The following is something that I hope can cast away some of the misconceptions regarding “Christian Love” or Agape. The idea is so imbued with ugly distortions from modern secular morality that I found it necessary to write more for this than any other in my series on the virtues. Here is the homily which I wrote and recorded, and I hope that you are edified by it or can use it to help uncuck fellow Christians.
[Audio found here: https://svll.bandcamp.com/track/virtues-pt-7-agape]
Scripture Reference for this meditation:
2 Peter 1:5-8
1 Corinthians 13
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s meditation covers the most misunderstood virtue of all time. We’re talking about Agape love, the last part of St. Peter’s virtues. I believe there is an obvious reason that the Apostle puts Agape as the final part; simply put, it is the hardest to understand, hardest to practice, and (speaking from a position of human weakness) the hardest to justify. It is not the virtue from which all other virtues spring: it is the virtue to which all other virtues lead.
Over six weeks we looked at the track and development of virtue in the Christian. We start with faith as a gift from God, and then grow into a desire to be a better, more virtuous Christian; this then spurs us to get to know our God and our faith, but coming to know who He is makes us want to please Him by avoiding sin and doing good – which means we move on to self-control. As we begin to practice self-control, we come to recognize the need for piety, or relying fully on our Lord and desiring to be holy before Him. And that’s where brotherly love, or Philadelphia, comes in; Christians always do better to have the feeling and attitude of familial affection.
Then we come to Agape love. Then St. Peter brings up this highest of virtues. Yet all over the world and throughout the past two millennia, confused people have brought it up constantly as though it were some little change in our perspective that needs no preparation of character, no training in the other virtues –instead we sing “all you need is love,” without recognizing that Agape is the one virtue that hardly anybody can accomplish on their own. The stakes are high in discussing the meaning and practice of Agape love, but the rewards are so fantastic that, well, who can but speak on it? This is the very principle from which our Lord Jesus says all the Law and Prophets have their very foundation! In our 1 Corinthians reading, St. Paul says that our Christian life is worthless without it. It is clearly something to be desired, but before it is obtained it must be understood.
What Agape Love is
The word “Agape” was originally a verb: Agapao. 2 Agapao, just like its noun form, cannot be separated from the notion of preference. So this kind of love is a kind of choosing. One decides to love someone in this way, without any natural inclination to do so. I love my son, and do so naturally, because he is my son; the familial love (Storge in the Greek) comes to us almost automatically. Agape, however, is something chosen, fostered intentionally, and sought after. But what does this mean for us? What exactly are we preferring for the persons we love? How does “choosing” work out? Well, let’s look at what Agape love is:
-Agape is Willing the Good
Agape love is willing the good of another for their own sake, expecting nothing in return. This is the most concise definition of the word that we could reasonably hope to produce. Since it is rooted in preference, it means preferring someone (other than oneself), willing to do good for them no matter who they are. Whenever someone earnestly says “I want what is best for you,” they are expressing Agape.
–Agape is Holy and Divine
St. John says in 1 John 4:7, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” If this kind of love is willing for the good of another, we end up asking “who’s good? What kind of good? By what standard do we express this preference?” The Scriptures answer this question by pointing to our God, who is the sole standard of all good – to the point where St. John also says “God is love,” using that same word – Agape (1 John 4:8). What He expresses is good for another is found in the words of Holy Scripture.
–Agape is Unqualified
This means that, just as God makes the sun rise on both good and bad people, so too is it the case that Agape is given without caring about how much someone deserves the favor they are shown. This is what makes this virtue both beautiful and difficult at the same time. One the one hand, we rejoice when someone shows us favor when we do not deserve it, celebrating the mercy given to us; on the other hand, we find it very difficult to seek the best for someone who has done terrible things. It is easy to demonstrate Agape love for our mothers; it is hard to show it to murderers.
–Agape is Based on Action and Attitude
When we look at St. Paul’s list of Agape characteristics, we find both actions and attitudes. Phileo, or brotherly love, is both an emotional and dispositional kind of love, where our feelings and our identification of a person are concerned. Agape, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with the actions we take on behalf of others and the attitude we decide to have toward them. This is one of the reasons St. Augustine and the translators of the King James version preferred to use the word Charity, or Caritas in the Latin, when discussing love or translating 1 Corinthians 13. To give a gift of food or clothing to the poor as an act of charity is an act of Agape love; so too is forgiving someone who wronged you, without ever expecting revenge.
What Agape is Not
Before we speak any further about Agape and what it is, let us discuss what it is not. Unfortunately, the English language is limited, in that unlike Greek, we modify the word “love” with adjectives to specify what we mean. If someone says “love” with no modifying word before it, the word itself has to be interpreted through context clues in order to be understood. Otherwise, we would fall into the unfortunate circumstance of thinking a woman loves pizza in the same way she loves her husband! This subject is like a treasure made of pure gold, but surrounded by dross and dirt; in order to fully grasp the gold in our hands, we must clear away the garbage that has engulfed it in recent centuries. So here is what Agape is not:
–Agape is not a feeling
Agape love is not an emotional virtue. Our reading of St. Paul’s description speaks of no active feeling of Agape love (even rejoicing is more recognition of the good than happiness). If we want to talk about a virtuous love that is held for others, then St. Peter provides Philadelphia for us just before he brings up Agape; brotherly affection has the emotional element in it which strengthens the bonds between Christians. This isn’t to say that emotions cannot come from Agape, or that it does not produce any emotional effect. In fact, one expects the practice of Agape to evoke all kinds of emotional responses, from joy to satisfaction to exhaustion to, well, even frustration. There are difficulties in practicing Agape, as well as deep rewards.
–Agape is not Equality of Preference
By “equality of preference,” I mean the idea that everyone would receive the same amount of care and charity from the individual. We have all heard someone say before, “if you love me, you will do x-y-and-z,” or perhaps “no one gets special treatment here!” Criminals often appeal to this misconception on the dock, hoping to be set free from a jail sentence. But “I love everyone” should not be interpreted as “I hold all people in my life to be equal.” God requires instead that there be a hierarchy of priorities.
St. Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:8, “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” The Apostle also, in Ephesians 5:25, commands husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the Church – and they are not told to love everyone this way. To provide for someone’s household and relatives is an act of Agape love; that Paul insists someone do this for their own family over and above other people is an extension of the Fourth Commandment to honor our father and our mother. To love everyone as Christ loves the Church makes my marriage more or less meaningless.
Let’s look at another example. I wish to love my neighbor, according to the Second Greatest Commandment. So I help my neighbor with cutting her lawn. Should I then travel to my neighbor in Spain to help cut his lawn too? Of course not – it is perfectly fine for me to love the neighbors closest to me with my actions more than those who are halfway across the globe. In other words, while we strive to practice Agape love for everyone more than we do now, we should never endeavor to practice Agape love for everyone equally.
–Agape is not Tolerance
Tolerance is considered the highest virtue in secular culture, and the notion of it is often conflated with love. On social media platforms, “Love Wins” is often used as a catchphrase for societal issues where one party is demanding tolerance for a lifestyle choice. The problem is that, as we said, Agape is seeking the other’s good – according to God’s standards, not their own. For example, if a heroin addict says that you are not being very loving when you refer them to rehab, that person is confusing love with tolerance. They do so because they want you to seek his or her good according to his or her standard, not the true standard of good that God provides. [author’s note: this is especially good when discussing matters of “lgbt” garbage]
–Agape is not Foolishness
Our Lord Jesus commands His Apostles to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Let’s connect that wisdom to Agape love, which ought to always accord with wisdom rather than go against it. If a burglar breaks into my home, breathing threats against my wife, is it right for me to say “well, I’m commanded in Matthew 5:44 to love my enemies, so I’d better seek this man’s good and let him do what he wants.” Heaven forbid! Loving my enemy doesn’t mean I stop seeing him as an enemy, and I am certainly not loving my wife if I do not defend her against the attacker – especially given the particular preference God commands me to give to my spouse.
A burglar is an extreme example, to be sure, but there are other ways in which this misconception is brought up. In my own family, my grandfather decided to change his career and be an insurance salesman. He beat so many of my relatives over the head, claiming that their love for him ought to make them buy his insurance. Even after it turned out that it was terrible insurance, bordering on a scam, he still approached my father and mother, claiming that their Christian, Agape love for him should make buying this bunk insurance necessary. After all, he reasoned, “love believes all things” as St. Paul says, and endures all things too! Thankfully, they refused his attempt at spiritual blackmail, but this was because they knew better: love, after all, does not rejoice at wrongdoing!
Real Agape is Hard
Our Lord Jesus says that the commands to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul, as well as loving our neighbor as ourselves, sum up the Law and the Prophets. So if the Law is summarized with Agape love, what does the Bible say about the Law? Sure, the Law is the eternal will of God for us, proclaimed for us to hear and obey, but are we capable of keeping it? No beloved, we are not; St. Paul expresses that this a large part of the Gospel, that Jesus came to fulfill the requirements of the Law because we can’t – and the Law can’t make us. That is why our Lord Jesus says that He came precisely to fulfill this Law. Then, as converts, we are enabled to seek out obedience to God’s Will.
Is that easy? Well, let’s take the list St. Paul gives us in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, and see what happens if we phrase it in terms of command:
-Do not envy.
-Do not boast.
-Do not be arrogant.
-Do not be rude.
-Do not insist on your own way.
-Do not be irritable.
-Do not be resentful.
-Do not rejoice at wrongdoing.
-Rejoice in truth.
-Believe all things.9
-Hope for all things.
-Endure all things.
Now let’s ask ourselves: do I do all of these things? Do I obey what it means to have Agape love? The answer is, of course not. No one is always going to be patient, kind, content, humble, polite, putting themselves second, benevolent, trusting, unharmed in heart, hopeful, enduring, etc., at all times. But to violate these would mean that, categorically, someone is not practicing Agape whenever they lapse in it. Having a “cheat day” in my diet does not mean that I am not self-disciplined; but lacking any thing that Paul includes here means that I am unloving – so long as we’re talking about Agape.
Agape love, as the highest virtue spoken of by the Holy Scriptures, requires a lifelong pursuit. It requires us to go back to the other virtues often, seeking to perfect our practice of them in an almost cyclical fashion, knowing that what Paul describes requires absolute perfection – and we won’t be perfect until Christ returns and takes us to glory in the Resurrection.
Real Agape is Already Accomplished
So our hands will be full if we decide to pursue this greatest of virtues. We are to expect that we shall fail over and over again in our sanctification, and more on this in particular than any other virtue. That being said, we can rejoice that St. Paul does not teach that this perfection is necessary for us to be justified before our God. Justification is by faith, and that faith is in the One who did fulfill this Law of Agape love: our Lord Jesus Christ. In Him you are already considered as having this virtue before our Heavenly Father. His perfect life, atoning death, and magnificent Resurrection have satisfied this requirement on behalf of the entirety of humanity without asking for anything in return; those who believe in Him are no longer told by the Law, “either hold perfect love or be damned.”
Does this mean that we are to ignore the pursuit of Agape love? Not at all, for obedience to God is the chief of good works for which we are made (Ephesians 2:10). But at the same time, we are liberated from the prerequisite to love in a perfect way. So now we can seek to increase this virtue not out of fear, but out of joy and gratitude. Only I would remind you to hold fast to Christ, as Martin Luther warns us:
If love is the essence of faith, as they foolishly assert, I am promptly compelled to hold that love itself is the principal and most important part of the Christian religion; and so I lose Christ, His blood, His wounds, and all His benefits and stay with love and show love and come to living a moral life, as do the pope, the pagan philosopher, or the Turk.1
How to Foster Agape Love
In conclusion to this series on the virtues, I feel it is important to remind everyone that we have Christian freedom in how we go about seeking the virtues. Of course, it goes without saying that God hears our prayers for this, and the Holy Spirit cheerfully continues us in the paths of righteousness. The Scriptures here give us many starting points for Agape love, and we do well to see St. Paul’s words as a guide. But even so, there are some tried-and-true ways for us to go about all this that I recommend wholeheartedly.
By giving to the less fortunate, we are ultimately giving to the less-desired and less-deserving. Let’s say that you donate to or volunteer at a charity which provides care and assistance to children with cancer. Have any of the children there done anything for you? Of course not. Are any of them your own family? Not likely. Can they do anything for you in return? Only a fiend would ask for payment from them. So in giving to this charity, you are exercising Agape love for those who cannot earn your care, do not know you as family or friend, and cannot repay you; you are loving them in the same way that God loves sinners for whom Christ died. If you make charity a habit, then this virtue will come more naturally to you.
A good exercise of the attitude-oriented aspect of Agape love is to forgive, readily and easily. Making a list of everyone who has personally harmed me, taken advantage of me, etc., and forgiving them (that is, not holding them to account or demanding payment and revenge) has done wonders for my ability to have compassion on others. Conveniently, this also helped me to have a list of people to avoid, as wisdom dictates that forgiving someone doesn’t mean that we have to be best friends with them or even vulnerable to their behavior.
By definition, a volunteer does not accept payment for the kindness they are showing. This can range from volunteering to help drive our kid’s school football team to their games, to volunteering to assist with tech-work or cleanup at church, to visiting shut-ins at their homes to give them company. Wherever we volunteer, we are making a time investment which greatly improves our ability to exercise selfless love
Of course, the motivation for this virtue is self-evident. If we are called to be more like our Savior, then we must practice Agape. But there are also surprising benefits to doing it that seem to come out of nowhere. The more you volunteer to help people, the more they are willing to help you. In forgiving others their trespasses against you, you put a stop to a cycle of vengeance before it begins. Instead of Hatfields and McCoys bitterly fighting it out, it just becomes, well, Hatfields getting on with their lives and far less suffering. Practicing this virtue ends up building community and social care in a way that makes our little slice of the world a better place. Here’s hoping that this, as well as the rest of the virtues that we practice, helps us get there until Christ returns.
Now, may the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
1 What Luther Says, vol. II, ed. Ewald Plass (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), 822.