love, love ... & more love
It's interesting that in a language as rich and complicated as English, we have only one word for love. I love God. I love my family. I love coconut shrimp. I actually hanker after coconut shrimp on a fairly regular basis, but I wouldn't jump in front of a bus for it. I'd do that for my children.
The Greeks scoffed at one-size-fits all words, especially for concepts as important as love. For that, they came up with four distinct words--storge, phileo, eros, and agape.
Storge is familial love. It's mother-love. It's the love that causes a a sibling to say to an outsider, "I can talk to my brother/sister that way ... but you'd better knock it off." It's the "you belong to me" love that binds together not only families but also nations. It's the basis for patriotism; the reason people tear up when their flag is raised at the Olympics.
Phileo is friendship love. It's why people with similar tastes or hobbies become fast friends. It's looking at another person and saying, "You're very much like me. I like that about you." We choose the people we will feel phileo love toward.
Eros love smacks us over the head. We often have little choice in this matter. It's looking at a stranger across the room and having an instantaneous "I have got to get me some of that" reaction. It's physical and/or sexual attraction. Eros is what first drew us (normally) to our spouses.
The problem with these first three loves is that they're all human, and therefore all flawed. Familial love is great as long as self doesn't rise up. But brothers often turn against brothers, and children often turn against parents, and vice versa. Familial love--at its extreme--can be racist, as people identify so closely with their own skin that all others are thought to be lesser-than. Friendship love can often turn cliquish, and even the best of friendships are at risk if people value their own preferences more than the other person. Physical attraction is a wonderful ingredient to a marriage, but abused outside of marriage, it can destroy a soul. And even in the confines of a committed relationship, it's not enough to sustain a marriage. By itself, it's a great magnet--but it's not glue.
The only perfect love is agape. That's because it's the only love that's unconditional. It's God-sourced. It's outside of us. It's the love that causes one person to value another not because they're related or similar or physically attracted to each other, but because God has empowered one heart to mend another. Agape is the only love that looks for nothing for itself, but seeks only to give.
We cannot conjure up agape love for another person. It's not possible. We can only allow ourselves to be the vessel through which God will love with that kind of unconditional, seeking love. Sometimes we think we have the means within ourselves to love like that, but we're wrong.
I'll give you an example. Before we built our new house four years ago, we were squatters. By that I mean that we found our property, plunked an older mobile home on the highest point, and squatted eleven years, waiting for the day when we could afford to build. (Actually, if truth be told, we could never have built this house had not all the laborers of our church--contractors, carpenters, framers, roofers, a tiler and an electrician--come together and said, "That's it. We're building you a house.") Back in the mobile home days, it wasn't uncommon for me to walk around squirting bleach water on the windows to kill the mold growing there. It also wasn't uncommon for me to have to empty out an entire drawer and re-wash all the utensils because a mouse had climbed into that drawer and left little "I was here" packets. Mice were my great enemy back then. They had a wide variety of entry points into the house, and it was a losing battle trying to find and eliminate them.
Before Dave was a pastor, he worked at Scott Paper Company on a rotating shift. One week he'd work days, one week swing, and one week graveyard. That schedule--which he endured for nine years--sucked the life right out of him. When not working, he was either at home sleeping, or at home trying to fall asleep. We barely saw him, and I lived in a perpetual state of pity for him. Whenever he did manage to fall asleep, I'd do whatever I could to keep him in that state. Zac was little back then, and we spent a good deal of our time whispering.
One morning, while Dave (recently home from graveyard) slept beside me, I awoke, eased myself quietly out of bed, and opened the bedroom door. Before I took a step, however, I noticed little bunches of something littering the carpet. I flipped on the light, and with all the storge-phileo-eros love I possessed, I stifled a scream. Our cat had left the remains of a mouse in a four-foot path leading right up to our bedroom door. You might have difficulty envisioning how one mouse could leave such a big trail ... I say, go with that. Don't try to envision it, or you won't eat all day. I saw mouse parts I had been happily oblivious to prior to that moment. The longest piece was some sort of intestinal tubing that had been stretched to the breaking point. And that was the pretty part.
You would have thought I traversed a minefield the way I picked my inches and tiptoed around those mouse parts. I did it again, an hour later, when Zac woke and I needed to extract him from his bedroom--right near the beginnings of the carnage. "What's that, Mama?" he asked.
"Look away, child. Look away," I warned.
I was still in my flannel nightgown at this point, and the house was cold. I'd been reluctant to go back in the bedroom for my robe, which would have made it tolerable. But with Zac up, I needed to take more drastic measures. I needed to go out to the woodpile and bring in an armload of wood for the stove. But my shoes were in the bedroom.
I made the trip one more time, still tiptoeing, still trying to be as quiet as I could so as to not wake Dave. He worked so hard, slept so little. His body needed that rest. He was such a good ...
As I was easing the door to our bedroom open, thinking these loving thoughts toward my dear, tired husband, I lost my balance. Don't ask me how. These things just happen, and usually at the worst possible times. In order not to fall backwards over the entire mouse carcass, I simply took one step backward ... and my heel came down right on the head of the mouse. I know that because when I lifted my foot, there was the head, stuck right to my heel. In that second, all my human love fled.
"DAVID!!! GET UP! ... GET UP, GET UP, GET UP ... NOW!!!"
So there you have it. Human love is the stuff of romance books and movies. But it's nothing but a vapor when the pressure's really on.
Just for today, don't try to love in the flesh. Instead, let God love through you, in the way that only He can.
And watch where you step.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. --1 John 3:16 (NIV)