What Does It Mean When You Say “I Love You”?

Love! What a confusing word in the English language and particularly in our contemporary usage. For example, I love to play with Engine 4900 on my model railroad. I love the way my wife has decorated our home. I love the fact that God has called me to the biblical counseling ministry. But, most of all, I love my wife, Pam. You see, the way we use the word puts Pam and Engine 4900 in the same category. Now, you know that is not what I intend. But, think of children growing up in this culture. How do they learn to distinguish these usages? The fact is a large segment of the population does not!

The second observation here would be this. The way I used the word even in reference to Pam was an expression of emotion. This should not be a surprise since in our culture love is always associated with emotion unless you are listening to a preacher explain the Greek word agape. The reason you might hear the preacher making this distinction is because the Greek language is much more sophisticated when it comes to linguistic nuances than is English. English makes a great trade language, but is lacking when it comes to discussing relationships.

Greek has four major words for love. Philia is the origin our word Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love. This word is used to describe sibling and friendship relationships. It looks at a growing depth in the relationship. Eros is the Greek word used to describe sexual love. We get our word erotic from eros. Yet, the word is not purely sexual, but describes an insatiable desire to be near the target of this love. Hence, it looks at passion towards another. Storge is used to describe the love of a mother for a child. The focus is on affection towards one who is dependent. This would be one dimension of love in a healthy marriage where the mates have developed interdependence.

Last, there is the word agape. This love is about the lover. It is not dependent upon the object of the love. This is pure love. It requires no payment, no favor, and no obligation. This is the word that describes the love of God for mankind expressed in the self-sacrifice of His son, Jesus Christ, on the cross (John 3:16). This lack of input from the recipient makes it possible for us to love our enemies even though we may not like them [I asked one counselee, “Is your wife your enemy?” He responded, “Yes!” I answered,” Good, since God commands you to love your enemy you can love your wife.”] Regardless of the situation someone has put us in we can love them because agape love is not in any way dependent on circumstances; it says “I love you because I choose/commit to do so.”

Since English has but one word, we must nuance it when we speak of love in marriage. From a Christian perspective all these dimensions of love are essential in the marriage, but the primary one is agape. Obviously romance and erotic love is important (S of S 4:9-10). But, before this phase of love can be freely and fully enjoyed by both partners, agape must be operative.

Agape love requires three steps and provides the fruits thereof. First, it requires a choice. Perhaps this is best illustrated by my Korean friend. He told me he was going home for Christmas to get married. I indicated that I was unaware that he was in a serious relationship. He then explained that his parents had committed him to an arranged marriage when he was a very young child. He then told me that he had never meant the woman. “You see,” he said, “in American you fall in love and then get married, but in my heritage you get married by making a commitment to love and then you fall in love.” Certainly an arranged marriage was unusual even 40 years ago when he shared this with me, but it illustrates very well the choice factor in agape love.

Second, it requires a decision. My friend not only made the choice but a decision. He could choose to marry this woman, but not make the decision to love her. This decision means that we will engage our energies in the process. It means we will follow through regardless of the difficulties that arise—like a mate developing a bitter spirit over something and treating me like dirt. In other words, this decision may also be called commitment.

Third, agape requires action. In a marriage it means that I will take action appropriate to your best interest even if it is detrimental to me—like Jesus dying on a cross! As I write this, my wife is on a plane returning home. She has kept the “home fires burning” on many occasions while I have traveled for business or pleasure. But, she has never gone away for something for her in fifty years of marriage. She has traveled on a mission trip, but nothing personal. A lifelong friend invited her to spend a week in Florida with her. Pam told me she would like to go, but was obviously reluctant to do so. She was hesitant to leave me for a week just for her pleasure. I encouraged her to go. At least three times she thanked me. My love action was to give her the freedom and the means to go. As Staples would say, “That was easy.” Love action is not always that easy. The woman who chooses to forgive a husband for a pornography addiction, makes the decision the reengage with him, and then takes the action of giving herself to him sexually may find the exercise of agape very difficult.

I have found that a discussion of the biblical meaning of love to be a vital part of many marriage counseling. Even among solid evangelical Christians the concept of love has been formulated by the secular community. Hopefully, this brief article clarifies the concepts and content of the muddy waters of love.

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