FOUR WORDS FOR LOVE
– Luke 15 and 1 Corinthians 13 –
Can you love someone you hate? Yes you can: love is complex. “In the world of four letter words, Care is short of Love, but just beyond Work.” (Anne Boyer, “Canadian Art” – 2018 Winter Issue.) You can not put a dynamic life force like love into the prison of mere one word. Jesus told parables and stories not theology. (Luke 15) Otherwise, he simply acted on it. When Jesus was asked what to do with the adulterous woman who stood in front of him, he just hunkered down, kept doodling on the ground, and did not say a word. (John 8: 1-11) Perhaps for us, art and music are better media to communicate love than mere words.
Although it is quoted as the “hymn for Love,” oddly the First Corinthians chapter 13 in the King James Version of the Bible does not speak about “love.” It says “charity” in its place. Why? In Greek lexicon, you will find at least four words for love. Three of them are in the New Testament. The Biblical scholars who worked under King James decided that “charity” was closer to the original Greek word “agapeh” meant to convey.
The fact that there are more-than-one word for love is a problem for English speakers, because love is so central to Christian teaching; there should be clear without any confusion. Lack of clarity due to short of the right word is the reason for ambivalence about love in our culture. Inhuman acts are committed in the name of love. I don’t think that the writers of the Bible were confused. They knew exactly what they were writing about; it’s why there are four words for love.
Forgive me writing Greek letters. I wanted to show how the four words looked different representing different concepts, though it is one word in English. They are agapeh – αγαπη, epithumia – επιθυμια, eros – ερwσ, and phileo – φιλεο. It shows the complexity of the most important value of the Christian faith. Perfect goodness is not simple: love is complex. But it is pure and simple in real life. This is why Jesus told parables to teach love. (Luke 15) This challenge is affecting our behaviours often resulting in the abuse of the word and deeds; like making selfish demand in the name of love. Maybe we should stop talking about love but live the life like the stories in the Bible.
English is not the only language with problems of “love” word. Sesotho, an African language for example, has the same problem: “lerato” means desire and love. However, Buddhism clearly distinguishes them with different words, desire is “bon’noh” and self-giving charity is “jihi.” The question is whether those four Greek words present irreconcilable difference or they are related and can grow into perfect goodness. Can selfish desire turn into selfless act of pure love? Can greed become generosity?
This is a challenge of translation. The Bible is the document written in Greek from the oral traditions originally spoken in Aramaic and Hebrew. All Bibles are translations. The Church in Rome translated it into Latin and called it “Vulgata” meaning it is a vulgar version
Every time a word is translated into another language, the scholars of languages have to choose the word closest in meaning to the original. There is none meaning the exactly the same as the original, because languages are the product of different cultures and histories.
So what is “love” according to the Bible? . The word in the Corinthians chapter 13 represents the perfect love, and it is “agapeh – αγαπη.” I suggest that we take the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians as the standard representing the true and godly love and evaluate other love words.
Let me begin with the most popular and yet often abused word. It represents erotic and/or romantic love. Εροσ – eros became so closely connected to sexuality that by the time New Testament was adopted as the authorized holy scriptures (Canon), it was banished from all church vocabulary. It was replaced by another Greek word, epithumia – επιθuμια. Greek philosophy defines ‘spirit’ good, and ‘physical body’ bad. This Greek dualism corrupted the Hebrew view of the body and spirit being one and the same.
I think this is unfortunate because in ancient Greece, circa 500 B.C., thinkers like Plato used the word eros to mean an irresistible impulse for beauty and perfection. Sex was only a tiny part. I think it is a pity that our natural yearning for beauty and perfection was so degraded in common understanding of the word. It is a source of ambivalence about our body and sexuality. All are God’s creation and good. (Genesis 1) Sexuality is godly. Jesus loved – epithumia to eat with disciples. (Luke 22:15) We have to remind ourselves that for Jewish mind there is no separation between mind/spirit and body. A healthy mind dwells in a healthy body. When a body ails, so does spirit.
Natural love in Greek is “phileo” as in “philo-sophy” (love of wisdom). Friendship, brotherly/ sisterly and parental love, all fall into this category. (Matthew 19:37) It is a natural emotional and often passionate love. It is also self-giving love. When you love your child, you would sacrifice yourself for the love of your child. But it is spontaneous and natural; has to be given up for higher purpose. (Matthew 10:37) Love your parents but you may have to stop loving them if such love prevents you to follow a higher goal. This is why you find puzzling sayings of Jesus like Matthew 10:37. John 21: 15-17 is interesting: Jesus asked Peter if he loved (phileo) the master. Peter said, “Yes, of course…” But that was not enough, Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” In other words,”You have to prove it with deeds.” Phileo must be elevated by action.
Lastly, agapeh. It is the godly love as in “Love your enemy.” It can be against natural instinct. (Matthew 5:43 – 48 and Luke 15) This is why Jesus uttered impossible to understand words like, “You can not be my disciple if you love your father, mother, brother, or sister.” (Matthew 10:37) Agapeh love and phileo love are two different things. You must love (agapeh) ones you don’t love (phileo). Jesus from the cross asked forgiveness of those mocking him, torturing him, and killing him?
The most chilling words I heard recently were victim impact statements in the trials of a murder and of a perpetrator of multiple rapes: “I hate you.” I totally understand that sentiment. I have such a problem with one man who murdered several friends in South Africa. Can you demand forgiveness from the families of victims of the Holocaust or from “Indian Residential School” survivors? We don’t quite understand the distinctions between different loves therefore can not agree to love enemies. The important question is: “Can one kind of love grow into another kind of love?” Can Eros become self-giving Phileo such as parental love? I suppose it is possible. From time to time, one hears of incredible grace of forgiveness – an example of true Agaphe: such as Nelson Mandela.