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What is Love?

Asked to define love, the young man replied, “Love is a feeling you feel when you feel a feeling you’ve never felt before.” Everyone laughed. Everyone knew what he was talking about.


A client of mine – middle-aged, happily married, stable job, middle class, two kids, good family-oriented person – said he was walking down the street near his office when he suddenly locked eyes with a woman and felt a powerful rush of intense attraction. Nothing came of it. He never saw her again. No words were exchanged. But the feeling was so intense it scared him so much that he talked with me about it five years later.


A verse of Paul Simon’s Slip Slidin' Away says:


I know a man He came from my home town He wore his passion for his woman Like a thorny crown He said Delores I live in fear My love for you is so overpowering I'm afraid that I will disappear


Love so overpowering, it threatens his sense of identity.


Isaac Hayes produced a powerful remake of By the Time I Get to Phoenix that says:


I'm talking about the power of love now I'm gonna tell you what love can do You know when they say love makes the world go 'round, that's the truth Love can make you or break you It can make you laugh. It can make you cry It can make you happy. It can make you sad Aw, it'd get hung up real bad In a case of jealousy, love can make you mad.


He goes on to tell the story of man so in love with his wife that he forgives her seven times for cheating on him before he finally, with tears streaming down his face, drives away for good. As Isaac Hayes says, “The power of love was on him.” Love so powerful, it causes a person to be crushed with abuse.


Roberta Flack made Ewan Maccoll’s song famous:


The first time ever I saw your face I thought the sun rose in your eyes And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave To the dark and the endless skies, my love To the dark and the endless skies


Feelings are powerful things, especially the feeling we call “love.” But there are all different kinds of love.


In classical Greek, there are a variety of words to describe love. It is a mistake to try to rank them. Only one falls into the unhealthy category.


  1. Mania: Obsession, infatuation, insanity, a sister to rage, the stuff of stalkers and middle school children. This is the bad one.

  2. Ludus: Love as playfulness, as a game, flirtations without any commitment, which can be innocent or damaging.

  3. Éros: Sexual attraction, but not necessarily animalistic lust. Éros includes appreciation of beauty in all its manifestations. It’s where we begin loving God, others, nature and ourselves.

  4. Pragma: Sensible, committed love; the opposite of romanticism; the stuff of most long-term marriages.

  5. Storgē: Familial bonds, “blood is thicker than water;” care and concern for parents and children and siblings.

  6. Xenia: Hospitality, welcoming strangers into our homes, guest-love

  7. Philía: Deep, lasting friendship, and loyalty

  8. Philautia: Self-love – either negatively, as in selfishness and narcissism, or positively, as in compassion for oneself

  9. Agápe: Unconditional, self-sacrificial, cruciform, selfless, altruistic love. God is Agápe. “By this shall all know you are my followers, that you agápe one another.”


Setting aside mania, which needs to be treated with medication, psychotherapy, repentance, and perhaps a dosage of exorcism, living as God intended us to live, embracing our full humanness and flourishing life, requires us to cultivate healthy ludus, éros, pragma, storgē, xenia, philía, philautia, and agápe.


I am not suggesting office flirtations, but genuine love between friends and lovers needs an element of playfulness. Hopefully, the relationship is not based on having fun; but, equally hopefully, friends and lovers have fun together, laugh together, and playfully celebrate together. Ludus


We are not rutting elk, but learning to appreciate the beauty in nature, in others, in ourselves, and in the creator God behind it all, will carry us a long way towards peace and wholeness. Take the time to observe and consciously note the beauty, especially (with regard to others) the beauty behind the pain. Éros.


Lasting marriages and enduring friendships settle at some point into pragmatic, sensible commitment. We become comfortable with each other, feeling no need to impress or play-act. Many in our contemporary culture chase after everlasting romanticism, which is always a dead end. Being content and relaxed with a friend or spouse is nice. Pragma.


In many of the African-American, Afro-Asian, and Appalachian families I’ve been around, storgē is strong. Grandma will be cared for in the home no matter how demented she gets. The ne’er-do-well alcoholic uncle now dying of lung cancer will likewise be taken in. The bonds of family and clan are strong, intergenerational, and forgiving. Grown kids call their aging parents daily.


Likewise, we in North America could learn much from Asian, Middle Eastern, and African cultures about xenia. In biblical times hospitality was paramount. Think of Abraham finding three visitors by the Oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18, or Jesus sending out his apprentices knowing they would be taken into local homes (Mark 6:7-13), or God’s condemnation of Sodom and Gomorrah for their lack of hospitality. (Ezekiel 16:49) The art of welcoming guests and making people feel at home is a vital part of truly becoming the beloved community. No walls. No separated families. No languishing in refugee camps.


We live in a transient society. The majority of Gen X (currently in their mid 40s to early 60s), millennials (late 20s to mid-40s), and centennials (late teens and 20s) change jobs every three years and live in a variety of cities around the world during their careers. Philía is hard to come by because deep friendships take time and effort to cultivate. It can happen long-distance, interspersed with regular visits, but more often friendships are left behind and new ones acquired that never have time to mature. To have a meaningful spiritual inner life, we need three things: (a) contemplation, prayer, meditation, spiritual reading, scripture study, times of praise and worship, (b) involvement in promoting social justice, joining God in making the world gentler and more loving, and (c) friendships, koinonia, relationships that guard against anger and despair, that keep us on course.


The negative side of philautia is all too obvious in the public arena – greed, pride, arrogance, selfishness, egotism, narcissism, and self-promotion are not only off-putting, but also destructive to cultures, nations, and individuals. That kind of philautia calls for repentance and transformation, a new heart, and a right spirit. Philautia, self-care, has a positive side, however. Learning to accept oneself as broken, to forgive oneself for failures and sins, to rest in our true identity as beloved children of God, and knowing God loves us and will never give up on us, allows us to find the beauty in and around us, and respond with kindness.


Agápe is impossible apart from the dynamic of the Holy Spirit. Agápe is God in us. Agápe is us living and acting like Jesus – forgiving our enemies, turning the other cheek, denying self, going the second mile, laying down our lives, responding to violence with nonviolence, serving others, washing feet – this love looks like Jesus on the cross. It is cruciform. God will shed this agápe abundantly into our hearts if we seek to know, love, and serve God.



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