Four Flavours of Love and How to Express Them
God often gives good things in variety. Just like the Fruit of the Spirit and different spiritual leaders in church, the gift of Love is given by God to Man in assorted ways. In scripture, Love comes in four flavours known in the Greek language as: agape (God’s love for us), eros (romantic and sexual love), storge (love among family members), and philia (love among friends).
John Piper and Jonathan Edwards explain that the concept of Love is divided into “love of benevolence” and “love of complacency” . The former (“benevolence”) is an initiation to bring about beauty and goodness, while the latter (“complacency”) is a response to someone or something beautiful and/or good. Only one of the four types of love, Agape, fits into the category of initiation1. The other 3 types – eros, storge, philia – are all responses which must go hand in hand with the First type in order to endure hardship, to be fruitful, and ultimately, to bring glory to God who is Love.
1) Agape – love that ran red to wash our sins white
Agape (pronounced Uh-GAH-pay)2 is the love that God has for us while we were still sinners. Agape love has four unique characteristics that all the other loves don’t have1:
- Agape love is unmerited favour, given to people undeserving of it (Romans 5:6-8)
- Agape love was paid with a heavy price, namely, God’s own Son (John 15:13)
- Agape love gives a priceless gift, that is, eternal life with God (the famous John 3:16)
- Agape love is given out of God’s own will. In fact, He delights in initiating this love towards you. Nobody coerced Him into doing so (Zephaniah 3:17, Luke 15:20-24)
In this lifetime, there are people so unlovely, so undeserving of love that you need a command from God to love and forgive them3, because your own strength will be insufficient to do so. How can you love the colleague who cheated you of your hard-earned savings? How can a young girl with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) forgive the male relative who took advantage of her? Can a person forgive his/her spouse who cheated on him/her? The God who provides the ability to love and forgive others is the same God who was betrayed, mocked, beaten and killed on the Cross, to provide love and forgiveness for people undeserving of it. (Isaiah 53)
Keep in mind that agape love shown through forgiveness is NOT an equivalent to trust. Forgiveness through love is immediate, but trust takes time to build. If your colleague cheated you of your money, you are not required to lend to him again, even though you have forgiven him*. The victim of rape must be separated from her/his untrustworthy perpetuator. A person who finds out a cheating spouse may seek to forgive that spouse in order to be free from bitterness, but trust in the relationship has already been broken, and will take time and (a lot of) effort to restore4.
*The command to “turn the other cheek” in Matthew 5:38-42 is a call to avoid returning evil, but does not prohibit self-defense or fleeing from evil5.
2) Eros – love between a man and a woman that consummates and consumes
Eros (pronounced AIR-ohs)2 is sexual attraction, a love of emotion and dependency, first mentioned in the Bible in the book of Genesis when Man saw Woman for the first time. Sex was created meant for the sacred partnership of marriage, before it was meant for procreation of children. 6
The Bible celebrates intimacy between a man and a woman in the book known as the Song of Songs, describing the male and female bodies according to all the five human senses – sight, smell, hearing, touch, and taste – and how those two bodies interact with each other.7 The book Song of Songs is considered by Jewish rabbis as the “Holy of Holies of the Jewish Ketuvim (Writings)”. Well, why not? After all, the relationship between the man and the woman in Song of Songs portrays the relationship between Christ and His Church.7,8
Though passionate and consuming, eros-type love is fleeting. The highs of a new relationship often fall to a plateau9. How does a romantic relationship and a marriage continue then despite this plateau? By combining them with another love to thrive on – agape. Because there will be times when your significant other will be unlovely. There will be times when they will disappoint.
Every day of marriage calls both partners to a test of fidelity which serves both as a moral test and a spiritual one. The moral test trains you to maintain your marriage as a godly lifelong commitment. The spiritual test teaches you that marriage is a reminder of the faithful, permanent relationship God wants with you. The hard work both of you put in to maintain a marriage only makes sense if both partners are convinced that this perseverance has an eternal significance10.
The call to respect and care within the context of marriage is a command, not an advice or suggestion. Ephesians 5:22 commands wives to submit to their husbands. In Ephesians 5:25, when it is said, “Husbands, love your wives”, it is a command for husbands to agape their wives, and not only just to eros them11. The everyday fulfilment of the wedding vow “for better for worse, for richer for poorer…” requires sacrifice and determination. Even if there is a new career commitment that requires significant lifestyle changes. Even if you find another man/woman who appears to fulfill your emotional or sexual needs better than your current partner does.
3) Storge – love that binds the blood ties
What happens after eros love takes place? As a result of sexual love, a couple can produce a family. The love between a family is called Storge (pronounced “STOR-jay” or “STOR-gay”)2,12.
The godly plan for the relationship between parents and children can be summarized in Ephesians 6:1-4:
- Children must obey and honour their parents
- Parents must bring up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord
The sibling relationship is often the longest a person will have in their lifetime so let’s nurture this relationship the best we can13. In January 2017, ReportLinker found through two surveys that most of their respondents (39%) met their life partners through friends14. We meet friends through all stages of life, in various places including school, hobbies, tuition, work, bars, etc. However, a 2017 poll by Snufflebabe on 2000 Brits finds that only 25% of participants kept the same best friend for more than 26 years of their lives. 64% of people polled are no longer in contact with the first friend they made.15 What we can see here is that the people most likely to be in contact with you and truly know you from birth till death, are not your life partners, not your friends, but your own siblings.
So how should we treat our siblings who annoy us to bits, who fight with us for toys, opportunities, and for our parents’ attention?:
- By loving one another in a way that reflects agape love (1 John 4:7-8)
- By going out of your way to serve them and show them concern and affection like how Martha and Mary sent for Jesus to come heal their brother Lazarus when he fell sick, and how Mary wept when she thought her brother was gone forever (John 11, John 13:12-14)
- By practising self-control (Galatians 5:22) in moments of anger, hatred and jealousy; seek to rebuke notions that provoke you to sin by harming your siblings (Genesis 4:1-11; Genesis 37)12
- Seek to minister peace during a family conflict, to avoid arguments (Romans 12:18)
4) Philia – love that laughs and cries together; that encourages and rebukes with gentleness
Philia (pronounced FILL-ee-uh)2 is the love shared between friends. It refers to like-mindedness that starts off as a bond of affection, but later develops into an intellectual one with communication and sharing of insight3. Jesus’ command in John 13:34-35 to love one another is related to the Mosaic command to love others’ as oneself (Lev 19:18, Deut 6:5, Mark 12:28-33)16.
Upon moving from Kuala Lumpur to Johor Bahru to commence my clinical training as a medical student, I struggled with separation from familiar sources of godly love. When Acts Church started their new branch, Acts Iskandar, in Thistle Hotel 5 minutes’ walk away from my accommodation, love found me (and not the other way around). The little church started with a small congregation with pioneers from the Subang Jaya main campus who met weekly in the home of our cell group leader Paul and his family. It was here that I got to know everyone from Acts Iskandar on a personal level. All of us went the extra mile to care, pray, encourage, and gently correct one another in godly love.
Many of the members of Acts Iskandar were my batchmates in medical school. When exams were around the corner, Paul not only prayed for each one of us, but also fasted from meals to do such. Paul’s example was an epitome of philia care for the church. His prayer was answered. All of us passed the exam. When we look back, we all realise we have so much to give, so much to share with others, because we were first given much from God through His vessel named Acts Iskandar.
Some other photos of love:
Even as we show love to the people in our lives, our greatest allegiance must be reserved for One who is Perfect and Holy. If that allegiance is given to anyone apart from God, that allegiance turns into a god, and that god turns into a demon, and that demon destroys.17
Therefore the Greatest Commandment is to first love God above all people and all things:
“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Second to the Greatest Commandment is the Golden Rule which tells us to treat our enemies, partners, family, friends and church mates the way how we’ll like them to treat us:
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Is there someone in your life you have to change your thoughts, words or actions towards so that you can love them? Is there someone you have to put things right with? Is there a relative or friend who could well do with a word of encouragement from you? This Valentine’s Day, here is my prayer for your welfare:
“Dear God, please bless the person reading this. May you assure him/her of your great love for him/her. Remind him/her that it is because of Your agape love, that eros, storge, and philia all have meaning.
“Even as the world celebrates love this Valentine’s Day, let him/her experience your gentle guidance and immense favour in all of his/her relationships, be it with their significant other or with their singlehood, their family, their friends, their colleagues, their study mates, and all other social affiliates, including their enemies.
“Where forgiveness and reconciliation are needed, let there be mercy and trust restored.
“Where affirmation is needed, let there be sincere assurance, words of kindness and encouragement, and appropriate acts of provision.
“Where communication and fellowship is needed, let there be gentle understanding, opportunity and good memories spent with each other or one another.
“Bless, protect and care for the person reading this, especially in this Covid-19 pandemic. Amen.”
- Are you feeling down, lonely or in despair over a relationship? Seek counsel and help at https://www.befrienders.org.my/
- Do you know women or/and children who are suffering abuse or neglect in a relationship? Reach out to help by contacting Shelter Home at http://www.shelterhome.org/
Note: All Bible verses quoted are from the English Standard Version.
Credits for Feedback:
- My Papa and Mama, who taught me the four flavours of love through their words and actions
- Dr Alex Tang Tuck Hon – theologian, Consultant Paediatrician and lecturer in Monash Clinical School Johor Bahru (MD (UKM), PhD (AGSTA), Cert.Sp (USA), DCH (Glasgow), MRCP (UK), FRCP (Lond), FRCP (Edin), M.Min (M’sia), FAACP (USA), AM (M’sia))
Credits for Providence of Reference Material “The Four Loves”:
A friend who prefers to remain anonymous.
- Pawson D. Unlocking the Bible: A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible. 3rd edition. Great Britain: HarperCollinsPublishers; 2007. 967-969 p.
- The ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version (ESV). 2nd Edition. United States of America: Crossway Bibles; 2008. 1830 p.
- Pawson D. Unlocking the Bible: A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible. 3rd edition. Great Britain: HarperCollinsPublishers; 2007. 51-52 p.
- Pawson D. Unlocking the Bible: A Unique Overview of the Whole Bible. 3rd edition. Great Britain: HarperCollinsPublishers; 2007. 370-379 p.
- Yancey P. Designer Sex. (Taken from “Rumors of Another World”). United States of America: InterVarsity Press; 2003. 26-30 p.
- The ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version (ESV). 2nd Edition. United States of America: Crossway Bibles; 2008. 2052 p.
- Lewis CS. The Four Loves. Edition Unknown. Great Britain; 1958. 9 p.