The eight loves.

One of my previous pastors likes to use Foreigner’s 1984 song, “I Want to Know What Love Is,” as an example of how our wider American culture really doesn’t know what love is. (Plus he likes the song itself.)

He’s not wrong. When we hear English-speakers talk about love—whether in our movies, songs, talk shows, books, even academically—they’re using about eight different definitions of love. Only one of these definitions is the one Paul and Sosthenes used in 1 Corinthians. The rest comes from the culture. Other languages, other cultures, might have even more than eight.

I mention eight different definitions to people, and they usually nod their heads: Yep, we define “love” at least that many different ways. But every once in a while some Christian wants to correct me, and tell me there are four loves, not eight. ’Cause they’ve read (or at least heard about) C.S. Lewis’s 1960 book The Four Loves, so there y’go: There are four loves. Where’d I come up with another four?

Um… from a dictionary. You know how dictionaries have definitions in them?

Why’d Lewis say there were only four? Well he didn’t. His book’s about four words in ancient Greek, which English-speakers translate “love”: Στοργή/storghí, φίλος/fílos, ἔρος/éros, and ἀγάπη/aghápi. (Only two of ’em are used in the New Testament.) There are other ancient Greek words which get translated “love,” like ἐραστεύω/erastévo, πόθος/póthos, and ξενία/xenía; and of course all the words used as metaphors. Lewis wasn’t trying to be comprehensive. He simply used the four words as a jumping-off point to analyze his personal thoughts about love… and frankly, Lewis was a rather bookish introvert who’d read more poetry than gone on dates. I expect his book would’ve been way different after he married.

The dictionary I used, actually listed more than eight concepts. But some of them were mighty similar, so I condensed ’em to eight.

  1. AFFECTION (storgí). The “natural love” we feel towards familiar people: How people feel towards relatives, childhood friends feel for one another, people feel towards friendly neighbors and coworkers, owners feel towards pets.
  2. FRIENDSHIP (fílos). The “love” we feel for people who share common interests with us. We like doing certain things with them, and like them because of it.
  3. ROMANCE (éros). “Being in love”: The intense pleasure taken in another person. Ranges from harmless crushes, to the extreme cases of lust and obsession—which see #8.
  4. CHARITY (aghápi). Unconditional, benevolent, self-sacrificing, gracious love. The sort of love God is, 1Jn 4.8, 16 the sort of love the Spirit grows in us, Ga 5.22 the love Paul describes. 1Co 13.4-8 “Biblical love.”
  5. HOSPITALITY (xenía). Conditional love. Looks exactly like charity, but it expects to be reciprocal, and compensated—with gratitude at the least, profit at the most.
  6. FAVORITISM. Our love for favorite things: Beloved foods, clothes, TV shows, cities we visit, sports, songs, musicians, politicians, etc.
  7. NARCISSISM. The love we have for ourselves, which comes from our self-preservation instinct. Can be used as a helpful gauge for how much we oughta love others, Lv 19.18 but more often than not turns into pure selfishness.
  8. INFATUATION. Lust or obsessive love. Whenever any of the above escalates into the jealous desire to possess the one they love. By this point outsiders, disturbed by how it looks, try to call this anything but love, but the infatuated person insists it’s love.

Your own dictionary and thesaurus will no doubt list more than these eight. You may even look at my categories and figure I could’ve lumped them together even more. (Or less.) That’s fair. There’s lots of overlap. Debate it all you like. My point is to show you the many things we English-speakers mean by “love.”

Defining aghápi.

When Christians talk about love, we refer to aghápi (KJV “charity”), which most of us spell “agape,” and sometimes mispronounce. That, we insist, is godly love.

Same as our culture, ancient Greek speakers had multiple definitions of the word. They used it all sorts of ways, and used many of the same eight definitions we do. Every once in a while you’ll hear some Christian claim aghápi and fílos are two entirely different kinds of love… but to your average ancient Greek speaker, no they weren’t; they were interchangeable synonyms.

The Corinthians had a bunch of definitions for aghápi. And they were entirely sure they knew what it meant. Corinth was the location of the biggest temple of Aphrodite, the Greek god of love. Corinthians presumed they, of all people, oughta know what aghápi is.

Hence Paul had to write out his definition in order to show ’em no, they really didn’t.

1 Corinthians 13.4-8 KWL
4 Love has patience. Love behaves kindly. It doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion.
It doesn’t draw attention to how great it is. It doesn’t exaggerate.
5 It doesn’t ignore others’ considerations. It doesn’t look out for itself. It doesn’t provoke behavior.
It doesn’t plot evil. 6 It doesn’t delight in doing wrong: It delights in truth.
7 It puts up with everything, puts trust in everything,
puts hope in everything, survives everything. 8A Love never falls down.

In most translations this passage is rendered, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude,” etc. 1Co 13.4-5 NRSV That’s not a bad translation, but using all these adjectives gives people the idea Paul described what love is. He didn’t; he used verbs. This is about what love does. Or doesn’t.

English lacks a single word for the verb μακροθυμεῖ/makrothymeí, “has patience”; or the verb χρηστεύεται/hristévete/“behaves kindly.” Hence all the English adjectives. Consequently we get the wrong idea that love is something, and not so much that it does something. Love is active, not passive.

Paul’s definition was corrective, ’cause the Corinthians, same as our culture, had the usual wrong ideas of love.

  • “Love has patience”—whereas our culture can’t wait. It’s now or never.
  • “Love behaves kindly”—we’ll do all sorts of rude and crude and thoughtless things in love’s name, and insist love means never having to say you’re sorry. And don’t get me started on “tough love.”
  • “Love doesn’t act with uncontrolled emotion”—love is nothing but out-of-control emotion, wild and unstable, here today and gone tomorrow.
  • “Love doesn’t draw attention to how great it is”—whereas just about every single one of our pop songs extols the greatness and glory of love.
  • “Love doesn’t exaggerate”—whereas lovers offer to climb the highest mountains, swim the deadliest seas, and sacrifice their futures for love. And never really do.
  • “Love doesn’t ignore others’ considerations”—whereas people in love will ignore all their friends, and sacrifice those relationships for their beloved.
  • “Love doesn’t look out for itself”—of course it does.
  • “Love doesn’t provoke behavior”—we’ll lie, cheat, and steal for it.
  • “Love doesn’t plot evil”—we’ll ruin other people’s relationships and marriages for it.
  • “Love doesn’t delight in doing wrong”—but “if loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.”
  • “Love delights in truth”—whereas people will tell their loved ones all sorts of lies, just to protect their feelings, just to keep the romance going.
  • “Love puts up with everything”—until it doesn’t.
  • “Love puts trust in everything”—until you realize your lover is a lying weasel, and you decide you can’t forgive ’em anymore.
  • “Love puts hope in everything”—until reality sets in.
  • “Love survives everything”—tell that to our divorce rate.
  • “Love never falls down”—it wears off after a few years, and people end things because there’s just no hope of getting it back once it’s gone.

You see how our culture has love completely backwards? Corinth was no different. When you read the myths about Aphrodite, you discover she was flighty and unstable. She demanded ridiculous things for “love,” and her emotions turned on a dime. All throughout history, love’s been depicted the very same way. Even today. Watch any present-day romantic comedy.

And none of that is what Paul, or the scriptures, or God, means by love. God is love, and we define love by God’s character: Love isn’t temporary or unstable, because God isn’t temporary or unstable. Love has patience, behaves kindly, acts hopeful and faithful, because God has patience, behaves kindly, and acts hopeful and faithful. The reason true Christians produce the fruit of love is because God’s own character overflows into our lives, and produces the very same behavior.

Stick with Paul’s definition.

I’ve heard a lot of loopy sermons based on the idea of overlaying our culture’s ideas of love onto bible verses. Fr’instance one preacher claimed “Love your neighbor” Lv 19.18 means we need to pursue a close, intimate friendship with every single one of the people in our apartment buildings or housing developments. We should all be the bestest of best friends. With everyone.

Frankly this is nuts. We should love them—be patient with them, kind to them, look out for them—but develop close personal relationships with everyone on the block? Can’t be done. Even if we had that much time and put in that much effort: Some of them are self-centered jerks, and are never gonna do any more with us than use and abuse. They’re not trustworthy. They’re not safe. Don’t befriend them.

Yeah, Jesus befriended sinners. Lk 15.2 But he wasn’t close with them, for he knew what sort of people they were. Jn 2.24-25 We need to exercise the same sort of wisdom when it comes to certain people. It’s far easier for sinners to lead us astray, than for us to lead sinners aright.

“Love your enemy” Lk 6.35 exposes just how dumb this instruction is. Then we see the foolishness of trying to have warm fuzzy feelings towards them. (Although some have tried. Like I said, I’ve heard the sermons.)

So how do we love our neighbors, our enemies—basically everybody? Stick with Paul’s definition. Behave like love does. Impatient? That’s not love; don’t do that. Jealous? That’s not love; don’t do that. Overwhelmed by passion? That’s not love; don’t do that. Shouting from the rooftops? That’s not love; don’t do that.

What’s more, don’t justify such behavior, like pagans will: “But I’m doing it out of love.” That’s not love. Love is self-controlled. Love isn’t possessive. Love doesn’t demand undue attention or outrageous devotion. When you see these non-loving behaviors, recognize ’em for the carnal desires they are. Ask the Holy Spirit for help in weeding them out of your life.

I realize for some folks, they’ll have to do a complete 360-degree turn in their mindset about love. It won’t be easy. But once you get the hang of actual love, the other fruits of the Spirit come much, much faster. Paul likely listed love first Ga 5.22 because the other fruits are so dependent upon it. When we’re deficient in love, of course we’ll be deficient in the others. So make it a priority.