The Five Loves—and the Greatest of These Is Agapē

Luke Timothy Johnson called the church “a messy grace.” The same might be said of marriage—and of all relationships, to varying extents.

This is why love, specifically the divine love known as agapē, is so vital to any successful relationship, especially marriage. Without it, and without intentionality over time, all relationships eventually succumb to entropy and mediocrity.

Dissipation and disordering of love is our natural course when we are left to our own devices. But if we abide in Christ and walk by the power of the Holy Spirit, God can empower us to love in an unnatural—indeed, a supernatural—way that isn’t otherwise possible. It’s the quality of love described by the famous love chapter of 1 Corinthians that is read at so many weddings.

These other human loves are like flowers that can flourish in the garden of agapē.

But before we discuss this higher love, let’s review the other forms of human love. Each of these loves can be elevated to what God intended for each to be when they’re infused with agapē. These first four human loves are like flowers that can flourish in the garden of agapē. By the same token, each also contains the seeds of its own unique form of hatred, when it becomes distorted and disordered. All five of these forms of love are different, and all play a critical role in sustaining the marriage relationship.

Epithumia

This Greek word isn’t on C. S. Lewis’s formal list of “the four loves,” but it’s mentioned in the book by the same name, so I like to include it. Epithumia is used in Greek literature (including the New Testament) and can be translated “desire.” When meant negatively, it’s translated “lust.” In a positive sense, it’s a genuine physical desire or appetite.

Whenever I think of this form of love, I think of an incident when I was young. Sitting at the dining room table, I announced to my parents, “I love chocolate.” To this, one of them replied, “You can’t love chocolate.” They, of course, were thinking about a relational sort of love. But as a boy, I knew I could love chocolate—and I did … and still do (though my tastes have changed, from milk chocolate to now 90% dark chocolate).

Epithumia plays a part in the marriage context, where a physical union is both natural and proper—and dates back to our pre-Fall state:

For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Genesis 2:24–25)

This physical union is an expression of something deeper, a soul connection, which in turn expresses the spiritual union of that couple—and the still higher union of Christ and His Bride, the Church. Our culture today is pervaded by disordered epithumia. Physical union is commonly seen as just two bodies coming together, without any relationship at all. This impoverished view is evidenced by our language (e.g., “hooking up”). It’s also obvious in the films. Watch an older film, and almost always, it takes a while for the first kiss, and still more time for the romance to develop. In recent films, by contrast, the first kiss comes in one scene, and in the very next scene the couple—still virtual strangers—are shown in bed together. There’s no transition whatsoever. It’s a thin view of love, devoid of the richness and realness of a growing desire in the context of commitment.

Before sin and shame entered the world, epithumia, was part of the good creation; it was part of act one in the divine drama of human history. Interestingly, both Jesus and Paul point to this pre-curse, one-flesh union, quoting Genesis 2:25 in Matthew 19:5–6 and 1 Corinthians 6:16, respectively. That we now feel shame physically is a result of the fall. And not coincidentally, many who struggle with lust are also plagued by feelings of shame. Even in the context of the marital covenant, epithumia may be absent or minimized; this can be symptomatic of problem areas that need correcting, such as painful experiences of the past or poor communication in the present.

Thanks be to God, with Christ, our physical desires can be reordered, purified, and even enlarged beyond what we imagined possible.

Eros

Another word for love not used in the New Testament but often used in the Greek literature is eros, from which we get the English word “erotic.” Eros is romantic love, or sexual love, but it goes beyond mere sensual or physical desire. It can be present with or without epithumia. Eros leads to a powerful identification with another person. Two lovers experiencing eros are occupied, even preoccupied, with one another.

This type of love is referenced in the Song of Solomon, where the woman speaks of being “sick with love” (2:8), a love that she says is “better than wine” (1:2). The mutual admiration borders on obsession and reflects our modern understanding of “true love.” Yet, again, the language is indicative. You can “fall in” to this type of love, and you can just as easily fall out of it. The excuse “love made me do it” suggests that we often see this kind of love on the level of a god: as a force higher than ourselves that we simply can’t resist without denying who we really are. This, of course, is a lie straight from the devil.

Eros is a vital component of marriage, but it can’t sustain a marriage over the long haul. After 12–18 months, you better have something richer and more profound than eros. You also need phileo and, above all, agapē.

Storgē

The next kind of love, storgē, is also not used in the New Testament. This love is one of affection or belonging. It’s the kind of love we have for our relatives, simply because they’re family. It’s usually foisted upon us at birth and is not a love that we choose. In fact, most of us, if given the choice, would not choose to love or be friends with our relatives. Personally, I have family members with whom I have almost nothing in common—but I still love them, simply because I grew up with them, and they’ve always been part of my life. (As a believer, agapē love has also infused this natural human love.)

Storgē doesn’t have any illusions of grandeur; it provides a temporary security and a feeling of being comfortable in one another’s presence. This love offers an emotional refuge from the outside world. Home is where you “belong”—and return to—because you’re accepted there.

This is a rich and powerful form of love, but it can become disordered, when, for example, we take family members for granted, or show them disdain. We often do so because they’re “always there,” so it’s easy to miss them as gifts from God or as people to whom we’re called to show His higher love.

Jesus demonstrated storgē when, while hanging on the cross, He hand-selected His close friend John to care for His mother after His earthly death. At the same time, throughout His life, He made clear that this form of love can also be a barrier or stumbling block. That’s because our families and homes can be the very places where spiritual warfare is most intense. We may even be forced to choose Him at the expense of our blood relations (see Mark 10:29–30 and Luke 9:59–62).

Phileo

The next love, phileo, does appear in the New Testament.1 It’s concerned with the love of friendship and companionship. This love is a product of mutuality of interests, time, insights, vision, and experiences. Phileo is sparked when we find common ground with another person; we’re fixed on the same thing(s), rather than on each other as with eros.

Unlike storgē, phileo is a love we choose. These friendships are most profound when they center on “the mutual pursuit of the highest goods: truth, goodness, beauty, and the source of all these goods—God,” as I wrote in my dedication to Rewriting Your Broken Story (2016). I dedicated that book to 12 men with whom I’ve shared the strong bond of phileo, infused by agapē; to them, I wrote, “The things of the inner life become richer when they are held in common with treasured friends.” This epitomizes how God uses phileo to enhance our lives.

Marriage would not be as God designed it without phileo. Common interests are often cultivated while dating, but spouses must continue to cultivate them over time to prevent the closeness in the relationship from eroding. I’ve observed a tendency among spouses to let this realm of overlapping interests narrow as time passes. Relationships are not unlike the second law of thermodynamics: anything left to itself eventually diminishes; useful energy dissipates into disordered energy. The only way to overcome this is an intentional infusion of ordered energy.

Diagram of declining overlap in common interests
With time, the area of spouses’ overlapping interests can decrease if not intentionally cultivated.

Spouses do not need to share all of the same interests (that would be boring!), but couples should recognize the tendency to neglect the commonalities. It’s especially important to nurture these mutual interests during the parenting phase, so that when you’re empty-nesters, you don’t find yourself living with a virtual stranger.

One thing that brought Karen and me together was similar taste (a somewhat eclectic one, I admit) in music and film. When I taught at the King’s College while attending New York University years ago, we had box seats at the Metropolitan Opera. We continue to enjoy opera together when we have the opportunity and just last month attended the Met in HD performance of Puccini’s Tosca (which we followed with a long and stimulating discussion) together. We sometimes cultivate our shared love for foreign films by having little home film festivals (watching a bunch of one director’s movies, for instance). Similarly, we share a love for literature, and I’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy aloud to her. All of these experiences enhance our mutuality, reinforcing every other aspect of our relationship.

When distorted, phileo can be a world of “insiders and outsiders,” as C.S. Lewis describes so well in his essay “The Inner Ring.” Friendships can be a source of pride—evoking jealousy, envy, and other sinful attitudes—a downside to the fact that it’s a love of choice (unlike the humbler storgē).

Agapē

This brings us to the highest of the loves: divine love, or agapē. This is another term used in the New Testament and refers to a love not of emotions or feelings but of the will and of choice. This type of love can be defined as the steady intention of the will to another’s highest good. It is an ongoing benevolence—willing (-volence) what’s good or best (bene-) for another.2


Agape love = the steady intention of the will to another’s highest good


God is the source of this kind of agapē love: “We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). This love is characterized by unselfishness and giving, even to the point of sacrifice. It’s an unconditional love that doesn’t judge based on performance.

This type of love is a tremendous gift and blessing, but sadly, many don’t grow up receiving it. I will sometimes look my grandson in the eyes (and not only on his birthday) and speak this kind of love, echoing God’s own words to His Son (in Matthew 3:17):

“You (Kenny) are my beloved grandson, and I am pleased with you.”

It’s important to use the word “pleased” instead of “proud.” Pride relates to accomplishment, and although there’s nothing wrong with being proud of what your kids and grandkids do, it’s also important to give them the gift of being. To say you’re pleased doesn’t imply perfection, but it does imply they don’t have to change anything for you to take pleasure in them.

And therein—in this unconditional nature of agapē—lies the dilemma, the power, and the pain of marriage. Marriage is two people each making an unconditional covenant of commitment to an imperfect person. Forgiveness will be necessary, because you will let each other down. But you can still love (agapē) each other because it’s a love of choice.

The Five Loves

Epithumia — Legitimate physical desire
(disordered form: lust)

Eros — Romantic love or sexual love
(disordered form: leads to illicit relationships, treating others as gods and sole sources of our personal needs)

Storgē — Affection or belonging, as shared by family members
(disordered form: disdain or ungratefulness; taking for granted)

Phileo — Friendship and companionship, a love of openness that is occupied with common interests and activities
(disordered form: manipulative relationships, one-upmanship, cliques)

Agapē — A willful choice to put another’s interests above one’s own; an unselfish, giving (even to the point of sacrifice), and unconditional love
(with God as its source, it is never disordered; elevates and correctly orders the other four loves, making them human-divine loves that fulfill God’s original intentions)

The Source of the Loves

Agapē shown on the human level mirrors and is powered by God’s own causeless and ceaseless love for us. It’s a love based on His choice to love and accept us while we were still sinners, even when we didn’t deserve it. Colossians 3:12a says we’re “chosen of God, holy and beloved.” Our identity is secure in Him. You can’t choose someone accidentally, and neither did God choose us by accident. Those of us who are in Christ are holy and beloved, no matter if we feel that way or not. The result is a capacity (which we didn’t have before we trusted Christ and received His Spirit) to do what the rest of the verse says: “put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12b).


“He gave us more and better than we deserved, and He now calls and equips us to give others better than they deserve.”


So the basis and pattern for our unconditional love and forgiveness of others is God’s own forgiveness and love for us (“just as the Lord forgave”; Colossians 3:13). He gave us more and better than we deserved, and He now calls and equips us to give others better than they deserve. We have the ability, by His power at work in us, to put their interests above our own, taking the same, humble attitude that Christ had when He took on human flesh (Philippians 2:5–8).

This other-centered mindset isn’t natural. It’s supernatural. And our capacity for it is directly proportionate to our grasp of who and Whose we are. The more we grasp that our security, significance, and satisfaction are found in Him and not in people, the more secure we are.

Agapē transforms relationships, because even if it’s not reciprocated, it doesn’t destroy us. We can still love even when we’re hurt or wronged (even when, as Paul says, we have “a complaint against” someone). It’s a love that is not merely theoretical but is expressed in action. Just think, God didn’t stay in heaven—His love caused Him to give His one and only Son (John 3:16), sent to earth as the most tangible expression of love ever known.

Agapē transforms relationships, because even if it’s not reciprocated, it doesn’t destroy us.

Conclusion

Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. (Colossians 3:14)

Letting God infuse us, our marriages, and all of our relationships with His agapē love is the only way our various human loves will be ordered correctly, elevated, and sustained for the long term—becoming what God intended them to be.

Love as the world defines it is anemic; it’s a thin broth, unable to sustain a robust relationship, particularly a marriage relationship. We need something more. Only divine love provides the proper foundation for a successful marriage, or friendship or other relationship.

Today, will YOU be a vessel of this love of God—letting Him love others in you and through you, as you? When you do, not only will others be changed, but you will change too—becoming more in practice who He has already made you in position: holy, blameless, and acceptable in His sight.

Prayer: Father, thank you for pursuing us, choosing us, and loving us with an everlasting, unconditional love. Your love is causeless, ceaseless, and measureless. Help us to walk in that love and manifest it to others this day. In Christ’s name. Amen.

Put It Into Practice: Be Your Spouse’s Student*
(From A Guide to Practicing God’s Presence)

*Unmarried people can easily adapt this exercise to a roommate, friend, or family member whom they see often.

Out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21), make it your goal to put your spouse’s (or another’s) interests above your own by becoming his or her “student.” Study the things your spouse (or other person) needs, loves, and enjoys (tangibles and intangibles). Then, do one thing that you know will delight, serve, or (happily) surprise him or her. Don’t do it to get something in return, but let God’s delight be your reward as you become the earthly conduit of His unconditional grace, forgiveness, love, and patience.

This article synthesizes material from several teaching sessions on “Biblical Principles for Marriage,” a sub-series of Ken Boa’s Sunday morning series on “Holistic Spirituality” (taught in 2017–2018).

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Note: Some of this content is based on portions of Conformed to His Image (Zondervan, 2001), primarily from chapter 19, “Holistic Spirituality.”

Footnotes

  1. Please note that not every use of phileo or other New Testament words for love (such as agapē or its verb form agapaō) convey the meanings discussed in this article. Language doesn’t work that way. Words often convey a range of meanings and evolve such that two different words that convey the meaning “love” may be used synonymously. Though I am referring to a particular use of these words as defined here, these definitions don’t universally apply to every instance. Agapē doesn’t always refer to divine love (e.g., John 3:19), but I am referring to its use as divine love within this article.
  2. See previous note.