By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.
LOVE. IT’S MORE THAN A four-letter word. At its basic, love is a noun meaning “strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties,” such as a mother’s love for her child. Of course, it also means “attraction based on sexual desire: affection and tenderness felt by lovers.” It can mean admiration, benevolence, warm attachment, devotion, a term of endearment. However, love is not merely a noun.
Love is also an action verb. In other words, it’s not about something, it’s about doing something. Something selfless at the very least. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary indicates it is a transitive verb that means “to hold dear: cherish.” It can also implicate a lover’s passion, tenderness, amorous caress, copulation. Its etymology is from the Old English word lufu, which includes, “feeling of love; romantic sexual attraction; affection; friendliness; the love of God.” The Germanic word is from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root leubh, meaning “to care, desire, love.” It is “the love of God” I wish to talk about here.
There are seven types of love in Greek:
- Eros—sexual or passionate love; the type most akin to our modern construct of romantic love.
- Phileo—brotherly love; friendship; shared good will.
- Storge—familial love; natural or instinctual affection, such as the love of a parent for his or her child.
- Agape—a Greco-Christian term referring to “the highest form of love; charity; the unconditional love of God for man.”
- Ludus—this form of love includes game-playing, manipulation, lying; the purveyor of ludic love has “conquests” but no commitments.
- Pragma—also known as “pragmatic” love, it is the most practical type; convenient love that involves “being of service” to another out a sense of duty.
- Philautia—this type of love is within oneself; essential for any relationship because we can only love others if we truly love ourselves. One of the key lessons on a spiritual journey is learning to love unconditionally. In many ways, this type of love is a stepping stone to grasping agape love.
WHAT OF THIS THING CALLED “UNCONDITIONAL LOVE?”
I’ve heard it said that unconditional love is easy. You probably find that hard to believe. I did. There would be no boundaries to loving someone unconditionally. No matter what they’ve done or not done. One blogger posted an article titled “Unconditional Love: Is it Real or Just a Romantic Illusion?” The post analyzes relationship love. It notes that when love is unconditional nothing can tear it asunder. This is the “we are one in our new relationship” love that is ageless, timeless, and infallible. The writer states, “But here’s what you have to know: unconditional love is a romantic illusion, and one that reflects love that is immature.”
In the introduction to his book, Real Love, Greg Baer, M.D. describes his struggle with emotional problems and addiction to tranquilizers and other narcotics. One evening he took a handgun and went into the woods intending to end his life. He put the barrel against his head, ready to die. Instead, he realized something had to change. He sought treatment at a rehab, but said when he returned home clean and sober he was still at the same place that took him down the dark path of addiction: alone and empty. He was missing the profound happiness he’d been longing for his entire life. Reading Baer’s introduction, I saw myself on the pages.
Life for me has always been an emotional roller coaster. I was a little hellion who could not behave no matter what my father tried. His go-to answer seemed to be corporal punishment. This made me hate him and despise myself. I came to fear his very presence; to feel unloved and unlovable. In my heart, I wanted to please him and make him proud. But in my flesh, I wanted nothing but numbness and escape. As each year passed, I became increasingly sullen and doubted I’d ever amount to anything. Why couldn’t I stop lying, stealing, cursing, trashing my room, getting sent to the principal’s office? As my anger grew, I started hating everything and everyone. I got good at deception. After all, who wants to be in trouble all the time? This was the perfect breeding-ground for alcohol and drug abuse. Finally, I could feel euphoric, happy, invincible. I could escape.
As you can imagine, this was not a very sound solution. I ended up right back at the same place every time. Clean and sober for a short time, but lost and alone. Empty. Without friends. Estranged from my family. So I went back out there, drinking and drugging. Numbing the pain and hiding from the world. Withdrawing behind drawn curtains. I was convinced that I was one of those that Jesus couldn’t save. I drifted further from my Christian roots. My high school friends all left for college. I stayed home and hung out with the party crowd. Out until three, sleeping until noon. Just like the shampoo bottle says, “lather, rinse repeat.” I no longer believed God cared about me. It wasn’t long before I doubted the existence of God.
After four decades of active addiction and numerous relapses in my forties and fifties, I found my way back to the church. I started teaching Bible study at two local prisons and did a lot of studying and writing. You’d think my life improved, right? That I finally reached my happy ending. That there was nothing left but to love and be loved; to be clean and sober and help others find their path to sobriety. Sadly, that was not the case. Chronic and ever-increasing pain from a back injury, degenerative disc disease, severe arthritis, and fibromyalgia taunted me and drove me to opiate addiction. I knew better. I just couldn’t decide better. I was letting my physical pain dictate my behavior.
Even after returning to the church of my youth where I accepted Jesus as my savior; despite attending a Christian university and graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology; regardless of years of research, writing, and blogging about addiction and spirituality, I continued to mess up and kept helping myself to narcotic painkillers of family members. Again, I was shunned. They were back to believing I will never change. I’d work my way back into their lives to only repeat my selfish and deceptive behavior.
So what is this all about?
It might sound too simple, but I’m wrestling not against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places (Ephesians 6:12). But it’s true. This is exactly what Paul means in Romans 7 when he says, “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it” (verses 18-20, NIV). Although this is instrumental in helping me learn to crucify my flesh and walk instead in the Spirit, it does not alleviate the hurt, disappointment, and anger my family feels toward me. Their utter disgust and inability to trust me.
THE KIND OF LOVE ONLY GOD KNOWS
I recently discovered an incredible song by the Christian group For King and Country, called “God Only Knows.” Although the entire song cuts me to the core, several lines really stand out. Wide awake while the world is sound asleepin’, too afraid of what might show up while you’re dreamin’… Every day you try to pick up all the pieces, all the memories, they somehow never leave you. God only knows what you’ve been through, God only knows what they say about you… You keep a cover over every single secret, So afraid if someone saw them they would leave. God only knows where to find you, God only knows how to break through, God only knows the real you…
LOVE FROM GOD’S PERSPECTIVE
What happens when we look at love from God’s perspective?
The love of God is central to His relationship to the world. We cannot grasp His kind of love through our own intellect. Certainly, there are many paradigms, worldviews, and theological interpretations for God’s kind of love. Theologians consider divine love to be an overriding component of God’s character, if not the very essence of God. Conceptions of divine love vary widely. This is due, in part, because man has a tendency to split hairs over metaphysical matters. The result is theories and definitions which are often cemented in denominational, doctrinal, or other theological differences.
But here are some basic features of God’s love:
- We can trust in God’s love. First Corinthians 13:4-8 provides an excellent description of God’s (agape) love. It is patient, kind, does not envy, does not boast, is not proud, does not dishonor others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs, does not delight in evil (but rejoices with the truth), always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. Clearly, there is a powerful and unrelenting component to God’s love. We see evidence of this in His covenant relationship with His people. Even in our sinfulness, He demonstrates patience, showering us with unmerited grace and mercy.
- Our salvation is an expression of God’s love. God loves us enough to have established a plan for our redemption before the foundation of the world; before man’s first sin of disobedience. He provides access to that redemption through His Son, Jesus Christ, who died in our place (see John 3:16). God did not send Christ as a reward for those of us who can keep the Law; rather, He provided Jesus as a solution to the sin problem by making Jesus a ransom for our disobedience. Although we were bought (redeemed) with a price, redemption is much more than being set free from the wages of sin. The crucifixion of Christ restores our fallen status by making peace between us and God. It takes away our shame. It provides for our physical healing. It provides for our spiritual rebirth and restoration.
- God’s love serves as an exemplar for us. Truly, God has restored us to Him through Jesus Christ. It is up to us to work at restoring our relationships with others. We can only do this by being rooted in God’s love—striving to understand its depth and implications. God asks us to emulate this behavior.
- The Holy Spirit produces love in us for others. The link between Christ’s love for us and our love for each other is found through the Holy Spirit. We see Christ’s love for us to the point of obedience unto death.
Paul writes, “…that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and depth and height—to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge; that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19, NKJV). By accepting the full measure of God’s love, we are able to begin practicing unconditional love toward others. We will by no means measure up to this divine attribute. This “no limits” love cannot be achieved through human endeavor. We become able to love this way only through yielding to the Holy Spirit. We can only accomplish it because God first loved us. What connects us with Jesus is faith—trusting His forgiveness; banking on His promises; cherishing His fellowship; desiring to fulfill His Greatest Commandment: to love the Lord God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind; and to love our neighbor as ourselves (see Matthew 22:36-40).
LOVE—PART OF THE FRUIT OF THE SPIRIT
Galatians 5:22-23 reminds us of what is achieved in us through the Fruit of the Spirit. Eugene Peterson translates it like this: “But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely” (MSG).
The late Billy Graham said, “This cluster of fruit should characterize the life of every Christ-born child of God. We’re to be filled with love, we’re to have joy, we’re to have peace, we’re to have patience, we’re to be gentle and kind, we’re to be filled with goodness, we’re to have faith, we’re to have meekness, and we’re to have temperance. But what do we find? In the average so-called Christian today we find the opposite.”
True love—the unconditional agape love of God—always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres (1 Corinthians 13:7). Jesus tells us in John 15:12, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (NIV). Paul reminds us in Romans 12:9-10, “Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves” (NIV). When we expect this kind of undying love from our friends or family, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Further, as in my case, we’re at risk of living in the sin of offense because we become unforgiving of their unforgiveness. Rather, we must look to God for this kind of love. A love that culminated in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Each of us, before coming to Christ, is dominated by one nature—the “old man.” We’re controlled by our ego, our self. We are selfish at best; deceitful at worst. No one likes to be wrong. That’s human nature. Repeated mistakes—especially the ones that continue to break the hearts and spirits of those we love—are the hardest for us to let go. I loath myself when I cannot seem to do that which I want to do, and keep doing that which I wish not to do. I have to remember I am in good company, as the apostle Paul wrote of this very struggle in his life.
The moment we receive Christ as our Savior, self is put down. We identify with His death, burial, and resurrection through backward-looking faith. Accordingly, we are to crucify our flesh daily. No amount of human power can relieve us of our habits, hangups, or addictions. But when we walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh, we put Christ on the throne in our lives. We dethrone ourselves. The Spirit of God is in control. It is only through realizing this and living it every day that we can ever hope to love unconditionally.
Baer, G., M.D. (2003). Real Love: The Truth About Finding Unconditional Love in Fulfilling Relationships. New York, NY: Avery.
Peterson, E. (2003). The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Skinner, K. (December 16, 2013). “Unconditional Love: Is It Real or Just a Romantic Illusion?” Retrieved from: https://www.yourtango.com/experts/kathe-skinner/unconditional-love-it-real-or-just-romantic-illusion