It is one of the most common experiences known to pastors. A couple wants to get married in your church building and they ask if you can officiate their wedding. As the first premarital counseling session begins I ask the standard question, “Why do you want to get married?” And the inevitable answer every time is, “Because we love each other.”
Fast forward a few years and an individual calls and sets up an appointment for counseling. The problem, they say, is their marriage isn’t working. What do they want to do about it? They want to try to work through the problems. Of course, the difficulty with this is the other person isn’t present. How are we going to reconcile two people when one refuses to show up? I manage to get the estranged husband and wife in my office and I ask them what they want to do regarding their situation. I get the predictable “split decision.” One wants to “work through it,” while the other “wants to end it.” When I ask, “Why do you want to seek a divorce?” the answer seems preordained, “I don’t love them anymore!” So, let’s recap. If “I love you,” is the reason we get married and “I don’t love you,” is the reason we get divorced I find myself singing with Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it? What’s love but a second-hand emotion?” Love is like an empty cup. We can fill it with whatever we want. Think about it. We say things like, “I love my spouse,” “I love my car,” “I love the Cowboys,” “I love my dog,” and “I love Velveeta cheese dip.” Surely we are not equating the love we have for our spouse with the love we have for a football team!
What then is LOVE?
In the New Testament, the writers had many words for love at their disposal. They used the Greek word Eros to speak of romantic love implying the sexual aspect of the relationship between husband and wife. This love is summed up in the old Toyota slogan, “I love what you do for me.” This love is about what I receive from you. This love is like a basic contract that states we will give each other what the other needs. Another word the New Testament writers used is phileo which usually refers to friendship. This love is summed up as “I love you because of …” This love draws a box in the mind and defines the kind of person they will love. When they find that person they have a eureka moment: “I found it!” The problem is this love doesn’t know how to deal with change. What happens when the object of your love changes? Phileo love will say, “I can stop loving you when you are no longer what you use to be.” This is a basic problem experienced in all marriages and many friendships. “I don’t know how to stay in love with you when you change.”
Well, Aristotle offers some sage advice: “If the object of your phileo changes of course your love must change.” What he meant was “If the object you love changes of course your love must die.”We long to be loved with no strings attached. We want to be wanted, not “If we do this” or “Because we do that” or “when” or “on the condition that,” but simply for who we are. Few things are as satisfying as knowing that someone else accepts us without first demanding we change—that we measure up to their standards of what a lovable person should be. Each of us desperately wants someone to see us exactly as we are, warts and all, and still love us and accept us. The thought that someone can remain warmly committed to us even with all our faults exposed is utterly inconceivable—yet we long for that experience. We long to be in relationship with someone who is strong enough to be constant, someone whose love is untainted by even a trace of manipulative self-interest, and someone who really wants us.
God has displayed such a love for us through His Son, Jesus. In Romans 5:8 we read these profound words: “But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him” ( The Message). And here is the word the gospel writers grabbed hold of and used to describe God’s love toward us: agape. Agape love has zero concept of emotions. It has nothing to do with heart and feelings. It always describes behavior. In other words, it is action-oriented. In the first century if you said, “I love peaches,” they would ask you, “What do you do to them?” In Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus said, “You have heard it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (NASB-U). So, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I can say to husbands and wives, “Just treat each other like Jesus said to treat your enemies! Just love each other!”
Expressing agape love is not an act of sentimental feelings, or of sappy emotions, but an act of the will. When my oldest son played football he would come home from two-a-days exhausted. The primary reason was due to the dreaded habit of the coach to have them run what they called “gassers” at the end of each practice (sprinting 100 yards each time the coach blew the whistle). As the coach continued to blow the whistle and guys were dropping out he would yell through the bullhorn, “Gut it out! Gut it out!” He wasn’t asking them to do this from their mind or heart. He was asking them to dig down deep and do it as an act of their will.
Agape love is not touch-feely or romantic in any way. Nor is it a good-old-boy slap on the back kind of love. Agape love would be best defined as “right behavior in the midst of difficult circumstances.” This definition provides a deeper and better understanding of Jesus command to “Love your enemies” doesn’t it? This also gives a different tone to John 3:16, “For God so gutted-it-out with the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” The truth I want God to place in the heart of each person (married or single) is this: It is their responsibility to be a bond-servant to others, which is saying, “I will treat you right…regardless! I will be God’s representative on His behalf in your life as long as you live.” Imagine how this understanding and expression of love could transform and renew marriages, families, church families, and communities. And this is the love Jesus displayed in the Garden of Gethsemane as he cried out, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done” (Luke 22:42, NASB-U). Jesus said in Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (NIV). I know this is in the context teaching about giving and forgiving, however, I would like us to use it as a principle and apply it to agape love. In the larger context of relationships I believe Jesus is saying, “What you invest in you’ll have a heart for.”
Many marriages, families, churches, and communities are broken and fractured because they have pulled out their investments. Spouses don’t cultivate their relationship with each other; parents manage their children’s lives but don’t make time for conversations that matter; Churches get caught up in promoting programs rather than producing disciples; communities have a plethora of activities but neglect the marginal, disenfranchised in their midst.
We often talk about developing “the fruit of the Spirit” in our lives. Paul teaches this in Galatians 5:22-23. But the question is, “How does one develop the fruit of the Spirit in their life?” Well, if you go back a few verses, Paul says in verse 16, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.” Well, that sounds great! That’s real helpful but “How do you ‘walk by the Spirit’?” Again, if you’ll back up to verse 13, Paul teaches, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, through love serve one another.”
We all—husbands and wives, parents and children, family to family—can display “the fruit of the Spirit,” when we “walk by the Spirit,” as we “through love, serve one another.” You do know how to serve one another don’t you? This is what it means to learn to live the love of God. Now, go and do likewise!