Love isn’t exactly a church jargon word, but it gets used quite a bit, and God even is defined as love at times. It was a big word for Jesus, and with it he summed up the entirety of God’s Law: Love God and love your neighbour as yourself. Clearly, if you have a grasp of what love is, then you pretty well have all you need to follow Jesus. But grasping hold of love is a good deal more difficult than its spelling.
In Greek, in which the New Testament was written, there are four words for love, each representing a different kind of love. I think most people, when asked to define love, would say it is a feeling or emotion toward another. Three of the Greek words would fall into this category.
Eros is the kind of love we associate with falling in love, which psychologists term limerence, and which often has sexual attraction associated with it. It is that handy tool that evolution provides to guarantee that the species will continue, but it has it problems. First, it is outside our control. Some think it is triggered by pheromones acting through our sense of smell; others say it is an unconscious mental process called projection, in which we are actually falling in love with an unconscious part of ourselves mirrored in the other person; still others describe it as an enlargement of our ego to the degree it swallows up the ‘other’, but we choose neither to fall in love, nor to fall out of it. The second problem is that it is transient, lasting an average of about 18 months. Most people will be familiar with the experience of no longer being ‘in love’ with someone. If another kind of love, a longer-lasting kind, has not replaced eros, then the relationships begun in eros often ends. This is why commitment is a much more important characteristic of marriage than love. One can commit one’s life to another, but one cannot, in all conscience, promise to love someone forever, as we do in marriage ceremonies, if eros is the kind of love we are talking about.
Then there is philos, a word which has become part of many English words, meaning “lover of’ as in bibliophile (lover of books), anglophile (lover of things English) or francophile (lover of things French). This is the kind of love we feel for friends or siblings, e.g. Philadelphia means city of brotherly (adelphos) love (philos). This kind of love is also a feeling or emotion, an affection for another, and although it is not chosen, it is nowhere near as transient as eros. It burns more slowly, but for much longer.
Storge is not seen in writing as often as the previous two forms of love, but it is as least as common, referring to the bond between parent and child. Again, it is an emotion, but one very much part of our nature, sort of hard-wired in our genes.
None of the above is the kind of love of which Jesus taught, however. They all are emotions, and therefore, are not a matter of choice. Like all emotions, they just happen, and we are left with the choice of what to do with them. We cannot promise these forms of love, nor can we ask anyone to promise them to us.
Our only choice to love is through agape. Agape is not an emotion, but is expressed and known through our acts on behalf of another. This love we can promise, and as followers of Jesus we are obliged to do it. But not only are we obliged to act lovingly, in doing so, we discover the reality of God and find ourselves living in the realm of God. In this sense, love is its own reward.
When Jesus speaks of love he is talking about agape, and so it becomes a matter of personal choice and, therefore, responsibility. To love is to act. To choose to act lovingly is to choose God and to choose the kind of life that Jesus called ‘eternal.’