love is undoubtedly desired, it is not required of its function. Clearly, this is God’s kind of love.Listen to these words of Scripture:John 3:16 (NIV) “For 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.” God loved those of us in the world so much that He came to rescue us.1 John 4:10 (NIV) “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” The sending of the Son for us was not a response to our love for God; we didn’t!Romans 5:8 (NKJV) “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Here again we are assured that even the ultimate sacrifice of the Son for our sins was “while we were still sinners,” that is, we were still committed to our sins at the core.1 John 4:19 (NIV) “We love because he first loved us.” This Apostle says that we can only agape because God first demonstrated it to us personally. We were first recipients of it, before we ever dispensed it to others.In all these texts the Greek word translated “love” is the noun “agape” or the verb form of it. Jesus elevated this kind of love to the max. Listen to His words: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43-44 NIV). “Agape your enemies,” He said. It is exactly what God has done. It is the amazing truth of the Gospel which Paul stated unmistakably. Listen: “For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:10 NKJV).This, my friend, is the love that God had and has for you. It predated your love for Him, by a long shot. If you’ve been working hard enough to earn or deserve His love, quit it! NOW! You will NEVER work hard enough. Just humbly accept His love – unearned, undeserved. Be amazed! Then you can work hard because you are loved.Honestly, some of the greatest work we need to do is to learn to love with His love. Listen: even the people we love with those other loves (that are rather natural and seemingly effortless) need this exceptional kind of love shown them – and not just by God, but by us. Family and friends can disappoint and hurt us in sundry ways. You’ve noticed? When they do, our natural ability to love can be very quickly depleted. The good news of our faith in Jesus is that we have a supernatural source – agape, that cannot be depleted.If you have not yet received God’s love in Christ, talk with someone who can help you. It will bless you mightily. Once you’ve received it, grow in your understanding of God’s grace. As you grow, you should learn to utilize this important resource, too. Listen to this apostolic elaboration on the greatness of God’s love, agape love: “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19 NIV). Notice “being rooted and established in agape” is first, then we grow in our “grasp” of the greatness of God’s love. This is normal Christianity.