August 9, 2015

What is Love?

Passage: Ephesians 5:2
Service Type:

What is love? I wonder how many people really know what love is?

A newspaper columnist and clergyman, George Crane, once told the story of a wife who came into his office full of hate for her husband. “I don’t just want to get rid of him,” she complained, “I also want to get even. Before I divorce him, I want to hurt him as badly as he has hurt me.”

After listening to her story, Dr. Crane suggested an ingenious plan to help her fulfill her wishes: “Go home and act as if you really do love your husband”, he said. “Tell him how much he means to you. Praise him for ever decent trait he shows. Go out of your way to be as kind, considerate and generous as possible. Spare no efforts to please him and enjoy him. Make him believe you really do love him.

“Then, after you’ve convinced him of your undying love, and have made him feel you can’t live without him, tell him you want a divorce!”

“That’s brilliant,” replied the anger woman. “I’ll do it.”

For the next two months, the wife showed her husband all the love and kindness she could possible muster. She listened to him; shared all kinds of activities with him; and praised him for all his good qualities. When she failed to report back how things had worked out, Dr. Crane phoned her: “Are you ready to go through with the divorce now?” he asked.

“Divorce?” exclaimed the woman. “Never! I’ve discovered I really do love him!”

Although the woman’s motive had been to destroy her husband, the very practice of pretending to love him, totally changed how she felt about him.

So, what is love? The English language tends to be rather careless in its use of the word ‘love’. We say such things as:

  • “I’d really love a nice thick juicy steak, right about now.” Or, “I love the colour of that dress.”
  • People with a British background often use ‘love’ as a term of address (similar to the word Darling). They’ll say something such as: “How are love?”
  • Two young lovers, on the other hand, look into each other’s eyes, and in a dreamy voice say to one another: “I love you.”
  • Tennis players, use the word ‘love’ to mean a score of zero.

It is very fortunate for us that the New Testament was originally written in Greek; a language that is more precise in its use of words, When it came to ‘love’, the ancient Greeks were very sophisticated in the way they talked about it. In fact, they had 5 different words to describe what in English we casually translate as ‘love’. The ancient Greeks would be shocked by the crudeness of our English language.

So let’s take a moment this morning, to examine the 5 varieties of love which the Greeks described by using different words. Perhaps this will inspire us to move beyond our current addiction to romantic love, - which, (according to a recent study) 94% of young people yearn for, yet frequently fail to find’?

The first Greek word, (as you might expect), was ‘eros’. It’s the word they used to describe sexual passion and desire. It’s the word that would be used for much of what we hear and see in popular media today. It’s what many people yearn for, but often fail to find, - at least in a fully satisfying way.
In our culture, eros is the most popular use of the word ‘love’. But it’s interest that the Greeks often viewed this aspect of love as something that was dangerous and irrational, because it can take hold of a person and possess them in ways that are not always healthy. Eros, you see, involves - a loss of control, and that was unnerving for the Greeks. Strangely in our society, this loss of control is what many people seek, - they want to fall ‘madly’ in love.

The second form of love was ‘philia’, which today we might translate as ‘friendship’. It’s that close bond we experience with someone with whom we share many interests; someone with whom we can confide when we have problems or anxieties. It’s not the same as amassing ‘friends’ on Facebook or ‘followers’ on Twitter. Philia love requires a much closer relationship with another person, than that.

The next word is ‘ludus, which we might translate as ‘playful love’; the kind of affection you might find between children, or very young lovers. We might even use this word to refer to flirting or teasing. It represents a rather superficial kind of relationship with another person.

Pragma, the fourth word describes the love which many of us experience in our senior years after we’ve lived with our spouse for a long time. It’s the affection which exists between couples who have learned over time, how to make compromises in their relationship, and how to show patience and tolerance for their spouse’s short-comings. It’s a love which has endured all the ups and downs of marriage, and has learned coping skills which enrich the relationship with a long time spouse.
The psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, once said that society spends far too much time and energy on ‘falling in love’, and not nearly enough time on learning how to ‘stay in love’. Well, pragma is the love married couples learn over time; - the art of staying in love.

So there we have four different forms of love. To the casual observer, one might think that we have fully described all the many facets of love; but what’s interesting here is that none of these Greek words which we’ve talked about so far, describes what is meant by ‘love’ when we read it in the pages of the New Testament.

Fortunately the Greeks had a fifth word for love. It’s this word which we find consistently throughout the New Testament; it’s the word ‘agape’. It’s by far the most radical of the six forms of love.
Whereas the five previous words for love all involved a certain element of self centeredness; agape is the reverse. It refers to ‘selfless love’; a love which thinks, not of one’s own pleasure or fulfilment, but which focuses upon the fulfillment of other people.

  • It is the way Jesus loved those around Him.
  • It’s a love that reaches out to the sick and the sad; to those who are in need of hope; and to those who are dying.
  • It’s a love which every Christian is called to offer to all those around him or her; whether they be family members, neighbours, strangers we meet along the way, or even our enemies.

C.S. Lewis called agape a ‘gift of love’; and it truly is a gift, because this is the kind of love that is possible only when we draw upon the complete and perfect love which God offers us.
Over the years, I’ve officiated at the weddings of more than 600 couples. When I meet with these young people in preparation for their special day, I almost always talk to them about the meaning of love. Of course, most of them think they already know what love is, because (after all) they are in love with each other. But most of them are thinking primarily of eros love.

To help them understand the difference between eros love and Christian love, I say to them: “Let’s suppose you were to see your fiancée about to be hit by a speeding car. Let us suppose you were close enough to her to run and push her out of the way, even though you would be hit by the car yourself. Would you do it?”

Without exception every groom has said: “Yes, of course I would!” And that’s probably true; - but at that point in their relationship, I don’t think they’d dare to say anything else. But then I say: “Well then, would you do the same thing for a total stranger?”

Of course, none of us can really answer that question. We simply don’t know what we’d do; and we won’t until such time as we are in such a situation. Do you think you’d have the will, or the courage to save someone else at the expense of your own life?

Yet that’s what Jesus did! He willingly and with determination, put Himself at risk in order to save us; everyone of us. He could easily have avoided the excruciating pain and suffering of the cross. He could simply have walked from it. But that’s not what Christ did. In order to show us the magnitude of God’s love and forgiveness; Christ willingly paid the price for our sins, so that we could be forgiven; and so we could experience eternal life.

Many years ago, while I was serving a pastorate in Saskatchewan, I had the privilege of hearing the Rev. Ernest Gordon speak at a conference. His message that day was so moving that I’ve never forgotten it. It provided an illustration of the power of Christian love which I doubt I will ever forget. It was his personal story.

During the Second World War, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp on the River Kwai. During his detention, Ernest witnessed Japanese guards: bayoneting, shooting, drowning and even decapitating some of his fellow prisoners. He, along with all the other prisoners, were: denied needed medical care, starved and worked beyond the limits of human strength. The conditions were so inhumane that many of the prisoners were driven to despair; - a despair that drove them to commit acts of total selfishness, and hatred. It was a dog eat dog kind of existence where everyone was forced to look out only for oneself. The prisoners cursed the Japanese. They stole from one another. In every way they were driven to act like insanely wild animals.

But then in the midst of this hell on earth, something wonderful happened. The living witness of a few of the prisoners, men who were deeply committed Christians, began to change the atmosphere in that camp. It began by one or two reaching out to care for the sick and dying. They’d wash their sores; comfort and feed them. They even shared what little food they had with those who had none; often going without themselves. Some sacrificed themselves by confessing to crimes they’d never committed so that others wouldn’t be shot.

This small group of committed Christians, prayed for the sick and dying. They buried the dead respectfully and they worshipped together. Soon their example began to spread through the camp and others joined them. As time went by, these men, (whose lives had been made so miserable), began to understand and embrace one of Christ’s most difficult commandments; to love their enemies as themselves. Prisoners even gave their own food and water to wounded Japanese soldiers who were often dumped into the camp by their own people.

At the end of the war, when the allied forces came to rescue them, these prisoners saved a number of Japanese guards from being shot. In the words of Ernest Gordon, God had “set our feet on the way to an eternal pilgrimage, and pointed us toward an unchanging goal - to the very source of life and the City of God”

When at last Ernest Gordon was freed, and returned to his home in Britain, you might expect him to be overjoyed because he had survived and was now free to live his life as he chose. But the strange thing is that’s not how he felt at all. I’ll never forget how Ernest described how he felt when he returned to freedom and his home town. As he once again became involved with life in his community, he said “I felt more like a prisoner than I had when I was in that dreadful prisoner-of-war camp on the River Kwai.”

The reason for this reversal of emotions, was that the community of Christians that had surrounded him in the camp had offered him a far deeper love, than anything he experienced in the so-called free world back home.

Now, granted, the physical conditions of the River Kwai camp had been unbearable, but that’s not the point. The problem for Ernest was, that the relationships he experienced back in his home town, came no where near the quality of love and commitment that had been shown to him by that small band of dedicated Christian soldiers in the camp. The love Ernest Gordon experienced in the camp was ‘agape’ love; but in the ‘so-called’ free world all he received was a lesser form of love.

We get another wonderful description of Christian love in action, in the second chapter of the book of Acts, which describes life in the first Christian congregation:

The believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad & sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all people.” (Acts 2:42-46)

With an experience like that, is it any wonder that the text in Acts continues with the words: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Can you imagine how life in our congregation would be transformed if we truly mirrored Christ’s love to one another?