An Ode to Agape Love

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With Valentine's Day a few days away, love is mentioned a bit more than other weeks. Heart-shaped everything, pink and red everywhere.  This is not a bad thing in the least, except, the English vernacular uses love to describe a strong emotion towards all sorts of things. In one breath, I can declare my undying love to Chick-fil-a and the next to my husband using the same word.  The Greeks had four different terms for love, ranging from the the friendly love (philos) to an empathic and familiar love (storge) to  romantic love (eros) to, finally, the holiest of loves, agape. In C.S. Lewis' exploration of these four loves, aptly titled, The Four Loves, he raises agape as the greatest of the other loves because it is the love that reflects God's love.

Agape love is a sacrificial, self-denying, unfailing love regardless of circumstances. It is perfectly displayed by the Triune God: God the Father agape loved us enough to offer a way to reconcile sinful, disobedient humanity to His holy presence by providing His beloved Son, Jesus. Though He knew the agony and pain ahead of Him, Jesus surrendered Himself to God's plans for redemption, knowing it would cost Him everything on earth and lead to an excruciating death. But His agape love for us was so strong, unfailing, and everlasting, He obeyed, and was led like a lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7).  Through His death, we could receive life. Through  His obedience, our disobedient hearts could repent and enter into the family of God. And now, for those who have believed, accepted, and daily walk after Jesus, obeying and trusting Him, we have the Holy Spirit in us, who agape loves us to the point of stirring our hearts towards God's Word so we desire to study it, reminding our minds of truths in His Word when we are feeling hopeless or anxious, and pointing us towards how He wants us to agape love those around us.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit. All perfectly displaying agape love. And we, as image-bearers of God (Genesis 1:27), are called to agape love too.

Nothing about that agape love is fluffy, easy, or even comfortable. It's not glamorous and it is certainly not convenient, nor efficient. It often requires us to go out of our way. Agape love is hard. And as Emily Jensen of the Risen Motherhood ministry recently wrote in her newsletter, it often feels like death. That seems a bit dramatic, maybe too much? Not at all. While there is nothing wrong with the candy hearts and hand-written Valentines in the mail, nor a romantic dinner, snuggles between a mama and a toddler, or friends enjoying a warm cup of coffee as they catch up in love, these are all the other three types of love. These loves come naturally, are enjoyable and reciprocal. They give you the warm fuzzies and bring back fond memories worthy of photos saved on your phone or if you're old school, a photo album. They are wonderful and important types of love. Don't get me wrong. But agape love... Well, that is often not pretty at all, yet the most important of all.

In the same newsletter, Emily Jensen says, "The purest moments of love we express are often the ones that feel the least lovely." This pure love of agape love is the exact love mentioned in Romans 5:8. "But God shows His love for us that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Agape love feels like death because it literally led Jesus to His death. And it leads us die to sin in exchange for life in Christ (Romans 6:11). It is the love defined in 1 Corinthians 13 as kind rather than boastful, patient rather than rude, rejoicing in truth rather than in wrongdoing. It's a love that does not give up on others even when they seem to give up on themselves, nor stops when it becomes inconvenient or takes too much of our time and efforts.

What does agape love look like?

Agape love is controlling your tongue when your child has yet again disobeyed your instructions, caused a mess that resembles a tornado whirling through your living room, throws a tantrum on aisle three of your local grocery store, or when your teenager screams "I hate you!" behind a slammed door.

Agape love is denying your own preferences, compromising, and serving your spouse even when you don't think they deserve it or they are in a season when they don't often reciprocate it. It is putting aside your own needs, not in a way that devalues your worth, but in a way that declares that you are on their side, cheering them on with compassion that goes beyond logic or what seems fair.

Agape love is being willing to open the door into your home to desperate people who need a nutritious meal, a listening ear, a cozy bed to rest on, or a safe place to land while they figure out trauma in their lives, even though it means extra costs and an abrupt disruption  to your well-structured week.

Agape love is volunteering to serve at church or community centers for the positions that are behind-the-scenes, seldom applauded or even noticed, or considered "beneath you". It means being available and willing for however God calls you to serve, regardless of what your personality type, talents, or spiritual gifting is.

Agape love is giving wholeheartedly and sacrificially of your resources and inviting God to direct how to steward well and give abundantly your finances and time, often to the point that the world may deem as foolish or a waste.

I believe Mother Theresa was referring to agape love when she once said, "True love hurts... it always has to hurt... if you really love one another, you will not be able to avoid making sacrifices." Her driving force was this brand of love that was only possible because of Jesus.

C.S. Lewis explains in The Four Loves, that this love makes us vulnerable, sometimes to the point of feeling broken. We can choose not to love, but that will be the greater loss.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. ”

Agape love can be hard. Agape love can  hurt. Agape love can mess up your carefully planned schedule. Agape love can humble you to the point of humiliation. The more I think of it, agape love seems utterly impossible for us to even try to emulate.

And that is because agape love is impossible. Or, rather, it is impossible for us without the power of God in us. This love is specifically a love from God, different from the other loves. There are plenty of good, charitable work done by non-Christians and I don't mean to discredit or lessen that. But this agape love is a love that should define Christians because it definitely defines their God. It is a love that "looks like faithfully following God and caring for others, even when it's hard," Emily Jensen says in the closing of her newsletter. We are only able to pour out of ourselves this self-sacrificial love when we are filled with it from the Source. Only when we go to Him over and over, daily (and often, multiple times a day), asking for forgiveness when we fail yet again to display this love and asking Him to empower us with it through the faithful presence of the Holy Spirit, will we have the ability to be agents of agape love.

I have often failed to exhibit this love to the very people I love the most, my husband and baby boy.  I can be impatient, selfish, and hold unfair expectations. A few weeks ago, I was annoyed when Elliot's naps and nighttime sleep worsened dramatically, likely due in part to his reflux, food allergies, and itchy eczema. I even got angry several times, crying out in frustration as if he was doing it on purpose. I have countless other examples of my failure to agape love, which are usually a result of me relying on my own strength, being distracted by other things rather than spending time with God in prayer and Bible stud, or carrying bitterness, pride, and selfishness.  But I am on a lifelong journey of learning to agape love that is made possible by the grace of God.

In Joanna Weaver's brilliant book, Having A Mary Heart in A Martha World, she says this:

"Of all identifying marks of a Christian, Jesus said love would be the thing that gives us away. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples," he said, "if you love one another (John 13:35). Agape is to be our signature --the unconditional, never-ending love of God flowing through and out of our lives. A feel-good phileo kind of love isn't enough. We need a love that loves "in spite of" and "because of." In spite of rejection, hardship, or persecution, we love. Because of the great compassion God lavished upon us, we share it with our world -- both in words and in sacrificial service. We have been filled with great treasure for one purpose: to be spilled."

What a great definition of agape love. It is a love that does not originate from our own selves but from God. And when we are rooted to Him, as Jesus says in John 15, as small branches connected to Him, the Vine, we can image this love. We can replicate or imitate this love (1 Thessalonians 1:6-7) the more we are connected to the Source of the love.

Weaver says that the evidence of a life changed by Jesus and under His lordship is becoming "living epistles," or, as Paul told the Christians in Corinth, "a letter from Christ" to the world. Weaver goes on to say that the evidence of the first Christians being transformed by Christ "came in the form of the walking, breathing, living epistles that filled the young church's meeting rooms and spilled into the streets." Wow, that is powerful. Like a cup filled with the most satisfying water for a parched desert traveler, our lives are to be spilled out, refreshing and rejuvenating others with the Living Water that is Jesus. We are God's letter read by the world, set apart to "communicate his glory to a lost and dying world." D.L. Moody has said, "Of one hundred men, one will read the Bible; the ninety-nine will read the Christian." We may be the only glimpse of the gospel that many people will see, which makes it even more imperative that we continually be filled up with God's agape love and then go out in the world -- our homes, schools, work places, grocery stores, playgrounds -- communicating His letter of hope, mercy, grace, redemption, and the agape love that is His signature, signed in the blood of Jesus at the cross.

This Valentines, I will enjoy the cute heart-shaped trinkets and candy, but the overarching love that I want to focus on and celebrate in God's agape love and by His strength, impart it to those around me. Let this be an ode to agape love, a sonnet to the Savior for His perfect love and a declaration that I want to mirror that as best as I can, as often as I can, with as many as I can. Not through my own power, not through my own motives, but because He first loved me.

"We love because He first loved us" (1 John 4:19)


(linking up with Grace & Truth link-up)

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