Love is not love unless it becomes flesh

One of the things I acquired from growing up in evangelical youth groups and parachurch organizations was expertise on what love is and isn’t. I imagine it was a trickle-down from C.S. Lewis’s famous book on the Four Loves, which is about the four Greek words for love: agape, eros, philos, and storge. The main thing I remember having drilled into me is stuff like this: “The world says love is a feeling — that’s eros, romantic love, but the love in the Bible is agape, which is a choice.” “You don’t have to like everybody, but we’re called to love everybody.” Etc. I recently heard some words in a sermon at the Virginia annual conference from a Cambodian Methodist preacher named Romy del Rosario that defined what love is and isn’t in a very different way that actually contradicts the evangelical youth group definition.

Romy’s sermon was based on John 21:15-17, where Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and then says “Feed my sheep.” What he had to say about the implications of this text is both brilliant and obvious as soon as you see it:

In our reading this morning from the same Gospel Jesus proclaims that love is truly love if it becomes feeding the lambs, tending the sheep and feeding the sheep.  In other words, love is love when love is mission.  Until then, it may be a feeling, a sentiment, a General Conference resolution, a passion, even a calling, but it is not love—not yet—not quite.  Love is not love until it becomes flesh and shows up among people.

The problem with the way many of us were taught to think about love as evangelicals is that when you pit love as a choice against love as a feeling, then what you end up with is a “love” that is an abstract concept rather than something that becomes flesh and shows up among people. You say, “I choose to love everybody because I’m a Christian,” which renders love meaningless, or “Hate the sin, love the sinner,” which allows you to patronize and disrespect other people as long as you do so in a way that doesn’t involve raising your voice or losing your smile. The word becomes something you use rhetorically in arguments with people you don’t know on the Internet: “It’s because I love you as a Christian brother that I need to warn you that your opinion about this matter will get you burned in hell.”

Love is not an idea; the word shouldn’t even be used as a noun. It should always be a verb that isn’t just a propositional statement (“I love you because I’m a Christian”), but a summary description of how I am actually treating another person (“I loved my boys yesterday by playing soccer with them and reading stories together”). We shouldn’t say we love people that we don’t know; it’s presumptuous and it almost always occurs in the context of rhetorical self-justification (“It’s because I love the people of this country/state/town so much that I have no choice but to…”). Just because you’re Christian doesn’t give you the right to say that you love everybody.

When Christians grow up thinking that they’re experts on what love is and isn’t, they often say things like “Your problem is that you’re defining love the way the world does; the way that the Bible defines love is different.” Well, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 is the most explicit definition of love that the Bible offers:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogantor rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Paul has 15 things to say about love and all of them involve action. To be patient or kind means that you show patience or kindness to other people. If you’re acting envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, or resentful, then don’t you dare use the word “love” in the same sentence. To not insist on your own way means that you enter into conversations with other people assuming that you might be wrong. It doesn’t matter how sweetly you talk to another person if your precondition for speaking to them is that it’s your way or the highway.

Many people delight in evil when they say they’re rejoicing in the truth. If you enjoy sharing information with your friends about the scandalous things that people in the other political party have done for example, even assuming that they’re absolutely true, then what you’re doing is delighting in evil. What does it mean to bear, believe, hope, and endure all things? Those four words seem like the epitome of naivete. They are certainly the opposite of cynicism, which is an area where I have a lot to work on.

In any case, don’t cheapen the word “love” by throwing it around in abstraction. If it’s not something you have backed up with real concrete actions, then it’s not love yet. And don’t talk about how much you love Jesus unless you’re feeding His sheep. Let’s get to it!

13 thoughts on “Love is not love unless it becomes flesh

  1. Pingback: tgif | Many Things

  2. Morgan, this post is great. I agree with your criticism of the false dichotomy —or at least exaggerated tension—between (e.g.) Eros and Agape we both were taught in evangelicalism. The former was always pitted agains the latter as the “bad love” against the “good love,” or the conditional against the unconditional. C.S. Lewis, of course, discusses the “Four Loves” in his now-famous work, but even Lewis cautions that there is an “overlap” between them, so that to compartmentalize them is somewhat contrived or artificial.

    The claim (usually by ministers) that Eros is categorically “bad”—in part because it is conditional or “selfish”—has always bothered me. As a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP), I attended a Pacific Regional Meeting in 1997 (held at Whittier College) at which philosopher Joseph Runzo presented a paper addressing this very topic. His talk was entitled, “Erotic Love and The Love of God.” I can’t recall the entire lecture (and I hope I don’t misquote him), but he suggested that the notion of ‘agape’ arose in the context of Greek and Manichean dualism. In passing, he asked why we should conceive of God exclusively as a husband (male), when scripture gives other hints. His primary thesis was to ask: Why does Eros work as a model for divine love? In attempting to make that case, he discussed six concepts: relationality, vulnerability, surrender, integration, union, and equality.

    Joseph Runzo has published several books, but subsequent to this conference, he and Nancy Martin incorporated his thesis in LOVE, SEX AND GENDER IN THE WORLD RELIGIONS (Oneworld, 2000).

  3. I’ve recently said on my website that I love my fiance but it’s not enough. I tried breaking up with him But perhaps the truth is I don’t love him enough. He coerces me, talks me into things, beats me up over things I am do or say. So no. I don’t love that about him. But when he is loving and tender, when takes care of me and is protective, when he’s fun and engaging, it is easy to love him. He’s talked me into pre-marital counseling to work things out. I’m afraid of being miserable for the rest of my life. He says he sees us as being happy together.

    • I’m not Morgan, but I would say that if your fiance is beating you up, don’t marry him. Nothing you do or have ever done deserves that.

      • “I meant emotionally. Not physically.”

        Still, this isn’t part of a healthy relationship. He should not be beating you up in any way, physically or otherwise.

        Pre-marital counseling is a good idea in this case, but this is raising red flags with me, and I’m just concerned.

        Whatever you decide, be sure to have a strong group of friends and family as well. God bless.

    • Ever read the book Love & Respect by Dr Emmerson Eggerich? His philosophy is that mutual understanding is the key to a successful marriage. I never understood what love meant to my wife until I read this book. I saw her needs through the lens of my needs, and so I was missing it.

    • Nicole, I’m really grateful that you had the courage to be vulnerable here. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I will pray that God will give you wisdom. It needs to be an equal partnership. The question is: can he be wrong and is he willing to submit to you? If he needs to control you and it’s just a question of whether or not he’s benevolent about it, that’s a big problem.

  4. Wow… a whole blog post just for me? I don’t think this was a waste of God’s time at all! (which is a silly statement since God created time and is not bound by it)

    Eph 4:14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;
    15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ,

    Col 2:2 that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself,

    I don’t mean to be patronizing, Morgan. I mean to correct error and encourage your heart in truth.

    “The word becomes something you use rhetorically in arguments with people you don’t know on the Internet”

    I don’t think Paul knew everyone in the churches he was writing to, nor did he limit his preaching to people he knew. Yet he said he loved them, and said he was motivated by his love for them. Writing letters was the ancient equivalent to the internet. He consistently corrected false doctrine through his letters. You may be upset that I said I was motivated by love for you in my comment, and you think we don’t know each other and that excludes the possibility that I could have love in my heart for you, but this isn’t really relevant.

    Col 3:17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
    23 And whatsoever ye do, do [it] heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men;

    From the above, we can see that is possible to love in both word and deed. We are admonished in 1 John 3:18 to love in deed and truth and not only with the tongue. You are in Christ, and I love Christ, therefore it is reasonable that I love Christ in you. Reciprocation is not a prerequisite for love (1 John 4:19). Furthermore it is possible to love you with a brotherly love, not agape love. Additionally, this is as unto the Lord, not as unto you. Believe me when I say, if I didn’t care about you, I’d simply let you persist in your belief that Christ’s death and resurrection were not physical.

    1Jo 4:3 and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the [spirit] of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.

    2Jo 1:7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.

    “It’s because I love you as a Christian brother that I need to warn you that your opinion about this matter will get you burned in hell.”

    I said this (and you paraphrased) because on 99.9% of doctrinal issues, this is NOT the case. You wont’ go hell for believing in evolution, or calvinism, or ultimate reconciliation. But belief in Christ and his physical death and resurrection is an essential.

    1Cr 15:16 For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised;
    17 and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.

    Rom 10:9 That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

    I can’t tell if you truly don’t believe in the physical death and resurrection of Christ, or if you simply don’t want to answer that question because to admit you DO believe in his physical death and resurrection is to admit that Romans 5 and 1 Cor 15 are talking about physical death, and you are too proud to admit you’ve been proven wrong about this.

    ” Just because you’re Christian doesn’t give you the right to say that you love everybody.”

    I agree, and I certainly am not perfect in love. There are many times I blow it and treat people poorly. I know you feel patronized, and for that I apologize. It was not my intention to hurt you by making you feel patronized. Nevertheless, having Christ’s love in me gives me the ability to love others – even those I am not familiar with – not because the love is mine, but because God’s love flows through me – a branch connected to the vine.

    If love is not your motivation for this blog, then what is? Because you want the adoration of 1000 readers per month instead of 500? Or, do you do it ultimately because you feel God’s love for people and you want to show them Christ’s love? Do you know everyone who reads your blog or could be blessed by it?

    While I agree that love is usually an action, there are specific actions which indicate specific love. For example:

    Jhn 14:15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.
    Jhn 14:21 “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.”

    1Jo 5:2 By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments.
    3 For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.

    Following God’s commandments signifies love for God as well as love for our neighbors.

    “In any case, don’t cheapen the word “love” by throwing it around in abstraction”

    Perhaps the same could be said to you – don’t cheapen the word “love” by limiting it narrowly to only works of the flesh, and not words and emotions also. That’s a very male-dominated, chauvinistic view of love. Of those 4 Greek words for love, 3 of them are used in scripture (not just agape). Of the 4, only eros (erotic love) is not used in scripture to describe love. The correct hermenutic is to see which word is used to discern the intended meaning of the passage. For example, when Ephesians 5 says:

    Eph 5:33 Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.

    The word for love here is agape, so we know we are to love our wives unconditionally, apart from their performance.

    Jhn 15:10 “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.

    In this verse, the word is also agape, but it is a noun.

    Tts 3:15 All who are with me greet you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with you all.

    This is word phileo (like Philidelphia, the city of brotherly love). (One wonders if they knew everyone personally here in this verse. )

    “And don’t talk about how much you love Jesus unless you’re feeding His sheep”

    Is the implication here that only ordained ministers can love God, or that you are somehow higher than other followers of Christ because you are a pastor? I suggest a refresher course on “the first shall be last” if that is the case.

    Do you consider writing a blog on the internet to people you don’t know feeding God’s sheep?

    • Have you ever considered writing shorter replies? Frankly, this (and other comments I’ve seen from you) seems to jump all over the place and I have a hard time following you.

    • Your reply here is almost twice the length of Morgan’s original post. Do you think, perhaps, that you’re reading a bit too much into what he said and assuming points he never actually made? Like his stance on bodily resurrection? I think what Morgan was getting at (at least, in part) is that love is better expressed practically than theologically. (For example, showing grace to other people, even those you disagree with, instead of, say, writing up a 1,300 word proof-text attack about them.)

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