Finding the Words for Love

Love Photo

“You are a beautiful, talented, brilliant, powerful musk ox.” — Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation

Finding the words to express the emotions we feel for those we love can be difficult at times, can’t it? The English language has provided us with only one word to encapsulate all of the feelings and the force contained in the multiplicity of relationships we maintain — the word is love. English is really lagging here — while most languages have at least two ways of expressing love, Sanscrit has 96 and Ancient Persian has 80. Can you imagine having 96 ways to tell someone you love them?

The New Testament utilizes three words that translate to English as love. I’m going to discuss them in this post, and then show how they play out in our everyday lives. My hope is that we can contemplate which types of love are most prominent in our relationships, and then consider how we can increase each of them in the most healthy, whole ways so as to ultimately love God, others, and ourselves even more. So here we go…

The first word used is phileo love, or brotherly love. It’s a love based on fondness, affection, appreciation, and companionship. One of the most powerful uses of phileo love in the New Testament occurs in John 11, in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. In verse 3, Mary and Martha approach Jesus and say, “Lord, the one you love is ill.” Jesus takes a bit of time before he goes to care for Lazarus, and by the time he arrives, Lazarus has already died. Upon seeing Mary crying, Jesus begins weeping as well (v. 35). That is phileo love — one who shows up, who is brought to tears, and ultimately, who brings life and light in dark moments.

The next form of love that appears in the New Testament is storge love. This word doesn’t show up nearly as often as phileo, but it demonstrates a distinctive and foundational form of love, and that is affection or devotion. It can be linked to the love between family members, and the deep loyalty and connection that is sacred in those relationships. One example of storge love shows up in Romans 12:10, which states, “Love each other like the members of your family. Be the best at showing honor to each other.” The sense of honor, reverence, and belonging all come out of a feeling of storge love.

The final and most common form of love in the New Testament is agapeo love. This is a love based on esteem, on self-giving, and on unconditional well-being. We see this love over and over again verses like “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 5:43), “You shall love the Lord  your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Matt. 12:30), “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12).

Phileo. Storge. AgapeoFriendship. Devotion. Unconditional Love. This Valentine’s Day most of us will be thinking of those we love. May we use this time to express our appreciation in whatever language we can find for those whom we love, as well as for God and for the Spirit within us.

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