What passes for love among Christians.

In C.S. Lewis’s 1960 book The Four Loves, he wrote about four ancient Greek words which English-speakers consistently translate “love.” They aren’t the only four. I found a fifth when I was poking through my bible software’s Greek dictionary. I’ve found others since. But here’s that fifth love:

ΞΕΝΊΑ (xenía) zɛ'ni.ɑ noun, fem. Welcoming attitude towards a guest; receptiveness, hospitality, love for strangers.
2. A guestroom. Ac 28.23, Pm 1.22

Ever heard the myth of Philemon and Bauçis? They were a old married couple, and one day two strangers visited their farm. They showed their guests such hospitality—such love—the strangers later rewarded them for it by rescuing them from a flood. Turned out the strangers were the gods Zeus and Hermes. The Greeks loved to tell this story as an example of how we need to be hospitable to everyone—for you might be entertaining gods unawares. Or as the author of Hebrews reworded it, angels. He 13.2 KJV In any event, this story is exactly why the people of Lystra started worshiping Barnabas and Paul Ac 14.8-18 —they thought it was happening again.

The reason why xenía, or “hospitality,” isn’t straight-up ἀγάπη/aghápi, “charity”—the sort of love we Christians oughta practice—is because of the motive for reciprocity. It’s not unconditional. You don’t do it, expecting nothing in return. Exactly the opposite: You do expect something in return. Gratitude at the least, extremely generous remuneration at the most. Children’s fairy tales always have some tiny act of kindness getting repaid with vast fortunes, kingdoms, or you get to marry a prince. Be hospitable, and the universe owes you one. Yep, it’s all about karma.

And if your hospitality isn’t received with at the very least a “Thank you” …well, those people are jerks. Bad karma on them. Rate ’em zero stars.

Yep, hospitality isn’t unconditional love. It’s entirely conditional. And because humanity believes in karma, xenía is what we see among people instead of aghápi. Including what we see among Christians, who haven’t always learned our expectation of compensation is not real love. Love doesn’t demand love in return. Love doesn’t look out for itself. 1Co 13.5

It’s what the world calls charity.

Here’s a passage which tends to confuse Christians.

1 John 4.7-10 KWL
7 Beloved, we can love one another
only because love is something which comes from God.
Everyone who loves has been produced by, and knows, God.
8 Everyone who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, because God is love.
9 God’s love for us was revealed like this:
God sent his one and only Son into the universe, so we could live through him.
10 Love is like this: Not because we loved God,
but because he loved us, and sent his Son to cover over our sins.

Why it confuses us is because John matter-of-factly wrote: If people love, it’s ’cause they know God.

Problem is, we know an awful lot of pagans who really do appear to love! They love their families, they love their friends; some of ’em even love strangers and do grand acts of charity. In fact, some of ’em are way more charitable and kind than our fellow Christians. So what’s up with John?

Simple. The love these folks have for one another isn’t aghápi. It’s xenía.

They legitimately do love their family and friends and strangers… as we English-speakers define the word “love.” But they don’t love ’em selflessly. They don’t love ’em unconditionally. There are strings attached. All sorts of strings.

THEY LOVE THEIR KIDS. Because these kids are their kids: They’re an extension of themselves. They made these kids, and raised ’em to make ’em proud, or at least not bring shame on them. Now, wait till the kids do bring shame on ’em, and you’ll discover just how much love they actually have for their kids.

THEY LOVE THEIR FRIENDS. It’s because these are valuable, beneficial, entertaining, helpful people. These friends make their lives better. Do they keep, as friends, people who don’t make their lives better? Usually no; they unfriend ’em right away. Anybody who keeps ill-behaved friends are considered either people of low character, or emotionally and mentally unhealthy.

Our culture—and even our churches!—regularly teach us it’s okay to divest ourselves of difficult people. If someone’s falling apart, and we see no hope for their situation, it’s okay to just give up on them, and let ’em hit rock bottom. It’s “tough love.” It’s what they need.

THEY LOVE THE NEEDY. But only when they recognize these people as the deserving needy. When needy people are rude, greedy, choosy, or appear to be needy because they’ve made evil choices, they certainly don’t wanna help them—“Don’t give that guy $100; he’s only gonna spend it on booze!” But when needy people appear to be good people who just happen to be suffering, it offends people’s sense of reciprocity: Why, these people deserve help. Karma owes them big-time. No problem; we’ll fix things. We’ll help the universe out.

Plus it looks good. Plus tax deductions. Plus good karma: Someone might remember our act of generosity, and help us when we’re in a bind. At some point this karmic investment is gonna pay off… unless we can’t see how it could, and don’t bother.

In fact, thanks to karma, certain individuals are fine if they get nothing back. They get a perverse pleasure from feeling like a put-upon, under-appreciated martyr. And they expect God may grant them some form of heavenly consolation prize at the End. I mean, they earned it, didn’t they? ’Cause you know, martyrdom.

These expectations of reciprocity pervade our culture. We see it every Christmas: People expect the presents they receive will be more or less equal to the ones they’ve given. Whenever we get something beneath our expectations, they feel wronged. When we get something far, far above our expectations, we’re delighted… unless it’s too generous, “too much,” something we now feel obligated to match, ’cause we don’t wanna be in anyone’s karmic debt!

We see this every time someone refuses charity: They can’t afford to give back, so they’d rather do without the gift. We see this every time a politician refuses a contribution to their campaign: They know people expect to get something back, and don’t wanna be (or look) beholden to that contributor. We see this every time a date refuses an expensive gift that’s “too much”—they don’t wanna be beholden to their suitor. We see it in America’s divorces: When one partner slacks on the marriage, the other feels shortchanged, decides to end the relationship, and get theirs back—in dollars and cents.

Hospitality is never done selflessly. There’s always meant to be some reward. Forget to offer a simple thank-you, and people will be irritated for weeks thereafter: “What is wrong with people? Doesn’t anyone practice courtesy anymore?” Courtesy’s not actually the issue: Someone was practicing hospitality, not love, and wasn’t repaid. Because xenía looks out for itself.

Aghápi doesn’t.

Christians do it too.

So. Scratch the surface of any pagan which practices what they call “love,” and I guarantee you’ll find hospitality. Heck, scratch the surface of many a Christian.

Most of us Christians are practicing hospitality instead of charity, and can’t tell the difference. After all, hospitality appears to be all the things Paul described love as. 1Co 13.4-8 It’s patient, kind, gentle, humble, others-focused, good, truthful, faithful, hopeful, and consistent. Looks exactly like charity!

But frequently the patience runs out. The hospitable person throws up their hands and shouts, “Y’know, I’m all these things to everybody else. And just once I’d like someone to give me a little bit back!” Payback is overdue.

When “love” expects compensation, it’s not charity. Charity keeps no balance sheet. 1Co 13.5 Love gives, and doesn’t expect back. You know, like God does. We can’t possibly repay him for the gift of his Son, much less his kingdom. And he doesn’t expect payback anyway. If he did, man alive would he be bitter.

There’s our guideline for how we know whether we’re actually practicing the charitable sort of love God is, 1Jn 4.8, 16 versus the hospitable self-seeking love the world does. We look to God’s example. The Spirit’s fruit is nothing more than God’s own character traits, overflowing into us. Our ability to love is entirely based on God’s activity among us. If our love doesn’t look like God’s love, we’re doing it wrong.

How do we know what God’s love looks like? Read your bible. Read the gospels. Follow Jesus’s example. And when you find his example practiced among our fellow Christians, watch that too. (It’s not gonna be infallible like the bible stuff, but it’s concrete, so it definitely helps.)

Bible? Sure I’ll quote some bible. More from John:

1 John 4.10-21 KWL
10 Love is like this: Not because we loved God,
but because he loved us, and sent his Son to cover over our sins.
11 Beloved, this is how much God loved us.
We’re obligated to love one another.
12 No one’s ever seen God, yet when we love one another, God’s with us.
His love’s been expressed in us, 13 so this is how we get to know we’re with him and he’s with us.
He’s given us his Spirit.
14 We’ve seen, we’ve witnessed, how the Father sent the Son to save the world.
15 When anyone agrees Jesus is the Son of God, God’s in them and they’re in God.
16 The love God has is in us. We’ve known and believed it. God is love.
Those who stay in love, stay in God, and God stays in them.
17 Love is expressed this way among us, so we can be confident on Judgment Day:
In this world, we can be like he is.
18 There’s no fear in love. Total love throws fear out,
because fear focuses only on hellfire. The fearful don’t express love.
19 We love because God loved us first.
20 When anyone says they love God, yet hates their fellow Christian, they lie:
Those who hate their fellow Christian, whom they can see, can’t love God, whom they can’t.
21 Plus we have this command from him: If you love God, love your fellow Christian.

God obviously doesn’t expect payback. He loved us first—when we were in no position to pay him back, when we were (and are) totally unworthy of his love. He sent his Son to sort us out, and make us worthy.

True, God expects us to love him, and commands it. But it’s not to pay him back; our level of love can’t possibly. We’re ordered to love because really, it’s the only healthy thing for us. In fact, his instructions are to pay his love forward: Because he loves us, we’re to love one another. We’re to love as he does: Generously, self-sacrificially.

We’re spurred to do this because God’s in us. He’s not just observing from the outside, from some lofty position outside of time and space, cheering us from the stands as we run the race of life. He’s here, empowering us, making us able to love. He corrects us when we don’t, supplies us when our love is deficient. He drives out our fears so we learn to love from pure motives—not because we’re worried about hellfire, about the consequences of displeasing God. He drives out our desire for reciprocity, for compensation, for getting something back.

People who don’t know God, totally don’t understand this. How on earth can we Christians love people so utterly selflessly? How can we forgive murderers? How can we give charity to the unworthy, to people who won’t even say thank you, to people who exploit us and try to take more than their fair share?

They assume we must be doing it because we expect divine reciprocity: Some heavenly reward for all our good deeds, some pie in the sky when we die, by and by. They’re offended when we create charities which do this stuff, and they’re outraged when those charities can access government grants. (Worse, when government programs act charitably too.) ’Cause that’s their tax dollars, which they only want spent on killing terrorists with drones.

This outrage is our tip-off that we’re dealing with someone who doesn’t know the difference between charity and hospitality. When we see pure, selfless aghápi coming from a person—and we likewise have God’s love coming out of us—we can immediately identify them as someone who actually knows God. They might not call themselves Christian, but it makes no difference: They know God. You can’t love like God unless you live in God.

And, at the same time, you can’t live in God unless you love like God.

No, it’s not a formula. It’s a relationship.

So that’s the way we maintain the proper godly sort of love: Stay in God. Don’t so much concentrate on making sure the love we practice fits precisely with Paul’s definition. Don’t get legalistic about love; that’ll really warp it. Instead, concentrate on the relationship with God. Let him make sure we stick to Paul’s definition. As we live in him, we exhibit true, pure, charitable love. As well as all the other fruits of the Spirit.