Live For Each Other
I love pizza. I love reading books. I love theology.
I love Thorn Street. I love our neighborhood. I love our church.
I love my friends. I love my daughter. I love my wife.
I love God.
Ten different things that I said that I “love” and when I said them, I never meant the same thing twice. All ten times that I said that I ‘love,’ I meant something different. Because I don’t love pizza the way I love you, or the way I love God. And, if I did, it would be a problem.
Actually, what if I did love God the way that I love pizza? Like, I loved to consume God… like I wanted to experience the spiritual feelings that come from God, but I only wanted to consume God, wanted to greedily devour God, and then forget about God an hour later as I finish my night gluttonously eating ice cream? And, through all my consumption, I remain unchanged except for being, maybe, a little bit fatter? I think that the spiritual version of fatter is selfishness. What if I experienced God and ended up more selfish? What if I loved God like pizza?
The unfortunate thing is that I think this is American Christianity. I would say that it is worldwide Christianity, but I have nearly no experience with other Christians outside of our country. But, from what I have seen, here in America, we want a God who costs very little or sometimes even nothing. We want a God for whom we can give an hour on Sunday morning and then forget for the rest of the week, the rest of our lives. That is loving God like I love pizza. I give pizza an hour on Friday night to pizza (it’s our family pizza night) and then I forget about it until the next week (but, because I am getting older, it does sometimes haunt me through the evening after I eat it).
That’s interesting for us because what we want from God is for God to be easy, consumable, devourable. What we should want from God is to be haunted by God. Haunted. Instead of loving God deeply, aching for a relationship, we want to eat God and have it all be over with.
At the heart of this struggle to love God, to seek God, more or differently, is that English is just so, so limited. It’s become cliche at this point to name the three words that translate as love from Greek into English. Agapao, Phileo, and Eros. But there is another that you may have never heard that can help us in our discussion from 1 John. The word is storge (although it’s found in classical Greek sources and not in the Bible – the negative form was though). Agape is the most common source of the translation of God’s love for us or our love for each other that comes from God. Phileo is much less common but refers to love for each other, a more natural, less holy love. It can also refer to how we might say that we love pizza, that is, the way we love inanimate things. Eros is desire. Though it is never used in the New Testament, the ones who translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, used it a couple of different times.
In Greek mythology, Eros was the god of love, desire, the predecessor of Cupid. His story was a story about struggling for love. He was in love Psyche, the daughter of the love-goddess, Venus, and they were kept apart by the jealousy of Venus. Theirs is a love story like many of the romantic comedies that we see in the theatres. There are obstacles to their love. But, eventually, they get to be together forever. Eros, though the word often has romantic or sexual overtones to its use, is a love that wants to overcome anything in its way, a love that will find a way.
I find it interesting that the New Testament writers never use this eros term for our pursuit of God. See Christianity has had a habit of taking words that the culture uses and reusing them for our purposes (evangelical, Christmas, etc.) So why wouldn’t we use eros for our own purposes? It sounds like when A.W. Tozer wrote that his prayer was: “May God grant us a desire for God that supersedes all other desires.”
But, for us, for now, none of the words we’re currently using for our love for God are getting it done. Psychology has also found a similar problem in English for the way that we use the word love for each other. It has become so devoid of meaning that it just means being attracted in one way or another, wanting to be together. And, moreover, Psychology, as it relates to linguistics, is finding that there are really only three uses for the way we use the word ‘love’ and mean it: 1) The love of parent for a child – the love for one who we must care for; 2) The love of a child for a parent – that is, a love for the one who cares for us; and 3) the desire for a lover. Even Psychology realizes that the word has become so limited that it can be hurtful.
Now here’s where it gets really sticky for us as we read 1st John. John says “Beloved (Ἀγαπητοί), let us continue to love each other (ἀγαπῶμεν) since love (ἀγάπη) comes from God…” and “Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God.” The whole section is full of the words love and God. And it is always agape.
In fact, it gets more complicated when it says that “God is love.” God is agape. But then, as we read, we realize that we experience God from our own sense of phileo – we love God like we love pizza, not in the way that God loves us or the way that God is love. And the proof of it, the proof that we love God in such a shallow sense is how we love our neighbors. We love our neighbors not from the depths of agape that God has given to us, but maybe, if we love them at all, if we love them even a little bit, we love them in that same limited phileo sense. We want them for a minute, an hour, then we want them to go away and not bother us. We want our feel-good moment as our church pews fill or we provide a service and feel good about that, but then they can leave our lives forever. That’s not agape. We have to pray for agape. May God haunt us with agape that will overflow and pour out of us. But can we even commit to a love that we haven’t seen and do not understand?
I’m a big fan of a Calvinist scholar named James K.A. Smith. A number of years ago he was reading and writing about a philosophy of God that admitted that, in our actions, in the way that we live our lives, we look like we don’t believe that God exists. For almost three generations in America and in Western Europe, school and society have told us that if you cannot experience something with touch, taste, smell, sight, or hearing, then it must not exist.
The problem with this is our parents’ generations and before them lived in an “enchanted” world in which they looked for God to act. To many of them, God lived under every rock and in every good and bad thing that happened. (How often did we hear our grandparents thank God in their lives? How often did we hear our grandparents give God the credit for the good things in their lives?) But, now, we struggle to even call something miraculous. (I’d be happy to even hear someone blame God for all that is wrong with the world because at least God is entering into our thoughts.) We see healing and we thank God out of the side our mouths.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have always sort of felt like Rudolf Bultmann who said it this way: My daughter got sick and I prayed for God to heal her. Then I took her to the doctor, she received medicine, and she got better. And I praised God.
The problem is, in that situation in which we realize that so much of life has lost its mystery, we can’t seem to praise God as we should. So, since we can’t praise God, no wonder we also struggle to live like we love God, struggle to live agape. And, because of this struggle to live like we love God, no wonder we can’t quite love our neighbors as we should either.
So, back to James K.A. Smith. A couple of years after he wrote the book on our loss of an enchanted life, he had a hypothesis and wrote it into a book called, You Are What You Love, in which he considered what it would look like if we started acting like our world was the enchanted world of our foremothers and forefathers of faith, if we started living like our hearts truly were compasses and pointed them toward God – what would that change about us and about our faith? What would it change?
In other words, for us, today as we consider love and scripture, what would happen if we chose storge ( the love of commitment) as we waited for agape?
I don’t even feel like I can ask you to live agape because it is so missing in our world and in our faith. But can we choose love? Can we commit to love? Can we storge God and each other as we wait for that deeper love? Can we look for God under every rock because we have committed to? Not because we feel it every day or because we have daily proof. Can we do it because we have committed to? Can we pray in hope that our storge turns to agape? Pray that our love begins to look like God’s love in this life?
I have been really critical of evangelical theology in my adult life. That is, the stuff I saw as a young boy where people would be worked up into a frenzy by a preacher who knew how to play heartstrings and get people to commit to something they didn’t yet understand. I remember people, myself included, having all of these come-to-Jesus moments at the kneeling rail, just to return the following week.
I remember campmeeting when the preacher would call anyone who felt something to come forward and accept Jesus. And these fellas would get up and run to the altar. Then they would literally run laps around the congregation, shouting and hollering! I guess that’s where we got the term “holy rollers.”
But, where my criticism came in was that it seemed like we never got closer to Jesus. There were only two marks: 1) in; and 2) out. So, when I came to methodism and was taught that John Wesley thought that this seeking of agape was a lifelong process in which God took the lead and gave us experiences and life that would change us forever, I was totally in, totally ready to let go of that make-a-decision-today stuff.
But, as time has gone on, I have realized that you have to make a decision to begin that process. Christ will not make you do it. Just sitting and listening each week will not do it. You have to give it all over. In order to seek agape, you must choose storge – you must commit to seek, commit to be found. When we can’t feel agape, we must commit to seek it.
I do love pizza. I do love you. And I do love God. But I want more and don’t want these loves to be the same thing. More than anything I want my love for you and for my neighbors to be more like the love God gives to me. I’m seeking agape, and, on my best days, I’m seeking it not for myself, but so that I can give it away to you and to others. I want the love of God, the love of Christ, an unselfish love, to flow through me, not to stop with me.
So, can we give it all over? Maybe not today? But can we choose him? Can we choose Christ and the love he offers? Can we commit to seek agape?
May it be so; may we be loved; and may we be love.