AGAPĒ Love

It seems to me that the first essential step to expressing Love is to focus attention. To not focus attention is to ignore, and ignoring someone or something is certainly not an expression of Love.

Focusing attention is of course not always enough — putting Love into action may be necessary. But action isn’t always the Loving thing to do. As I watch my daughter learn to walk, frequently the Loving thing to do is to not intervene, to stand back and watch as she figures it out. It’s an artful balance — stepping in when necessary, and staying out of her way when that’s best.

The Greek of New Testament days had many words for the different kinds of Love — all of which are translated as ‘Love’ in your standard English translation. This has resulted in no end of confusion for the English reader trying to understand this central theme of Jesus’ teaching. Two of the most common words for Love in the New Testament are PHILIA and AGAPE. ‘PHILIA’ is along the lines of ‘love as warm feelings’ and ‘AGAPE’ is along the lines of ‘love as commitment’. So PHILIA is what a couple feels on their wedding day, and AGAPE is what gets them through the rough patches.

Observe how Jesus offers the Parable of the Good Samaritan as an elaboration on the nature of AGAPE:

25 And behold a certain lawyer stood up testing him saying: What must I do to inherit eternal life? 26 So he said to him: What is written in the law? How do you read it? 27 Answering he said: You will agape-love the Lord your God in your whole heart and in your whole soul and in your whole strength and in your whole mind, and your neighbor as yourself. 28 So he said to him: You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live. 29 But he wishing to justify himself said to Jesus: And who is my neighbor?30 Replying Jesus said: A certain man came down from Jerusalem to Jericho and fell among thieves, who stripped him and having laid blows they departed leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a certain priest came down in that road, and seeing him passed by on the opposite side. 32 And likewise also a Levite having come by the place and seeing him passed by on the other side. 33 Now a certain Samaritan journeying came by him and seeing him had compassion, 34 and having come to him bound his wounds, pouring upon [them] olive oil and wine, and having put him on his own beast brought him to [an] inn and cared for him. 35 And upon the morrow having taken out two denarii he gave them to the inn keeper and said: Care for him, and whatever you spend in addition I when I return will repay you. 36 Who of these three seems to you to have become neighbor of the [one] having fallen among the thieves? 37 So he said: The one having done mercy to him. Jesus said to him: Be going and be doing likewise.1)

So we see AGAPE in action: the priest and the Levite ignore the beaten man, but the Samaritan focuses his attention on him, and acts in a manner appropriate and necessary in that context. What is essential is that the Samaritan was aware, saw action that needed to be taken, and acted.

In 1 John 4:16 it says “God is agape-Love,” so sometimes AGAPE is described as ‘God’s Love’ but that isn’t necessarily so: in John 3:19 we read “for humanity agape-loved the darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were wicked.” So AGAPE isn’t necessarily goodness and light.

So I think this idea of AGAPE as “attention plus intention (willingness to act)” is on the right track.

So then it’s interesting to think about what this means for a statement like “God is agape-love”. Note that the author did not say “God is PHILIA-love” — agape-love is not about Her having feelings for us one way or the other. Instead, perhaps “God is agape-love” means She is Attention — mindful and present to all of Creation including us. And She acts — or refrains as appropriate — as She is ever mindful of us growing and making progress on our journey to the Celestial City.