No, this isn’t going to be yet another exposition on 1 Corinthians 13 but rather I’m looking at the meaning of the word love. What it means to us, and what it means to God.
Over recent months there have been a lot of references in our church, during services, during worship, of “loving on Jesus”. To my ears its sounded like a very modern, trendy phrase which personally I felt I couldn’t identify with. Of course I love Jesus, but the phrase seems very human, very intimate, very girl/boy love language and that has troubled me and to be honest I’ve found it a stumbling block.
It has led me to consider what we mean by “loving God” and how we express it, how maybe we SHOULD express it, and why it matters.
Firstly, we are in a relationship with God. Scripture teaches us that God IS love (1 John 4: 16) and therefore we are able to love because He made us in His image (Genesis 9: 6). The suggestion of Adam and Eve walking and talking daily with God in the Garden of Eden shows that God relates to us and wants fellowship with us. Jesus’ sacrifice shows the highest expression possible of Father’s love for us (John 15: 13 Romans 5: 7-8).
We know that in a healthy relationship it is important for each person to tell the other one that they love them. If my husband doesn’t tell me every day that he loves me I don’t begin to wonder if he no longer loves me (though if he went a very long time without saying it, I might) but, still, I like to hear him say it.
It is also important to me that he demonstrates his love for me. Fortunately we are both the sort of people for whom practical expressions are as meaningful (if not more so) than verbal. For example he knows I’ve never really been a flowers kind of girl (I’d rather admire the beauty and scent of a living flower, how it was meant to be, than a cut, dying reminder of what it was!) but I do like to read the New Scientist magazine. He knows I feel it is too indulgent to spend money on it for myself, so he will sometimes bring me home an issue – his way of saying he thinks I’m worth spoiling, that I deserve to indulge in something simply because I enjoy it. He wants to make me happy.
So it is of course with our relationship with God. He knows all things and knows our hearts so it isn’t as if we HAVE to tell Him as He already knows (and it isn’t as if we can pretend we love Him if we don’t really). However, He loves to hear us tell Him, to lift our voices in adoration and praise. It is the one thing (almost the only thing) we can do in return for Him who has done so much for us. Why wouldn’t I want to bless God?! What an amazing thing it is that I can do that!
Likewise, sometimes “actions speak louder than words” and the things that I do – when I listen to Him, when I follow Him, when I do right, when I love others, when I share the Gospel – can show Him how much He means to me.
I still struggle with this focus on loving God in a way that sounds human, not spiritual, though. Many might point me to the book of the Song of Songs/Solomon but to me, that book is simply, beautifully, and astonishingly about the relationship God intended man to have with woman, the mystery of the two becoming one. I think to read it only as an allegory is to miss the point – it’s about sex! It celebrates that union, that mystery, that beautiful gift.
If it was a prophecy or allegory about Christ and His Church (as after all we are His Bride and He is our Groom in the eternal marriage, the perfect relationship as intended between man and God) then why didn’t any of the New Testament writers quote it, refer to it or build on it as they did with the other Old Testament writings about Christ?
I have come to the conclusion (and it is one that is taking hold of me strongly at the moment – other posts will probably mention this again!) that the problem comes with the translations we are using or have grown up with – or maybe simply with the English language..
As we all know, the English word “love” used throughout the Bible is actually translating more than one word in the original text. A fairly quick study through Strong’s of both the Old and New Testaments will show how the depth and and riches of many Scriptures we quote are lost through the use of just one word – love – which means something quite specific to most of us reading it today. That’s why versions such as the Amplified can be beneficial as they help expand upon the meaning of an individual word.
In the Greek of the New Testament there are two different words that have been translated into English as “love”. The most common is “agape” which is used whenever the writer is describing God’s love for us. It is something spiritual, something unique to the relationship between God and man, Creator and created, His Spirit and ours. When we read “God is love” it is agape, or “God so loved the world” that He sent Jesus (John 3: 16) – again, it is agape.
The other word translated as love is “phileo”, which describes our brotherly love for one another, and includes our emotions, a human love (non erotic) rather than spiritual.
1 Corinthians 13 is about agape love and we are told all things but this love will pass away – it alone is eternal as it isn’t a human emotion, but a spiritual expression.
Now that I can deal with! I can agape God, lose myself in agape with Jesus – I can love on Him when I understand this is a spiritual love, when I move beyond the restrictions of the English language and all that word “love” means to me and understand I’m not talking about my emotions. Our love for God (and His for us) is so much bigger than that!
When you understand the differences then suddenly familiar Scriptures come alive with new meaning and new instruction. Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love (agape) God (Matthew 22:37) . Interestingly when He said the second most important was to love our neighbour (Matthew 22: 38) this isn’t written as phileo but agape. The Apostle Matthew had been present when Jesus spoke and he would have been well aware of what he was writing, which means the choice of word was correct to Jesus’ meaning. Beyond phileo – brotherly love – we are called to show to our neighbour (who remember Jesus defines as anyone…) agape love, as defined by 1 Corinthians 13.
It is a process (and a challenge!)
Since your souls have been purified by obedience to the truth through the Spirit unto a genuine brotherly love [phileo], love [agape] one another deeply with a pure heart” (1 Peter 1: 22 MEV)
“For this reason make every effort to add virtue to your faith; and to your virtue, knowledge; and to your knowledge, self-control; and to your self-control, patient endurance; and to your patient endurance, godliness; and to your godliness, brotherly kindness [phileo]; and to your brotherly kindness [phileo], love [agape]” (2 Peter 1: 5-7)