We overuse the word love. I’m speaking of American English speakers. We use the word love in so many ways and in so many contexts.
In doing so, we’ve stripped the word love of its beauty, depth, and life. We’ve made it anemic like a feeble body lacking sufficient iron.
When I was young one of us would say, “I love baseball (and I do!).” Our retort to them was, “Why don’t you marry it?” then we would laugh about it. So, any fullness in meaning for the word love for us was doomed at an early age.
Why is the word love so overused?
In English, the word love is an overused expression for liking something a lot. We say things like—I love …chocolate …going to the movies …riding roller coasters …walks on the beach.
Why do we substitute and overuse the word love for something we like a lot?
The simple reason is laziness of thought or a lack of vocabulary. It’s the same reason we use slang, cliches, and what was considered foul language long ago. But that’s a whole other discussion for a later time.
When the concept of love is reduced to the pleasure of food or some experience or event, the essence of love in its truest sense is lost.
Love is relational, not transactional.
Different words with different meanings
In many other languages of the world, various words are used to express different types of love. Most of these words have different feelings attached to them, connected with different actions, and expressed towards various people or objects.
But in English, we tend to convert these same meanings to our catch-all word love. We may qualify what we say with different adjectives or adverbs to amplify what we mean but often we expect people to just understand without explanation.
What is meant by the English word love is most often determined by the context it’s expressed in or how it’s expressed. But it may be obscure for those who are unfamiliar with these contexts or expressions.
Different types of love
My love for my wife, children, grandchildren, parents, and friends is expressed in different ways at various times. The love I have towards those closest in relationship to me spills over in compassion and empathy to others.
In the ancient (koine) Greek of the Bible, four words are used for common but different types of love. These words in their simple anglicized form are—eros, storge, phileo (philia), and agape (agapao).
These four words tend to be explained in oversimplified ways.
Eros is usually thought of as passion or lust and storge is commonly referred to as love for family. Phileo is associated with affection and friendship and agape is often spoken of as unconditional love.
These are generalized explanations of these words and they need to be understood within the context they’re used and how they are expressed.
My love for my wife includes all four of these types of love but not in a singular way. They overlap or blend together in somewhat indistinct ways. This is also true in relationships with others.
4 Different roles in marriage
When I did pre-marital counseling as a pastor, I explained how these four different types of love overlapped within four different roles I saw at work in a marriage relationship.
The four different roles I see husbands and wives play in marriage are as—friends, siblings, parents, and lovers.
The primary way my wife and I relate to one another is as friends or partners in life. My wife is my closest and most trustworthy friend. We’ve raised a family together, cared for our parents, and worked together at home and in various ministries throughout our life.
I describe the sibling role as a hate-love relationship. I’ve seen this over and over with my own children and grandchildren and in marriage. Kids can bicker over toys, chores, privileges, and most everything else.
But if someone outside the family belittles or attacks one of them, they’ll defend one another. They can “hate” each other one moment and show love and devotion an instant later.
In a healthy marriage, a husband and wife take on many different roles. Some roles are simple and practical ones like sharing chores, grocery shopping, keeping a budget, even disciplining children.
But other roles are more emotional and internal.
A husband and wife take on different roles in a healthy marriage
Husbands and wives can fill the role of a parent for one another at certain points in life—a personal crisis, deep hurt, even illness.
My standard joke with couples was how many men expect to be mothered when they are sick, but when the wife is sick, she‘s expected to carry on like normal. Even though we both need to care for one another!
But sometimes, my wife needs me to be like a father to her when she is hurt deeply by someone, is scared about a situation, or has some other emotional or spiritual need.
She needs me to hold her, listen to her, reassure her or comfort her in a fatherly way, and to pray for her.
Last but not least, I talk to couples about physical intimacy as an illustration of what God intended by the expression, the two will become one flesh (Gen 2:24). The union of physical intimacy goes beyond sex, at least it ought to.
The following verse makes this more clear—
Now the man and his wife were both naked, but they felt no shame. (Gen 2:25 NLT)
I believe God intends for a husband and wife to know a wholeness of being together that transcends everything else—a state of closeness and openness without shame or fear.
This unity of two souls and bodies becoming as one is transcendent because it’s more of a spiritual state than a physical experience.
These four roles, as I’ve described them, don’t directly correspond to the four loves mentioned earlier. There’s an overlap or blending of those loves within these four roles.
It may not be hard to see where three of the four loves fit into these four roles of marriage. Where does agape love fit in? In all four of them.
The ancient Greek word agape describes a love of commitment. A love initiated by choice—one’s personal volition.
It is unconditional love. A love expressed regardless of whether or not it’s acknowledged, received, or responded to by the object of this love. In the old King James Version of the Bible, agape is expressed as charity.
Agape love is the bond in all four of the roles of a healthy marriage. It’s the glue of commitment and fidelity enabling a marriage to endure both good and difficult times.
Agape love in all relationships
Just as in a healthy marriage, agape love strengthens other relationships. Close relationships also need commitment and loyalty to survive the ups and downs of life.
Just as in a stable marriage, one person or partner needs to be carried by the other and likewise be the strong one when the other is in need. This carries over to groups of friends, a family, and family-like groups as with a church.
In the Scriptures, we can glimpse the presence of agape love blended with the other three loves—phileo, storge, and eros.
The friendship between David and Jonathan the son of King Saul is a great illustration of how phileo and agape love are melded together—
…the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul. (1 Samuel 18:1)
Martha and Mary were friends and followers of Jesus who raised their brother Lazarus from the dead (John 11:39–44). They are a study in contrasts just like typical siblings and the love of storge—
She [Martha] had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.(Luke 10:38–42)
The book Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon) is a poetic drama of lovers but captures the commitment and fidelity of agape. Since it’s written in Hebrew, the word eros is not found but ‘ahab in Hebrew is a common word for love related to the passion between lovers.
Jesus is the obvious example and illustration of agape love for me. He called Himself the Son of Man who didn’t come to be served but to serve and offer His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45)
The best description of agape love I know is this—
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. (1 Corinthians 13:4–8 NIV)
What about you? Who do you really love?
Who and what is worthy of your affections?
Who in your life has shown you, genuine unconditional love?
Here’s another article on the different loves as expressed in the Bible you might find interesting—
Another view on the four loves of the Bible can be found in CS Lewis’ book—The Four Loves
Trip is a seasoned pastor and missionary — a teacher and writer by the grace of God — committed to making what is abstract and conceptual, simple and clear, and to challenge people to think and process the truth of God.
You can read more about him and see his other writings at www.word-strong.com