Back to Top

Three Kinds of Love

A Valentine’s Day Meditation Inflected by Liberation Theology

Valentine’s Day this year  may appear ironic, given the many regions of the world torn apart by war, the encroaching climate crisis, or even the fact that a Roman martyr who wrote a chaste and affectionate letter to a young woman in a household he had baptized prior to his execution is now celebrated in Western contexts with chocolates and flowers. At this moment, I want to write about love too, from the perspective of a person with multiple disabilities. If there’s any force that can unite people and bind up our wounds, it’s love.

Having said that, to quote a wildly popular dance song from the 1990s, what is love? Love is hard to define because it comprises both a feeling and an action, or a series of actions. That said, Scripture can help us to discern a few patterns that can tell us in part what love is. In the New Testament, interested parties will find a few words that describe love, and what it does. Those words include philia, an energy that bonds people in friendship, and agape, a humble power marked by self-giving, like Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. Having said that, some words are Scriptural without being in Scripture. We’ll start with eros, a romantic and empathetic force that doesn’t occur in the Greek.

It can reconnect humankind to God and remind us of the meaning and truth of our existence as God’s creatures.

While eros doesn’t show up in the New Testament itself, many theologians define it as a power that can create, heal, and help people to express themselves. For instance, Asian-American feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock argues that women, and feminist theologians in particular, can and should criticize patriarchal relationships that exercise power over, rather than connection with. Brock sees eros as a connective force. Similarly, Paul Tillich, twentieth-century German-American existential theologian, writes that faith, an embodied action, helps people to know why we exist. According to Tillich and one of his students, eros is a moral force, because it can reconnect humankind to God and remind us of the meaning and truth of our existence as God’s creatures. So, eros is highly Scriptural because it allows people to create, heal, empathize, and reconnect to God in our bodies and spirits. I’ve felt eros on the chin-up bar at Hart House at the University of Toronto, snuggling with my girlfriend watching a Marvel movie, and even in a large pot of peppermint tea.

Second, by (slight) contrast, philia bonds human beings in friendship. This word does show up in Scripture – for instance, David and Jonathan share this sort of love (1 Samuel 18:1-5). Similarly, in the New Testament, after John recounts Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter and Jesus are taking a walk (John 21:15-19). Peter is most likely feeling guilty, because he denied Jesus three times while he was on the Cross (John 18:15-18, 25-27), so he really isn’t expecting that Jesus will have nice things to say! However, Jesus turns the tables, as he usually does. When he says both “Do you love me more than you love our other friends?” and “Do you love me more than you love fishing, or other professional things?”  Jesus uses a version of agape, the self-giving love. When he hears Jesus’ repeated question, Peter grimaces, and says, “Lord, you know I love you…as a friend” (phileo; 21:15-16). On his third attempt, Jesus soft-pedals his question, and asks, “Peter, do you love me as a friend?” Peter bursts out, “Lord, you know everything. You know I love you as a friend!” (21:17, NRSV). Then Jesus explains what Peter, as Jesus’ friend, will have to do if he helps him to fulfil his mission (21:18-19). Eros is a connecting force, but philia, friendly love, is hard to sustain! I’ve certainly felt that power too. On one hand, I’ve hurt people in my past, and many have hurt me. On the other, I’ve felt the all-encompassing embrace of friends inside and outside the Church in song, shared food, activism, and prayer. My friends have taught me to be myself, just as Jesus shows Peter a more whole and active vision of himself.

Even in great pain, Jesus treats others as better than himself.

Finally, agape, the humble love that shows up in Jesus’ questions to Peter, is easy to define (and very hard to attain!). It’s the love that sees someone as equal to oneself, as David sees Jonathan’s son Mephibosheth after he’s decimated his family (2 Samuel 9). Moreover, as Paul points out, unconditional love is patient and kind, and isn’t arrogant, selfish, or rude to others; significantly, this selfless love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Cor. 13:5, NRSV). Again, Jesus is the best example of this love because he uses his energy at the moment of his death to care for others. He forgives the religious leaders and Romans who have placed him in that situation (Luke 23:34), speaks tenderly to his mother and one of his other friends (John 19:26-27), and even has kind words for another person undergoing crucifixion (Luke 23:43). In many ways, the Jesus of the New Testament epitomizes love because, even in great pain, Jesus treats others as better than himself. In the same way, my family and friends have often embodied this love; I owe a special debt of gratitude to my older brother and his family, who cared for me in Ottawa at the height of the pandemic, and to a number of friends in Toronto and Chicago who fed me physically and spiritually as I did my Ph.D., and after I completed it and began other work.

Let’s revisit parts of what love is. First, eros, the connective and romantic force that can unite people to God, is a moral and existential force as well as a physical one. Furthermore, philia, the love of friends, can sustain people across time because friends care for each other in life’s highs and lows, just as Jesus does with Peter in the passage we’ve explored. Finally, agape, the love that God displays to us and wants us to share with each other, is portrayed fully in Jesus. This Valentine’s Day, and at all times, God wants us to love each other as He has loved us (John 13:34); that love is marked by humility and sacrifice, and points to God’s redemptive purpose for all things.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Photo by Rinck Content Studio on Unsplash

The Reformed family is a diverse family with a diverse range of opinions. Not all perspectives expressed on the blog represent the official positions of the Christian Reformed Church. Learn more about this blog, Reformed doctrines, and our diversity policy on our About page.

In order to steward ministry shares well, commenting isn’t available on Do Justice itself because we engage with comments and dialogue in other spaces. To comment on this post, please visit the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue’s Facebook page (for Canada-specific articles) or the Office of Social Justice’s Facebook page. Alternatively, please email us. We want to hear from you!

Read more about our comment policy.