A is for Agape

“We fall in love but we do not fall in agape. We rise in agape.” – Peter Kreeft

Dear Children,

Today I’m going to write to you a few of my thoughts on the ultimate form of love: Agape (ah-gah-pay). Bear with me as this is a big subject to tackle in a little blog post. Agape is a Greek word often translated “love” in the New Testament. It is one of the four loves: affection (storge), friendship (philia), erotic love (eros), and the love of God (agape). Agape love at its essence is Divine, and represents self-sacrifice. It is love at its ultimate and highest form.

C.S. Lewis, whom you know to be one of your dad’s favorite authors (due to the many Lewis books on our shelves) wrote a wonderful little book called The Four Loves. Within its pages are Lewis’ thoughts and explanations on these four types of love. While your mother and I have strived to ensure you knew you were loved, we have also tried to demonstrate to you that love is present in its various forms in our home. We did so in the hope that as you grew older you would be able to recognize them as well as participate in them, but not mistake love for what it isn’t. I’m going to attempt to explain what I mean below.

Narcissus, painted by Caravaggio

Something we see far too often in our world today is a selfish love. This comes from a distorted sense of self as the center of the universe resulting in a very self-centered love. This is not in fact love, but a cold, calculating sense of entitlement and a demand for affection. You see, without knowing and practicing agape love in your life, it becomes too easy to mistake affection, close friendship, and eroticism for true love. This would appear to be a very shallow way of looking at love, and it is, but it is also a sad representation of the fact that our world is so starved for agape love that people settle for the first indications of love in their lives. We climb the first rung or two of the ladder and leap off of it before we get to the top rung and safely onto the next floor. Too many do this again and again and again, not patient enough to wait for the real thing, and then growing bitter and resentful before finally giving up on love itself, hardening their hearts. Like Mrs. Haversham in Great Expectations, for example. Or, like Narcissus from Greek mythology, they fall in love with their own image and being unable to stop gazing upon themselves their hearts figuratively wither and die.

What these people fail to see (or have never been taught) is that instead of waiting around for love to be given to them they need to give love away. This is the mind-boggling mystery of the paradox of agape love: that somehow in agape you give yourself away, not just your friendship or affections or even your body. You willingly put yourself in your own hands and hand yourself over to another. Once you do this unthinkable thing, another unthinkable thing happens: you start to find that you lose yourself. You begin to be when you give yourself away. When you are a donor you find yourself a recipient of the very gift you gave away.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken.” – C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

I know this is difficult because it opens you up to having to trust. To having to be vulnerable. Yes this can lead to pain but no one said life was to be without pain. It is from pain that we learn and grow and go forward. While I would never wish any such pain upon you, I have also not shielded you from all instances of pain. The world can be a very cold place due to the non-practice of agape love, and were I to shield you from all pain I would be doing you a great harm and rendering you unprepared for the hardships and trials that will come.

I’m going to leave you with two examples of agape. The first is a passage from the Gospel of John.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.” (This he said to show by what death he was to glorify God.) And after this he said to him, “Follow me.” (John 21:15-19)

Recall that before this passage Peter had denied Jesus three times after his arrest. Here Jesus is giving Peter another chance, but in the original Greek this passage is written in the following way:

Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you agape me more than these?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord; you know that I philia you.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you agape me?”
Peter: “Yes, Lord; you know that I philia you.”
Jesus: “Simon, son of John, do you philia me.”
Peter: “Lord, you know everything; you know that I philia you.”

Jesus is asking Peter if he loves him in a divine, self-sacrificing way. Peter, knowing what Jesus asks of him, responds that he loves him but only in friendship. Peter is still hurting from having failed Jesus and avoiding his own persecution at the time. Jesus asks him a second time with the same result. The third time Jesus meets Peter at his own level and asks if Peter is indeed a true friend. This greatly grieved Peter for Peter knew that Jesus knows “everything”, including his own fears.

At this time in his life Peter did not consider himself capable of agape love. But notice that after the third question and response Jesus tells Peter what lies ahead in his future and that one day he would indeed demonstrate a sacrificial, agape love. No matter how far you fall or fail, my children, you are always capable of rising above the muck and the mire.

This is the type of love we are called to share. There are other examples of this of course as the parable of the Good Samaritan comes immediately to mind. And when asked what the greatest commandment is Jesus responded “You shall love (agape) the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love (agape) your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

“For God so loved the world…”

We are not to be merely friends with God. Nor are we to just show affection or fall into the trap of erotic relationships with our neighbors. Love is not “friends with benefits” (I’ll explain that one when you’re older). True love involves losing ourselves in the spirit of self-sacrifice. I know, it’s a hard concept, and one at which many have failed, myself included. Allow me one final example from another favorite of mine, Thomas Merton.

In his book Conjectures of A Guilty Bystander Merton writes a beautiful encounter he had with agape love in his own life, and of what can happen when we reach that step on the ladder.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.

[…]

It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, though it is a race dedicated to many absurdities and one which makes many terrible mistakes: yet, with all that, God Himself gloried in becoming a member of the human race. A member of the human race! To think that such a commonplace realization should suddenly seem like news that one holds the winning ticket in a cosmic sweepstake.

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

[…]

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.

I have been blessed on very brief and seldom occasions to experience what Merton described. There have been those periods where I, too, have stood looking upon a crowd of people and been able to feel a deep love and affection for them. Sadly these periods are too brief, but when they happen I have experienced such a depth of feeling and knowledge as to know I will never be the same…and that there is so much more of which I am capable. It is my hope that as you grow and enter the world on your own that you yourselves share in this experience in your interactions with not just your future spouses or children, but with those you encounter on your journeys.

I read once where C. S. Lewis was asked which of his many library books he thought he would have in heaven. He replied, “Only the ones I gave away on earth and never got back”. The same is true of our very self and of our ability to share our agape love. It is like a ball in a game of catch: throw it and it will come back to you; hold onto it and the game is over.

Don’t be ball hogs, kiddos.

Love,
Dad

©2012 Jeff A Walker. All Rights Reserved.

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3 thoughts on “A is for Agape

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