The Real Meaning of Love

If you were looking at the month of February from a strictly secular perspective, you might think it was all about love. Gifts, cards, candy and decorations for Valentine’s Day have been in stores since the day after Christmas.

Maybe this is a good time to think about how this secular celebration of Valentine’s Day impacts our understanding of the real meaning of the word love.

Part of the problem is that the English language has many different interpretations for the word “love.” If we spoke Greek, the whole issue would be much clearer. For example:

  • Eros is the Greek word for romantic love. It’s that lighter-than-air feeling people experience when they say they’re “in love.” It’s exhilarating, but it’s also shallow and can depart as quickly as it arrived. It adds spice to life, but it is not the foundation upon which people can build a lifelong relationship. Eros may be great for Valentine’s Day, but it is not the kind of love that we read about in Scripture.
  • Philia is the Greek word for love between good friends. It’s the kind of love that makes us feel connected. It prompts us to want to spend time with our friends and to be concerned about them. But it’s not always a permanent love. It can die when people grow apart. We’ve all experienced the end of a friendship because our lives change, someone moved away, mistakes were made and feelings were hurt. Philia is not the kind of love that we read about in Scripture.
  • Agape is deep, abiding, unconditional love. It is not a feeling or a response to how someone else treats us. It is the way that God loves, and it is possible for us to love in this way because God loves us. It is the kind of love that we find in Scripture when Jesus talks about loving God, loving our neighbor, forgiving those who hurt us, and loving our enemies. It is a self-sacrificing love that contains no trace of selfishness or desire for gratification.

February is a great month to think about the different kinds of love. It’s a great month to read the Gospels with a deeper understanding of what Jesus is teaching us about agape love. It’s a great month to ask God to fill us with agape love.

If we focus on agape love during February, by Ash Wednesday, we will have a deeper understanding of what Pope Benedict means when he prayed, “May Lent be for every Christian a renewed experience of love given to us in Christ.”