As an English instructor, I will at some point in the school year teach about literary themes and find myself hammering home this point:
Love is NOT a theme.
Generally defined, a theme is a main idea expressed in a literary work. To put it more plainly, a theme is a sentence that summarizes a message that a book (or poem or story) communicates about a topic.
And so, in the course of a typical classroom discussion about theme, love will be volunteered as an example of a theme. However, love is not a theme because love is not a sentence. That said, there are endless possibilities for themes about love.
These love themes don’t have to be complicated statements, and some are stronger than others–and many, as you can see, inspire the titles of pop songs:
» Love is a battlefield.
» Love is a many-splendored thing.
» Love hurts.
» All you need is love.
In my years as an English teacher, I’ve spent a lot of time teaching about what love isn’t (a theme, right?), but I’ve begun to realize that as a Christian maybe I ought to spend a little more time learning about what love is.
Not surprisingly, the Bible has a lot to say about what love is—hundreds of things to say, in fact. Among the multitude, we see that…
» Love is better than life. • Psalm 63:3.
» Love is as strong as death. • Songs of Songs 8:6
» The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. • 1 Timothy 6:10.
And, of course, in the familiar 1 Corinthians 13 passage that is a manifesto of love, we find love to be all sorts of things: patient, kind, humble; quick to forgive and slow to anger; not selfish or proud or jealous or rude; always protecting, trusting, hoping, and persevering.
To add to this already-complex composite of love, a quick study reveals that in all this talk about love, we not are not even always talking about the same type of love! In fact, the Bible mentions multiple kinds of love–in multiple languages!
For example, let’s take a closer look at the Scriptures we just mentioned:
» In Psalm 63 when love is declared to be “better than life,” this love is a Hebrew word meaning kindness or favor, sometimes even mercy, and refers in this passage to an attribute of God that some translations call lovingkindness.
» The love that is “as strong as death” in Song of Songs speaks to the feelings of love between a man and a woman and is a variation of a different Hebrew word for love that means affection or love. It not only “implies ardent and vehement inclination of the mind” but at the same time also expresses “tenderness and fullness of affection.“* This kind of love means to have “a strong emotional attachment to and desire either to possess or to be in the presence of the object [of affection].”*
» With the New Testament assertion that the love of money leads to various evils, we see a Greek word this time: philarguria, which means avarice or the greedy love of possessions. It is very close to another Greek word that means covetous, and it does not seem like a stretch for money-love and coveting to go hand-in-hand.
With different loves in different languages, we may feel like we could never get a handle on what love is.
Lest we despair, we can turn to 1 John 3:16 to find that God has addressed this very matter:
» This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
And, to highlight the point, it is repeated in verse 10 of the next chapter:
» This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
The Living Bible identifies the kind of love used in this verse as “real love,” or what the Greek language calls agape love.
Agape is defined as affection or benevolence and may be familiar to us when translated as the word charity. ** Agape love, or charity, is the ultimate unconditional love.
It is completely unselfish. It does not change depending on the person or the situation. It does not fail even when the love not returned. It is patient and kind. It protects, trusts, hopes.
Sound familiar? If so, it’s probably because agape is the exact kind of love referred to in 1 Corinthians 13–the passage we mentioned above as showing love to be just these sorts of things.
According to theologian C.S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves (which addresses this very topic), it is in agape love that we find love’s “real glory,”
Lewis defines agape loves as a gift–as a “Divine Gift-love” that “comes by Grace” and is “Love Himself working in a man” in a way that is “wholly disinterested” and desiring only what is “best for the beloved.”
Agape love is the highest love, superior to the other loves–of money, of a soul mate, even of family members. These loves come to us naturally just by being human.
But agape love is unnatural. It is supernatural–its source being of God and not of man. Indeed, it is only because agape love is a supernatural Divine Gift-love that we could ever hope to love in ways that are patient, kind, humble, unselfish, quick to forgive, slow to anger, ever hopeful, never failing.
It is only through agape love that we can do as Lewis says and “love what is not naturally lovable” like “criminals, enemies,” and even “the sulky, the superior, and the sneering.”
That kind of love is certainly a work of God and not of ourselves.
To review, love is not a theme. Love is a gift of grace.
And not just one that we receive freely from Christ and His sacrificial work of the cross, but one that we give–indeed, one we are called to give.
For while 1 John 3:16 tells us that we know what love is by Jesus’ laying down His life for us, the latter portion of that very same verse then says we should do likewise: “And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”
And the next chapter of 1 John follows up with the very same idea, telling us that we are to “love one another,” to show the working of God’s agape love in our lives–through our relationships, our actions, our speech, our decisions–so that, in a sense, we can become a gift of agape love to the world, a way that “in this world we are like Jesus.”
As God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. And the best way we can show love to one another is to love with agape love, the Gift-love that is patient, kind, unselfish.
That loves anyway, regardless.
On Valentine’s Day and any day.
Douglas, J.D., ed. The New Greek-English Interlinear New Testament. Tyndale House, 1993.
Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. 1991. Harcourt Brace, 1960. 116-117, 126, 128.
Nelmes, David. “God is Agape Love.” Ezilon Infobase, 10 Nov. 2007, https://www.ezilon.com/articles/articles/7675/1/God-is-Agape-Love.
Strong, James. The New Strong’s Concise Dictionary of Bible Words. Thomas Nelson, 2000.
—–. The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Thomas Nelson, 1996.
* Wilson, William. Wilson’s Old Testament Word Studies. Hendrickson, 1990.
** In just about every place we see the word charity in the Bible, the original Greek word used is agape, according to The New Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, which is based on the King James Bible. This source indicates that “charity” is used only in New Testament. It also gives one New Testament occurrence of the related word “charitably,” which is shown as a combination of agape and another word used to form an adverb.
photograph “Pink Roses of Valentine’s Day” courtesy of GoodFreePhotos