Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Perhaps the following is a bit late; it should have been posted before Valentine’s Day, but I’m a slow thinker and didn’t really put my thoughts on the subject together until I became (over)exposed to it by all the talk and TV features.

Cards and candy all speak of love at Valentine’s season. Songs are sung about it. Books and movies and TV shows feature it as a prominent subject. But what is it?

Our English word “love” (noun or verb) has a broad range of meanings, anywhere from strong affection to passion to copulation. It can speak of warm fuzzy feelings or of desire, sexual and otherwise. Love is an ambiguous word and that is what, I suppose, makes the word so appealing and at the same time, so frustrating.

The ancient Greeks had four different words that could be translated by our one word “love.” As with all synonyms, there is some overlap in meaning, but I believe they speak of different aspects of love. All four words are around yet in Modern Greek, though I don’t know if they still have the same nuances. Only the first two words are used in the Greek New Testament. C. S. Lewis devoted a whole book to these, “The Four Loves.”

AGAPE (noun), AGAPAO (verb): The kind of love that God has, that which we are commanded; that which seeks the greatest good in its object (John 3:16).

PHILIA (noun), PHILEO (verb): The love of affection, the love we have for a friend (PHILOS). Jesus loved Lazarus, who was His friend (John 11:3, 11, 36).

STORGE (noun): Natural affection, the love of a parent for a child and vice versa. The word is not found in the New Testament, though its opposite, ASTORGOS, “unloving” is. The KJV translates it “without natural affection.

EROS (noun: Passionate (usually sexual) love; the love of desire. This word isn’t found in the New Testament.

[There is also another New Testament word that enters into the discussion: EPITHUMIA (noun), EPITHUMEO (verb), which is sometimes used simply of desire, but frequently is translated “lust.”]

But what do I mean when I say “I love you” to my wife? Which one of these do I mean?

Our modern culture (what the New Testaments calls “the world”) seems to have disjoined EROS from marriage and the other three “loves.” Sexual desire is promoted in our entertainment and we are bombarded with visual images that seem to be designed to arouse us to lust. Sexual union outside of marriage is considered the norm, while marital sex is often seen as at best a continuation of the same “recreational” activity. There appears to be a disconnect between love and sex. I have been told by some (even Christians) that they see no connection between the two. I guess having sex (what used to be called “making love”) is simply a fun thing for a couple to do together, like playing tennis or bicycling.

So how has the church – the Christian community – responded? I fear that the response has been schizophrenic; we have contradictory attitudes. Let me explain.

On one hand, we’re given the command in Ephesians 5:25ff, “Husbands love (AGAPAO) your wives as Christ loved the church …” and we’re given the extent of that love – He “gave Himself up for her” – and the goal of that love “… that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory.” In other words, Christ loved us enough to die for us in order to make us all we should be; and I am to love my wife that much! This elevates love far above what the world can even comprehend.

On the other hand, however, we seem to have bought the world’s disconnect between love and sex. We have a sort of prudishness that has always seemed to penetrate Christian thinking. Though we may deny that this is the case, it still appears to be that way among many even today. EROS is treated often as though it is something less than real love. Yes, there are books (Christian books) that deal with sex techniques, but even these seem to give the impression that sex is just a means to an end. Throw in the view of some that sex is mainly (if not exclusively) for procreation and we have made EROS less than it is and to a certain extent incompatible with AGAPE.

If I may tell a little story from my experience. Over 56 years ago, when I was a teenager, I saw a girl that I thought was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen. She looked to me like a movie star. I had no hopes of even talking to her, but her face haunted my dreams. Later I met her at school and she smiled at me and of course, my face turned red. What was I feeling? I believe it was EROS, the love of desire, the love of passion.

Later we began dating. EROS was still there. I desired this girl with all the passion my teenage hormones could produce.

But as we continued to see each other, as I just hung around her house, we began to develop a friendship deeper than any friendship I’d known. We could talk for hours. This was PHILIA. Was the EROS still there? Of course! In fact, these two very different loves seemed to merge. I craved her company and didn’t distinguish the reasons why.

Later, when I came to know Jesus Christ, I began to act in another fashion. I began to realize that it wasn’t just about me, it was about her. I believe that the Holy Spirit was producing AGAPE in me. Were the other loves still there? Yes!

Well, we’ve been married for 53+ years and we are still learning. We’ve raised two children and I believe we’ve felt that STORGE for them and for each other.

Now when I tell Uni “I love you,” I believe all four of these are in action. Though she is my closest friend, though I have a close family affection for her, and though (I believe) I desire the greatest good for her, I still desire her. It’s not an either/or.

There is no disconnect between AGAPE and EROS, between love and sexual desire. Sexual love is God’s design for heightening all of our loves.

I’ve been told by some that “marriage isn’t just about sex.” I agree. But sexual love (EROS) is such an integral part of marriage that any marriage that lacks it is suffering from a shortage of love, just as a marriage that lacks any of the other three.


Bill Ball


gary said...

good explanation bill. i heard a simple defination that has kinda stuck. love is doing what is gods best for the other person. this is also saying a mouth full when one thinks about it.

Tom said...

Thanks for a great explanation of love! I came to your site searching for "opposite of astrogos". Thank you very much for Your input.