What is This Thing Called Love?

What is This Thing Called Love?

by Larry Thomas


What is love?

Think of all the different meanings we give the little word “love.”

• Love. It’s what makes a Subaru, a Subaru — advertisement
• Me and my girl had some good lovin’ last night — overheard in locker room
• We must love one another or die — W.H. Auden
• Love ‘em and leave ‘em — philosophy of life
• Jesus said, “Love your enemies.” And I’m happy that he didn’t say, “Like your enemies,” because there are some people that I find it pretty difficult to like. — Martin Luther King, Jr.
• God is love — 1 John 4:8
• Love is the whole and more than all — ee cummings
• I’m loving it — McDonald’s advertisement
• I Love Paris — song title
• For the Love of Cats — name of a rescue organization
• I Love you Mommy — YouTube video

In English we make the word “love” do a lot of work by heaping various meanings on it. Other languages have different words for different kinds of love. At the time the New Testament was written, the Greek language had four words for love: phileo, storge, eros, and agape.

• Phileo is affection, kindness, liking, companionable love. It responds to kindness or appreciation.
• Storge is natural affection or natural obligation. It is used to express love between family members and toward pets.
• Eros is erotic love based ultimately on self-satisfaction.
• Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all (in Martin Luther King’s formulation). It is offered without qualification to everyone.

The New Testament uses all of these words except eros, but agape is the term reserved for the love that we are commanded to show towards all people, friend and foe alike.


What is agape?

The Greek “agape” is almost always translated as “love” in modern versions of the New Testament. But, as we have seen, “love” has many meanings in English, not all of which are compatible with agape. It is useful, therefore, to look at some famous New Testament verses with agape left untranslated to emphasize its distinctive meeting. (From The Seven Steps of Agape Prayer by Robert West.)

What better place to begin than with the Apostle Paul’s definition of agape in 1 Corinthians:

“Agape is patient, agape is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but is happy with the truth. Agape puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Agape never fails… . Now faith, hope, and agape remain— these three things— and the greatest of these is agape” (1 Cor. 13: 4-8a;13, CEB)

Paul elaborates in Romans:

“Agape must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with God’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge” (Rom. 12: 9-19a, NIV).

And, of course, the great commandments:

“You shall share in the agape of the Lord your God wholeheartedly, and soulfully, and mindfully.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it. ‘You shall share God’s agape with your neighbor as you yourself [share in it].’ On these two commandments hang all the sacred way” (Matt 22:37-40)

Agape is equal regard for everyone, without exception. Agape must be offered without any consideration of the personal traits, character, or attractiveness of the person to whom it is offered. Agape is to be offered to everyone, without any kind of condition.


What is metta?

During the season of Advent, we will be doing a mediation practice based on the Buddhist metta meditation. The word metta is most often translated as ‘lovingkindness,” but its meaning is closer to “unconditional love.” It is a Buddhist concept that is, as we shall see, very close to the Christian concept of agape. The metta meditation is designed to uncover the lovingkindness that is naturally in the meditator, and then to allow the meditator to radiate lovingkindness to all of creation.

Buddhists believe that all people can manifest metta, but that it has become buried by circumstances and life experience. Similarly, agape is in everyone since we are created in God’s image and the Holy Spirit made a special delivery of agape to all [Romans 5: 5 : “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s agape has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” ]

To see just how close metta and agape are, here is a description of metta from Metta, The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love by Acharya Buddharakkhita:

“The Pali word metta is a multi-significant term meaning loving-kindness, friendliness, goodwill, benevolence, fellowship,amity, concord, inoffensiveness and non-violence. The Pali commentators define metta as the strong wish for the welfare and happiness of others (parahita-parasukha-kamana). Essentially metta is an altruistic attitude of love and friendliness as distinguished from mere amiability based on self-interest. Through metta one refuses to be offensive and renounces bitterness, resentment and animosity of every kind, developing instead a mind of friendliness, accommodativeness and benevolence which seeks the well-being and happiness of others. True metta is devoid of self-interest. It evokes within a warm-hearted feeling of fellowship, sympathy and love, which grows boundless with practice and overcomes all social, religious, racial, political and economic barriers. Metta is indeed a universal, unselfish and all-embracing love. Metta makes one a pure font of well-being and safety for others.”

This sounds a lot like Paul’s description of agape that we looked at before!

Agape and metta are certainly similar, and the practice of metta meditation can certainly be adapted for Christian practice. However, each is has evolved over centuries of tradition and they come from different cultures, so we cannot readily conclude that they are the same. The point here is to note that there is considerable overlap in the Buddhists and Christian traditions, not to say that they are interchangeable.

One obvious difference is that Christians can view the meditation as a prayer to God on behalf of someone, as a blessing mediated by God. In the Christian tradition, agape is a call to action. When possible, agape includes actions aimed at furthering the interests of the person to whom it is offered. And since agape is to be offered to everyone, it leads to social action on the behalf of others.

To learn more, join us for our Agape Sangha meditation class every Sunday morning through December 20, 9:30am-10:15am. 

Photo credit: böhringer friedrich