When we describe the love of God we often picture a kind of gooey sentimentality, maybe even a warm, romantic type of love. But is this an accurate depiction of Biblical love, or are we missing the mark?
In English, we have one word for the many types of love. Whether we’re discussing romantic love or brotherly love, the English language summarizes each aspect under one word: love. However, this has caused some confusion in Biblical exegesis. How can a God of love say that? (Matthew 12:34) The Greek language, however, does possess words for each of these aspects. This will help us to define exactly what kind of love God displays throughout the Biblical narrative. Out of the six loves in Greek (Agape, Eros, Philia, Ludus, Pragma, and Philautia), agape best represents Biblical love.
So what is agape love, and how does it apply to us today? When critics object to a Biblical passage by claiming something along the lines of, “A God of love would never command that!” they’re picturing a kind of love that always edifies, never calling out or condemning deceptive evil.
When it comes to agape love, however, this view needs to be laid to rest. While agape love certainly is caring, it has one goal in mind: to do what is best for the collective group. The Biblical social world (and 70% of the world today) was a collectivist society. Individualism, as we possess in modern times, was close to non-existent in ancient times as one would rarely get the chance to meditate on life. Survival was the main goal, and whatever it took to provide the well-being of the largest amount of people was the right thing to do. It put the group above the individual.
An example today would be someone praying that God will hold the rain back so they can go to Disneyworld. However, if someone like a farmer needs the opposite, it’s his request that would be answered over the one praying for a good time at the theme park. God’s love is centred on the greater good of the collective body rather than the individual request. That’s not to say individual requests can never be answered, they’re just not a high priority.
When it comes to objecting to passages depicting God’s punishment, or even verses where Jesus shames His opponents by name-calling them (i.e. Matthew 23:17) and insulting their intelligence (Matthew 12:3), it can be easily understood under this view of agape love (for a more in-depth analysis I recommend Glenn Millar’s article here).
But what about verses that command us to “Love your enemies”? Isn’t this in contradiction to the passages mentioned above, or when we confront our brothers and sisters with sin? Not at all. Agape love also comes in another form. We see this form today as “tough love” or “hard love.” It’s doing whatever it takes to protect the sheep, even if it hurts the offenders.
An example would be the story of the practising witches who walked into a church led by the well-known pastor Smith Wigglesworth. Dressed up in their best clothes, no one suspected a thing until it was revealed by God that something had come in to disrupt and cause deception. When it was revealed the witches were to be the cause, Wigglesworth demanded they leave.
When it comes to apologists, those like J.P. Holding have often been accused of being “internet bullies” because of their use of “harsh language” towards militant atheists. However, in cases such as these it often does no good to show the kind of love commonly associated with Christianity, so a harsher treatment is required (in J.P.’s case this is calling them “morons” or “wolves”). When it comes to militant atheists and the witches in the story, these people hold one objective: to spread deception and to keep people from the Kingdom of God. In such situations, it is Biblical to confront them and to do so boldly. J.P.’s vid here explains this in more detail.
But does that mean we don’t love them? No. When it comes to loving our enemies, Jesus never saw the Pharisees as personal enemies, but rather enemies of the truth. Personal offence was never in the picture, they were enemies of the Kingdom of God who threaten the eternal lives of those seeking the truth. This is the difference between the Pharisees and the Good Samaritan.
So does this mean we’re never to care for these people? What does it mean to “Bless those who persecute you”? We can answer this by looking at the word “Bless” itself. Something blesses us when we really need it. If I just had a full course meal, someone giving me an apple isn’t going to bless me, however, if I hadn’t eaten the entire day and then someone gave me that apple, that is a true blessing. In Jesus’s case, if the Pharisee suddenly fell to a fatal disease, agape love would require Him to pray for his healing. If the Pharisee goes back to his attacks then he is still an enemy of the Gospel unless something similar happens again. The Scriptures never ask us to stand passively against enemies of the truth but to extend a hand to them when they fall.
Today it seems we’ve lost our exaltation of the truth. We’ve allowed one too many witches into the church in the name of love and acceptance. Unfortunately, this love is hurting us more than it’s healing us.