In his little book The Four Loves, C. S. Lewis describes four kinds of love that were identified by the ancient Greeks, using four different words: (1) Storge (two syllables, meaning family affection, affection for the familiar), (2) Philia (friendship), (3) Eros (romantic love), and (4) Agape (three syllables, meaning “love in the Christian sense”). The book is a thoughtful assessment of human relationships and what makes them meaningful—and different—and challenging.
Lewis calls the first three loves “natural loves,” because they are shared by everyone, regardless of their spiritual thoughts or commitments. He shows how each of them can be expressed at their best, and he demonstrates how each of them can go horribly wrong without correction and empowerment by God. All three were celebrated in different ways by the ancient Greeks.
The fourth love, agape, was not really all that popular in Greek thought. It seems to be a word that Christians adopted to express something about Jesus Christ that was not often expressed without reference to God. Agape is a love not based on emotion or on shared experience or viewpoint. Rather, it is a love based on decision. Agape is a choice to value someone else highly and then treat them accordingly. And here is a hint as to why Christians adopted such a word as their go-to meaning of love: “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NIV).
For the followers of Jesus, love is not just an attraction to people who are like us or to those with whom we want to be “up close and personal.” This kind of love is not self-seeking but rather is self-giving.
I just finished a pair of biographies of William Wilberforce, the British Member of Parliament who was instrumental in the abolition of the slave trade (1807) and later the very institution of slavery in the entire British Empire (1833). His central motive to remain in Parliament after becoming a serious Christian was to advocate for those who could not speak for themselves. This applied foremost to African slaves, but later it also included the working poor, prisoners, and children who were often worked to an early death in factories and who lacked education. He profited nothing immediately from his efforts. In fact, he gave away so much of his inherited and earned wealth for the cause of abolition and many other moral reforms in England that later in life he had to sell his estate and move in with two of his sons. He had come to understand what it means to be loved by God—not because we are all that lovable in ourselves, but because of the choice made by God to value us. “We love because He first loved us.”
This is really the heart of the Christian understanding of God and of this sort of self-giving love: “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV). God did not see us as all that lovable. The Christian understanding of sin is that we have all become self-willed. By nature, we tend to use everyone else as means to our own ends. And rather than justly destroying us for this, God instead does something unexpected. He enters this mess Himself and takes the worst the world has to offer—“even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8, NIV). He comes not to condemn but to redeem, to buy us back, to set us free from the tyranny of self-will. In this, He shows us the remarkable nature of His character, a kind of love that is so full it can overflow even to those who are “still sinners”—meaning all of us.
So, this is what Christian love looks like. It looks like the self-giving, cross-bearing love of Jesus Christ, Who was “full of grace and truth” (cf. John 1:14). This is why Christians have been at the forefront in founding hospitals, schools, rescue missions and more. “We love because He first loved us.”