Dear Fr. Joe: What is love?

Q: Dear Father Joe: What is love? Can you explain the various definitions?

A: Wow – that’s a big one. Let’s start by looking at some of the words for love that we see in the Bible. This is not an exhaustive list, but it captures the main ones. We’ll start with storge, a word the Bible uses. This is a Greek word for the love family has for each other: the love of a parent for their child, a familial bond. Then there is eros. Eros is a Greek word for a craving. It’s often expressed sexually but not always. It’s a hunger for another person and is the root of our word “erotic.” A third and very common word for love in the Bible is philios. This Greek word refers to “brotherly love,” close friendship, affection.

The final word for love I will give you is agape, a Greek word for perfect love. This is love in its purest form: it's universal, and unconditional. It is a love that never quits and never breaks, no matter the circumstance or situation. When we talk about God’s love, we are talking about all four of these – and more. We do not have a word that expresses the totality of God’s love; all we can do is use our broken human words and give an image.

For example, when we say, “God is love,” what we usually mean is “God is loving,” and that right there is the problem. The statement “God is love” is accurate. When we love one another, we are imitating God. The more our love looks like God’s love, the more perfect that love is. When I was younger, love was a simple thing: it was based on what you do to and for me. As I get older, I realize that the less my needs are present in the equation, and when my love looks more like giving than taking, the more perfect that love is. C.S. Lewis put it best in his book – The Four Loves:

God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that he may love and perfect them. He creates the universe, already foreseeing - or should we say “seeing”? there are no tenses in God - the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated incipient suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is time after time, for breath's sake, hitched up. If I may dare the biological image, God is a “host” who deliberately creates his own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and “take advantage of” him. Herein is love. This is the diagram of Love himself, the inventor of all loves.

With all that, I want to offer you two things I learned about love from my parents: one from my mom and one from my dad.

When I think about my mom, one of the most important gifts she gave me was her willingness to let me suffer.Like every young person before and after me, I suffered in different ways in school. My inability to sit still, my struggles with peers – all of it was and is normal. Yet, as was typical for young person, I lacked the ability to see my pain in context. So, I went home and complained: this teacher did this to me; this student did that to me – on and on and on. I wanted Mom to do what the other moms and dads often did: fix my problems.

They rarely did.

Instead, my memory is of Mom giving me tools to endure the suffering well, to respond like Jesus as best I could, to change what I could change within myself and let the rest go. She helped me focus on controlling what I could control and enduring, even thriving in, those things I couldn’t.

It never occurred to me until I got older how awful that must have been for her. I had a conversation with Mom when I was in my 20s when she suddenly opened up to me about how hard my childhood was on her.

I was absolutely blown away as I realized that my parents loved me so much that they chose to be uncomfortable and sorrowful “behind my back” as it were, instead of diving into the fray and trying to save me from all pain. I grew up with a solid understanding that life is hard, that suffering is an omnipresent reality and that I needed to learn how to do hard things without becoming a hard-hearted person. For that, I am eternally grateful.

The day of my mother’s funeral is when I learned about another important lesson about love from my dad. I drove him to the funeral, and when we pulled up to the church, I went to open my door but realized that Dad was just sitting there. We sat in silence for some time, staring at the church and trying to cowboy up to go in there for her funeral. After some time, Dad spoke. With tears in his eyes and a broken, weak voice, he quoted Psalm 118: “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” He went on to tell me he could barely think through the pain of this moment but that he was glad he was experiencing it and not Mom.

That’s love. I had heard of a man saying that before, but there I was, in my truck with my dad as he expressed the most perfect love I’ve been witness to. One of them was going to experience life-altering pain and he was glad it was him.

So there’s my snapshot discussion on love. Please, please – never grow content with how you love. Never think you’ve “got it down.” Constantly grow in knowing God and you will constantly be growing in love.

Enjoy another day in God's presence.