Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Pastoral Concern: Words matter -- the word "love"

One of the mottoes for same-sex unions is "Love is love."  In one way it is brilliant--who can say that it is wrong?  And who could possibly be against love?  After all, "God is love" (1 John 4:16)  And that verse goes on to say, "Whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him."  Christians, particularly in the early Church, were known for their love for one another.  So, the "Love is love" campaign naturally appeals to people's recognition that love is a good thing.  And it also is likely to tug at Christians who are committed to loving God and loving their neighbor.

Unfortunately, the word "love" is quite possibly the most elastic word in the English language.  Consider:
          "I love my wife."
          "I love my children."
          "I love my vacation time."
          "I love my hometown."
          "I love Monday Night Football."
          "I love pizza."
          "I love the sound of rain hitting the roof of the camper."
Love is love, right?  It's all the same, isn't it?  Hopefully, the above list demonstrates that "love" carries with it various shades of meaning.  And the above list does not even delve into the erotic, moral or immoral (e.g., make love, which can be God-pleasing and pure or it can be immoral and perverse according to Hebrews 13:4).

Greek is more helpful in sorting these things out.  It has specific words which define various shades of meaning in the word "love."  The basic ones are agape (ah-GAH-pay), philos (PHIL-us), and eros (EHR-us).

As one might guess, the word eros refers to erotic love.  It is used rarely in the New Testament.  Eros is a love that is rightly expressed only by a husband and wife.  Hebrews 13:4 states that such sexual love is pure within the bonds of marriage.  It is not wrong that people are sexual beings with sexual feelings.  God made us that way.  But God also established marriage between one man and one woman so that such sexual impulses can be exercised as God designed them to be.  Eros is reserved for a husband and wife.  Outside of the marriage bed, God calls it immoral, no matter how much "love" two people feel for each other.

Philos (or the verb phileo, phil-EH-oh) refers to love expressed best in a friendship.  Two people share common interests, beliefs, and respect.

Agape is the word that is most commonly used for "love" in the New Testament.  This kind of love has its goal at seeking the benefit of one's neighbor regardless of that person's alleged worth or response.  This love does not seek what it can get out of people; it only seeks to serve the best interest of one's fellowman.  That does not mean love gives our fellowman whatever he wants.  What he wants may end up being destructive to him.  Agape does not contribute to someone else's destruction.  Agape only seeks what is good and right and decent.

The Bible teaches us to agape/love our fellow man.  We do not have to phileo/love everyone.  Not everyone will end up being our buddy.  But we will agape/love all people, even our enemies--just as God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, and just as Jesus loved us even when we were enemies of his.

If love is to only seek the good of another, then we will always pursue what God has established as his standard of good.  "[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth." (1 Corinthians 13:6)  If love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, neither can love give permission for it or congratulate those who engage in it.  So, even if someone is engaged in wrongdoing, the loving thing is to warm that person of his sin and the judgment he brings on himself for it--no matter what that sin might happen to be.

Love serves God above all things.  Love is eager to hear God's word and follow it.  In turn, such love is shown to our fellowman, seeking his well-being and serving him in his need.  More than anything, our fellowman needs God's mercy; for all are sinners.  More than anything, our fellowman needs to hear about a Savior who was so eager to remove our sins from us that he took them upon himself and died a cursed death for them.  The love of Jesus, therefore, transforms us so that we do not give our sinful flesh what it craves, but that we will honor the Lord who redeemed us by following his word.

Jesus said, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word...   Whoever does not love me does not keep my words." (John 14:23-24)  You cannot love Jesus and the sins that Jesus calls wicked at the same time.  Such love is no love at all, no matter how catchy the motto is.  The love of God is not demonstrated in blank-check permission.  God does not forgive our sins so that we can persist in them.  Forgiveness is not license.  Love is not neglect or rejection of God's word.

"In this is love: not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 4:10)  Such love seeks the eternal good of sinners at God's own expense.  The Son of God died to free us from our sins and guilt, and that is greatest love there is.

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