What Does Christian Love Look Like?

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.”

Smiley Mudd

On Longfellow and Smartphones

I discovered a few weeks ago that the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is (was?) available for free on my Kindle reading device. I immediately downloaded the collection. I had recently read a reference to one of his poems and thought it would be interesting to read it afresh. I was delighted to read again, as if for the first time, his poem “The Village Blacksmith.” Let me refresh you poetic memory:

“Under a spreading chestnut-tree/ The village smithy stands;/ The smith, a mighty man is he,/ With large and sinewy hands;/ And the muscles of his brawny arms/ Are strong as iron bands.”

Now that is quite the description! I can see in my mind’s eye this blacksmith, working his forge. Scenes in the stanzas of the poem describe school children coming by after school to watch the sparks fly as he swings “… his heavy sledge,/ With measured beat and slow,/ Like a sexton ringing the village bell,/ When the evening sun is low.”

Another two stanzas describe his attendance at church every Sunday, where “He hears his daughter’s voice,/ Singing in the village choir,/ And it makes his heart rejoice.”

But then comes the tone of melancholy as the poem continues: “It sounds to him like her mother’s voice,/ Singing in Paradise!/ He needs must think of her once more,/ How in the grave she lies;/ And with his hard, rough hand he wipes/ A tear out of his eyes.”

That stanza is the heart-wringer of the poem for me, though it is usually not quoted as frequently (gauged by the highlighting indicated in my Kindle device). In my mind’s eye, I can see that “mighty man,” rugged and powerful from his days of laborious toil, reaching up with “his hard, rough hand” to wipe “a tear out of his eyes.”

What does this have to do with my smartphone? Over the past couple of years, I have used my phone to keep track of my calendar. It is quite handy, especially since I can synchronize it with my wife’s schedule and the church’s schedule. As long as I put events and appointments in there, I can avoid conflicts of schedule. But that isn’t the real advantage. As I look over my schedule week by week, I am reminded that time is life, and that I don’t really know whether the events I have planned for will really happen.

“Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom,” prays Moses (Psalm 90:12, NIV). “See first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” says Jesus (Matthew 6:33, NIV). Here is where the smartphone calendar comes in handy. We must schedule the things that really matter and not allow other less important things to crowd those out. In this new year, AD 2020, we have a built-in reminder to see clearly what is of utmost importance—what has value that extends into eternity and not just what helps us “feather our nest” or become the top bird in the flock. I suspect the Smithy would have loved to roll back the clock so that he could express his love for his dear wife more directly. Alas, but he could not.

Smiley Mudd