What is Love?

I’ve been thinking a lot about love lately.  For months, actually.  Do I have it?  Am I getting it and giving it?  Is it really the most important thing in the world?  And on Valentine’s Day, I thought it a fitting topic since love is in the air and on our minds, and though I know I’ve learned a lot about love recently, I know I’m just scratching the surface.  What exactly IS it?

There is a macro and a micro to the “love” question:  What is it in a general sense, and then how does that apply to the individual.  In my humble way I’m going to attempt to flesh it out a little bit.  So let’s do this.  Let’s talk about love, baby.

The ancient Greeks had a pretty good system of categorizing the types of love, five of which I’ll address here.  First there is philia, the love between close friends.  BFF love.  Storge – filed under philia – is the love between parents and their children.  Next comes agape, which is a love for humanity, or a universal sort of faceless love.  I think of it as wanting the best for everyone and having true good will for all people.  Then there is philautia, the love of the self.  There is the bad, narcissistic and destructive kind, and there’s the good, seeing one’s own value, being at peace with one’s self kind.

I wager that when most people are asked what love is, they think of eros, romantic love.  On Valentine’s Day, this is what most people are celebrating if they have it, or feeling annoyed, pissed off or sad if they don’t.  (I guess there are some who are ambivalent, too, and they’re probably watching sports or something.)  It’s sexual passion and desire, the lovemaking scene in the movie when two people rip each other’s clothes off.  And though it’s very cool and exciting for the most part, I think this eros love/adoration is transient and variable, which is why so many people fall out of it and then into it all over the place with all sorts of people.  It’s what we as a society have come to think marriage is and should be based upon, so when it runs out, people get divorced and look for it with someone else. This seems to me like elevated adoration, like when I say, “I love peanut butter,” I mean I adore it and I think it’s awesome and I want it in my life forever.  But what if I get sick on peanut butter someday (God forbid) and then I never want to look at it again?  What if I discover that I have a peanut allergy?  What if I realize it’s full of fat and calories and therefore ban it from my life forever?  Then I won’t love it any more.  I will lose my adoration for it.   This is oversimplified, of course, but I hope you get my point. 

This is where the fifth type pragma comes in, which is putting the action into eros.  Pragma is the long term, hard-fought-and-won love.  This is the love between married people who’ve been together for a long time, who’ve compromised, who’ve worked it out, who’ve stayed with it after the chemicals of eros stopped coursing through their systems 24/7.  My parents are 40+ years into pragma.  My best friend and her husband are amazing examples of this, too.   It’s a blessing to have those couples in our lives we can look to as examples of the hard work and the rewards of it.  They are sadly the exception to the rule. 

So, the Greeks give us the types (thank you, Greeks), and I recognize them, but I still don’t have an answer here about what it actually is.  Since God created everything, including love, I assume he must have the best definition of it.  As a Christian, I’ve been told my whole life that God loves me.  God loves everybody.  And that is agape love, certainly, but the bible has more to say about it.  We hear the following verse at so many weddings, but this is not just for two becoming one.  It’s for the single people, too, and I have been ruminating upon it for months.  (I even have a copy of it taped to my bedroom mirror.) 

 “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV

 I think the first way to approach this passage is to understand that this is the way God loves me.  He is patient with me, never rude or uncaring, he’s always hoping the best for me, enduring all of my sin and my stumblings.  He is rooting for me, always.  Can you really let that sink in for a moment if you never have before?  God is endlessly patient towards us, always hoping and believing the best for us, even when we can’t do that ourselves.  It makes me cry and shake my head with disbelief even now.  It’s kind of unbelievably amazing.  The very expression of this love has also been perfected by the one who created it.  This expression is in Jesus Christ.  Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends”.  To give up all rights to one’s self, even the right to one’s life, is the greatest love.  And Jesus did just that.

The second way to approach this passage is the way my wise friend Tony suggested:  Put your own name in the place of “love”.  For example, “Vanessa is patient and kind, Vanessa does not envy or boast…”  Whoa.  That’s a lot harder.  That means the way in which I am loved by God dictates the way in which I am to love those around me.  And this doesn’t mention anything about my feelings prompting me to be loving.  These are actions, things we can choose to do or not to do.  Hard to do these things on our own, to love so selflessly and so intentionally.  But we aren’t meant to do this kind of love on our own.  We are empty vessels.  When we allow God to love us, and then we let that love change us, then and only then are the actions required of us even remotely possible.  God literally fills us up with his love so that we can pour that love out into those around us.

Which brings me to the third approach to this Godly definition of love - which is the most difficult for me – and that is the good kind of philautia.  Loving myself.  Am I patient with myself?  Am I kind when I make mistakes, or do I berate myself?  Do I believe in all things for myself, or do I tell myself I’m not good enough?  Do I hope all things, or have I let hopes wither because I think I’ll never get the desires of my heart?  This love for ourselves is not the “Greatest Love” (sorry, Whitney), but it is absolutely necessary in order to be whole and to give and receive love from God and others.

So, on a micro level, in response to the question, “Do I have love?” I can definitely say to the Greeks I have zero eros at the moment, and of course no pragma, and I have some progress to make on philautia but I do have it.  Of all the other kinds I am blessed to say that, yes, I do have it.  But I think the Christian must ask him/herself not just, “Do I have love?” but, “Do I have love for God, love for others, and love for myself, and am I growing in this love?”  The passage in Corinthians sheds light on all of my relationships, showing me whether I’m loving and being loved well in these categories.  I can recognize those people in my life who have learned to love beautifully and fiercely, who are further along in their spiritual maturity than I am, and who show me what heights of love are possible on this earth.  I can also have grace for those around me who are small in love because I see my own lack of it and my own need for grace.  Also, if they don’t know how to give it, they probably haven’t been given very much of it, so all the more reason to give them as much as I can.  My friend Pamela – who is a spiritual giant in love – said that without love, spiritual growth is impossible.  Until we learn this kind of Jesus love, we will always remain needy, hungry, emotionally stunted babies spiritually.  (Though loved by God in any case, which is just endlessly cool to me.)      

Whether you’re celebrating with your eros or pragma kind of love today or not, I hope your eyes are opened to the love that you do have.  To what love really is.  On this Valentine’s Day, love abounds, and more than just the kissy face kind.  Let’s be intentional about our love, and have open arms to receive it in whatever form God gives it to us.