The Five Loves
I am no Greek scholar, but I am passing on what I have been taught and what I understand about these words and concepts. I also wanted to make sure that this discussion allows you to get some insight into how to apply this understanding to your life.
So when someone says “I love you,” you can try to figure out what they mean!
Especially what it means that GOD loves you…
and God does love you, by the way.
Language can tell you a great deal about a culture and that culture’s priorities – the Inuit (Eskimos) are said to have nearly thirty words for “ice” which describe various colors, textures, and uses, among other things (I don’t know if this is true or not, by the way). Any group of adults in the U.S. can probably come up with that many words for money.
However, we tend to use the same word to describe many different aspects of another concept: love. We love our mothers, pizza, baseball, spouses and children, all the time using the same word to describe these relationships! The one word: love, cannot be meant the same way in all these situations. To avoid confusion, let’s look at some Greek words that distinguished between some of the very different situations.
- Mania – Manic love is almost not a love at all. The word “lust” is probably not strong enough – “obsession” is closer to the word. This is the love of possession. I “mania” that which I obsessively desire to own. It is generally seen as taking over the “lover” like insanity – thus the connection to modern concepts of madness (kleptomania, pyromania). It is like the opposite of a phobia – an obsessive need to avoid something. “Mania” is translated as “madness” and “beside yourself” in Acts 26.
- Eros – Eros is obviously the root word for “erotic,” but it does not describe sexual love only, it actually describes all emotional love; the feeling of love. Eros love is that insatiable desire to be near the target of this love. The exciting, passionate, nervous feelings that sweep over people in the appropriate circumstances. This is the love that says “I love how you make me feel.” As an emotion, Eros changes, sometimes suddenly. Remember that it is entirely based on circumstances and on the target of its emotion. As an emotion, alone it is morally neutral, however, it can just as easily lead to lust (sinful desire) as it can passion. It is also a good picture to think of Eros as the fruit and flowers of a new relationship. Eros is not a bad thing, but it is also not a “good” thing. The word Eros does not appear in the Bible. I have some more thoughts on the way “eros” thinking affects our interaction with sex and intimacy at eros and sexuality.
- Philos – Philos love, or brotherly/friendship love, is the next kind we will look at. Philos describes the love between two people who have common interests and experiences, or a fondness for. Hemophiliacs apparently seemed to ancient doctors to have a “fondness” to bleeding, for example. Unlike Eros, which pulses up and down like waves on the ocean, Philos steadily grows, like a building being constructed stone by stone. For this reason, when close friends are separated for a while and reunited, they will often say “it is like we picked up exactly where we left off.” Philos is half about the circumstances, and half about the commitment of two people to one another; it says “I love who we are together,” or in case of a non person: “I am fond of this food.” Philos love generally grows over time except in the case of some kind of betrayal. It is commonly used in the New Testament, as in Matt. 10:37, John 12:25, and Revelation 3:19.
- Storgy – We will not spend much time here; storgy is the love one has for a dependent. It is commonly called “motherly love.” It is entirely based on the relationship between the “lover” and the “lovee.” When the dependent is no longer dependent, this love remains only in its emotional remnants. It is one of the stronger loves, because it involves a commitment that relies on only one trait of the receiver – that he or she is dependent. This type of love is toxic to a marriage under normal circumstances. Marriages that look more like a mother/son or father/daughter relationship is moving quickly downhill.
- Agapeo – Agape love is the final of the five loves we look at here. Agape love is entirely about the lover, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the one loved. Agape love, in its purest form, requires no payment or favor in response. The most common word for God’s love for us is Agape (I John, John 3:16) and the love we are commanded to have for one another (Matt. 5:44, I Cor. 13). This lack of input from the recipient makes it possible for us to love our enemies even though we may not like them or the situation they have put us in – because Agape love is not in any way dependent on circumstances; it says “I love you because I choose/commit to.” Unlike eros or philos, Agape creates a straight line that neither fades or grows (!) in its perfect form (which of course only exists from God outward) Oddly enough, even though many people marry out of eros love alone, they make vows that speak of commitment despite any circumstance: richer/poorer, better/worse, sickness/health. This kind of love is about a commitment to the very best for another, no matter what emotions or feelings exist! You can see why in the King James Version of the Bible, Agape was usually translated as “charity.” It is a love freely given, and freely committed to. For a more in depth look at its aspects, look at I Corinthians chapter 13.
I think in America, especially among Christian young people, when a couple talks about “loving” one another they may not really be talking about any of these! It is an interesting phenomenon that Christian couples in particular are hesitant to say “I love you” in a relationship – even after months of dating. Which love are they slow to express? Eros? of course they feel it off and on; Philos? If they have dated months they surely are loyal friends; Agapeo? Since Christ calls us to Agape our enemies, surely a dating couple “desires God’s best” for one another. I think the question is actually more “devotion” and less “love.” What they are hesitating to say is “I devote my foreseeable future to you,” maybe even “I am not ready to separate you too far from the crowd in my Agape for you.” Taking into account the admonition to “guard” our hearts in scripture, I think waiting to commit to this devotion is probably wise, but we may have unwittingly created yet another meaning!
I also regularly hear from a spouse who is no longer “in love” with or has ceased to “love” their spouse. What do they mean, exactly? It is hard to tell. It seems like most of the time they mean that they are not feeling eros love at the moment. A great analogy is to think of these loves as similar to a garden (see the short article on marriage)… Agapeo is like the soil. It can be tended, replaced,
and remember, “tis better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.” – (A. Tennyson “In Memorium”)
For a fantastic and more in-depth discussion of this concept, please let me recommend The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis.
For more good news about God’s love for us, check also a very short and simple way of understanding the good news of Jesus
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