Affection—versus love.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 June

Affection is one of the eight things our culture defines as love. It—or more accurately a Greek word which gets translated that way, στοργή/storgí—took up a chapter of C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves, in which Lewis described it in some detail. Mainly to talk about what traits of storgí might be sorta-kinda godly. For even though affection isn’t at all what Jesus and his apostles meant by αγάπη/agápi, it’s got its positive qualities.

But no, it’s not a fruit of the Spirit. Anybody can be affectionate. Plenty of pagans are. It can be a good thing, and have positive effects: People tend to be accommodating to those for whom they have affection. But as you know, “accommodating” can be either a good or bad thing. Looking the other way as your kids commit crimes isn’t a good thing. People are way too affectionate towards our favorite vices.

Years ago I was curious to find all the instances of storgí in the New Testament, to see how various translators interpret it. To my surprise I found it’s not even in the NT. The authors never used it. It does appear four times in the apocrypha—in 3 and 4 Maccabees, books which only a few Orthodox churches include in the bible.

Er… why’d Lewis write a Christian book in which he spent an entire chapter examining a word not found in the bible? Mainly because Lewis wasn’t writing about bible. The Four Loves is about love—and as a scholar who studied and taught on the ancient Greek classics, he was really teaching on the classics. How the ancients perceived and practiced love. ’Cause the ancient Greeks had plenty to say about storgí, even though the bible doesn’t.

Storgí, and its verb-form στέργω/stérgo, refers to the mutual love parents and children have for one another. Or siblings. Or kings and subjects pretend to have for one another. Sophocles used it to refer to friends; Herodotus used it for spouses. It means you accept this other person. You’re fond of them. You show a preference for them. You’re content with them. You’re satisfied with them. You put up with them, or adjust to them.

It’s what we English-speakers mean by “like.” (But it doesn’t go as far as the popular phrase “like-like.” Just “like.” You don’t like-like your parents; ewww.)

As I said, not in the bible. Mostly ’cause in the Hebrew culture, they leapt straight to describing their affections as אָהַב/aháv, “love.” They didn’t really bother with degrees: You either love or hate something or someone. Jesus said if we follow him, we gotta hate everyone else. But only by way of comparison: We love him so much, comparatively we hate everything else. It’s extreme-sounding language because, much like French, Hebrew and Aramaic didn’t have different words for “like” or “like-like”: You loved something or you hated it.

For this reason a translator, or someone trying to describe Hebrew ideas in ancient Greek, wouldn’t have a lot of use for storgí: It wouldn’t sound strong enough. You only like your father and mother? Phooey to that. In the New Testament, the writers described people who loved their fathers and mothers, with the largely interchangeable words φίλος/fílos and agápi. They weren’t just affectionate towards these parents, or liked them, but loved them. Jesus described people who loved their parents, Mt 10.37 and his Father as someone who loves us. Jn 16.27 God isn’t merely affectionate towards us. He loves us. He is love, so it stands to reason.

We can talk, as Lewis did, about all the ways people are affectionate towards family members, and whether this behavior sounds anything like storgí. But if you wanna start quoting bible, or wanna grow closer to God, ditch storgí. God doesn’t want us to merely like him. (And none of this secular bushwa about how you can love someone but not really like them; that’s not love either.)

A biological sort of love.

Yeah, I know Protestants don’t consider 4 Maccabees to be bible. I’m gonna quote it anyway.

4 Maccabees 14.13-14 KWL
13 Look how complicated parental affection is,
drawing everything to a compassionate sympathy.
14 Even irrational animals have sympathy and affection
towards the ones they’ve begotten, just like humans.

That’s one of the few places we see storgí in the scriptures—if you count ’em as such.

Now I don’t know what sort of emotional bonds animals have, or don’t have, with one another, or God. Nobody does. Ec 3.21 We don’t know whether it’s pure instinct, pre-programmed into their DNA; for that matter how much of our emotions are pre-programmed into us? ’Cause there are a lot of humans who are awfully self-centered and anti-social, but as soon as they become parents, their kids become their whole world.

Still, between the animal and human anecdotes, it looks like affection is universal. Parents are affectionate towards their offspring. There are exceptions of course—and most of us are outraged by them. Deadbeat parents are universally loathed. Animals which abandon their young are seen as aberrations—or too stupid to recognize they oughta care for their young, if they expect the species to survive. But really, the whole “The species must survive” deal is a logical argument, and affection isn’t logical. It’s pure emotion: You love your kids, for no other reason than they’re your kids. Other kids? Pfeh. “Get off my lawn!” But your kids are the only ones you care about, and are willing to suffer for.

And God’s willing to suffer for us, same as humans with our kids. Like a hen gathers her chicks, as Jesus put it. Mt 23.37 God’s affection for us gets just as irrational: He puts up with us way past the point we should’ve pushed him away entirely. Any other party would’ve washed his hands of us long ago. But our Father has infinite patience for his wayward children.

So it’s in this sense affection is like godly love. It’s kinda patient. 1Co 13.4 It kinda bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. 1Co 13.7 But where it’s not godly is the way it fixates way too much on the object of our affections. Parents can be awfully envious, jealous, boastful, arrogant, provocative, or turn a blind eye to wrongdoing and evil, when it comes to their kids. And affection regularly insists on its own way—as do all the fake loves. For the one thing affection does not want, is to be deprived of the person we’re affectionate for. Even if that’s the very best thing for that person. Affection is pretty sure it’s the very best thing for that person.

Lewis, in his books, was fond of taking affection to its worst extremes. Like the mother in The Great Divorce who loved her children so much, she didn’t care at all about them and their desires; she desired them so she could rule them, for she knew best. Lewis’s advice-devil Screwtape felt a ravenous affection for his nephew Wormwood; he “loved” him in that he wanted to devour him. It’s the sort of affection found in any stage mom, sports dad, any make-me-proud-but-don’t-show-me-up parent: Their “love” for their kids is really because they see the kids as extensions of themselves. And once they don’t see their kids that way anymore, the “love” winks out.

But in its benign sense, it’s when we like comfortable or favorite things. It’s the aháv in the Old Testament where parents like their kids Ge 24.28, 37.3 …or like certain foods. Ge 27.14

But at its best, it’s like what the LORD has for his children. It includes the רַחַם/rakhám, “feeling compassion,” God and parents have; Ps 103.13, Is 14.1 the σπλαγχνίζομαι/splankhnídzome, “feeling compassion,” Jesus has for the unshepherded needy. Mk 6.34, 8.2, 9.22 It’s the sort of affection people lack for one another, because we don’t see one another as family, but as objects to manipulate, or shove out of the way.

As Christians we need to realize every Christian is family; and every human is God’s kid, whether they know him or not. We need to get some of that affection back, and try to like people instead of seeing them as competitors or opposition.

I still don’t identify affection as fruit though. Compassion is; kindness is. But affection helps encourage compassion and kindness. And patience, and generosity, and other fruit. Anyone can be affectionate—but the Spirit’s fruit helps keep it from degenerating into the evil sort.