Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Simply Agape

by Jerry Finneman

Scripture explicitly states twice, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). John also wrote, “We love Him, because He first loved us” (1John 4:19). There are those who present an argument attempting to define God by love. This line of reasoning is as follows: God is love; therefore, love is God. Although this is a valid Grecian logical argument, Scripturally, it is not true. It is like the pantheistic argument: since God is life, it follows that all life is God. Both life and love are defined by God; never is God defined the other way around.

Various religious systems teach us nothing but facts about God, which leads to an intellectual religion that shuns any kind of feeling for God. Other systems of religion lead us to believe that in our love we should always feel something, such as a warm glow, a tingle, or some other mystical experience. This is nothing more than facts, feelings, and fiction. We may, or we may not, have factual knowledge and/or experiences and at the same time know nothing of God’s love.

How, Then, Do We Define Love?

The Oxford Dictionary defines love in various ways: “an intense feeling of deep affection” such as babies fill parents with intense feelings of love; a deep romantic or sexual attachment to someone; … a great interest and pleasure in something.” Every part of this definition deals only with one’s emotions. Love may have emotions; but not always, and never is agape defined as mere emotion.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines love as “an intense affection for another person based on familial or personal ties.” This “intense affection” often stems from a sexual attraction for that other person.

We love, or we say we love other people when we are attracted to them and when they make us feel good. The key phrase in the dictionary definition of love is the phrase “based on.” The implication, here, is that we love conditionally. We love someone because he/she fulfills some condition that we require before we can love that person. This condition may come about because of how attractive a person is, or because of good care given to us, or because someone is “fun” to be with.

In the Greek language there are three words used to define different kinds of love. These are philos, eros, and agape. Philos (Philia: fondness) is a friendship kind of love. Eros is based on the attractiveness and the desirability of the one loved, based on self- interest. The term chosen by the New Testament writers to describe God’s love is agape. In Scripture, agape expresses God’s universal, unilateral, unlimited, and unconditional divine love. Agape is distinct from both erotic love and emotional affection shown toward loved ones and friends.

Both philia and eros are expressions of natural human love. These kinds of love are particular, bilateral, limited, and conditional. Human love is mercurial, as well as the other stated adjectives. It is based on feelings and emotions. Just as the temperature can change quite rapidly at times, so our love can change from one moment to the next. This is illustrated for us in the explosive divorce rate in today’s society. Supposedly, the husband or wife stops loving the other. When they no longer “feel” love for their spouse they make a decision to divorce. They go their separate ways when their love dies rather than sticking it out until “death do us part.”

Can we really comprehend “unconditional” love? Even without God’s love in our lives we may observe human love as close to unconditional love that we can perceive. It appears that the love of a mother and a father for their children is as close to unconditional love as we can get. Loving parents do not stop loving their children when they don’t meet expectations they may have for them. The choice is made to love our children even when we think them to be very unlovable. Our love does not stop when we do not “feel” love for them, does it? It is similar to God's love for us. To illustrate this concept further, consider the following: A man professing a Christian experience came down with a serious illness. He became troubled about the little love he felt in his heart for God, and so He spoke of his experience to a friend. This is how the friend replied: “When I go home from here, I expect to take my baby on my knee, look into her sweet eyes, listen to her charming prattle, and tired as I am, her presence will rest me; for I love that child with unutterable tenderness. But she loves me little. If my heart were breaking, it would not disturb her sleep. If my body were racked with pain, it would not interrupt her play. If I were dead, she would forget me in a few days. Besides this, she has never brought me a penny, but was a constant expense to me. I am not rich, but there is not money enough in the world to buy my baby. How is it? Does she love me, or do I love her? Do I withhold my love until I know she loves me? Am I waiting for her to do something worthy of my love before extending it?” This practical illustration of the love of God for His children caused tears to roll down the sick man’s face. “Oh, I see,” he exclaimed, “it is not my love to God, but God’s love for me that I should be thinking of. And I do love Him now as I never loved Him before.”

This concept is understood by those who get to know Jesus. When Lazarus became ill, his sisters, Mary and Martha, sent a message to Jesus. The message was not “Lord, Lazarus loves You and is sick,” but, “Lord, behold, him whom You love is sick” (John 11:3). It is God’s perfect love to us that comforts us, and not our imperfect love for Him.

God's love transcends our human definition of love to a point that is beyond our ability to fully comprehend. While we cannot comprehend it, we can “behold” it (1 John 3:1).

God is Love: How Does God Define Love?

As stated above, we dare not translate Love is God. God is fundamentally and essentially LOVE, not the other way. When the Scriptures say, “God is love,” it is not telling us that God is some nebulous, warm fuzzy feeling of love. The Scripture writers weren't saying that in our limited form of human love we will find God. Not at all—in fact, when we read that God is love in the Bible, it means that God defines love. And when we say that God defines love, we don't mean that He defines it as dictionaries define something—we mean that God is the very definition of love itself.

There is no such thing as love without God. As hard as we might try, we cannot define agape outside of knowing God. This essentially means that our human definition of love is false. God is the Creator of all things, and by His very nature, He is love. God demonstrates that agape is unconditional and sacrificial, and it's not based on feelings; therefore, love is not an “intense affection… based on familial or personal ties.” To understand what true love is and to be able to truly love others, we must know God. We can do this only through a close personal relationship with Him. We can have this closeness with God by putting our faith in Jesus, who was God's sacrifice of love for us.

Again, the Bible tells us “God is love” (1 John 4:8). But how can we even begin to understand this truth? There are many passages in the Bible that give us God's definition of love. God defines by demonstration. The most well-known verse is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” One way God defines love is in the act of giving. However, what God gave was not a mere gift-wrapped present; God sacrificed His Son so that as we put faith in Jesus, we will not spend eternity separated from Him. His love is an amazing and unfathomable love, because while we choose to be separated from God through our own sin, it is God who mends the separation through His intense personal sacrifice, and all we do is accept His gift. Another great verse defining God's love is found in Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Here, as in John 3:16, we find no conditions placed on God's love for us. God doesn't say, “as soon as you clean up your act, I'll love you,” nor does He say, “I'll sacrifice my Son if you promise to love Me.”

The fact of the matter is, in Romans 5:8, we find just the opposite. God wants us to know that His love is unconditional, universal, unilateral, and unlimited in that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us while we were still unlovable sinners. We don’t have to get cleaned up, neither do make promises to God before we can receive and experience His love. His love for us has always existed, and because of this, He did all the giving and sacrificing long before we were even aware that we needed His love.

As we have observed, God’s love is very different from human love. It is not based on God’s feelings or emotions. He doesn't love us because we're lovable or because we make Him feel good; He loves us because He is love. He created us to have a loving relationship with Him, and He sacrificed His own Son (who also willingly died for us) to restore that relationship. In St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, is a life-size, marble statue of Christ writhing in anguish on the cross. The statue is subscribed: “This is how God loved the world!”

In John 3:16, there are two outstanding concepts. One is a statement, the other a demonstration. When God loves, it is this fallen world of sinners that He loves; when He loves, He gives His Son. This is God's love! “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). Both the Father and the Son loved the world so much that They gave everything for it. Everything. From Christ’s rights and privileges as the unique Son of God to His very life! If you want to see the love of God, behold the cross. “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).

“All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ… God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men's sins against them…God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:18-19, 21).

Will you receive God's agape today?

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