Agape: The Call to True, Radical Love

By Tori Campbell, Morse ’16, English

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it
does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, 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…” (I Corinthians
13:4-8)

These words have been read at countless weddings,
quoted on thousands of dollar-store wall hangings, and
featured prominently in at least a few tear-jerking movies
such as A Walk to Remember. Frankly, this little passage
to the Corinthian church on “true love” seems to
have become one of the Bible’s greatest clichés. As with
many other passages of the Scripture, however, these
words are radically transformed when one takes the
time to both understand and apply them.

First, a bit of context: the Greek word for the “love”
that Paul describes is somewhat more specific than our
English one—which, oddly enough, can describe feelings
for anything from mashed potatoes to a spouse of
sixty years. It is agape, which is distinct from
the friendly, brotherly love denoted by the word philia and the traditionally romantic love indicated by
the word eros. Agape describes love that is independent
of circumstance or reciprocation—love that
is selfless and can be given undeservedly. It is the love
that the Bible says spouses should share between themselves
(Ephesians 5:25), that Christians should have for
each other (John 13:34), and that God has for us (John
3:16). Agape, quite simply, is love for what is sometimes
unlovely.

It can be rather difficult to reconcile this sort of love
with much of what we see in Hollywood, as it is easy
for most movies to confine love to a “passionate feeling”.
Interestingly though, Paul does not define love by
the feelings it produces, but by the actions it engenders.
Rather than saying that love makes one feel patient, he
says love is patient, something that can be true regardless
of whether one is feeling that way. Rather than saying
love makes you feel humble, he gives a clear picture
of what that humility looks like by saying that love does
not boast. Love is what love does. More than a feeling,
it is a choice of conduct. In fact, it seems true love can sometimes be directly opposed to feeling.

It is ridiculously easy to rationalize the call to imitate
Jesus’ radical love by thinking things such as “if I ever
see a lighted grenade around my friends, I will definitely
throw myself on it to save them.” There are, however,
many more ways to “lay down one’s life” without
actually dying. It seems that many people would rather
shield someone from an explosion than admit to being
wrong in an argument with them. It might sometimes
seem easier to give a small fortune to charity than
to give five minutes to a venting friend. But as the above
verse (I Corinthians 13:7) seems to point toward, love
doesn’t just perform grand actions, it performs hard
ones, too. The radical aspect of true love is that its sacrifices can seem distinctly unradical.

Perhaps you are thinking, “Well, this all sounds
trite/ugly/boring/miserable/untheatrical. If that’s true
love, I don’t want it.” I once thought so, too. Ask any
anthropologist, you would know that true altruism is
not natural. Still, herein lies the great truth at the heart
of the promises of Christianity: to give up one thing
is to gain something infinitely better. C.S. Lewis calls
it a “high paradox”, that the same agape that allows
us to love the unlovable allows us to love and greater understand a perfect, all-powerful, God more fully.To love in denial of self is to be filled with the greatest self-fulfillment of all—a sense of the most powerful agape in the universe. Far from being natural; true love is a doorway supernatural.

Unfortunately, if my own conduct is a litmus test,selfless love is incredibly difficult to enact. The constant practice of agape is very high on the list of “Things In Which Tori Does Not Act Like Jesus,” somewhere up there with walking on water. Happily, “we love because he first loved us” (I John 4:19). We can love, and know love, only by God’s power. Agape is a gift, and it is ours for the earnest asking. I pray that we all might come to know the true meaning of love more fully through the lens of the God who created it, because it is so much more than a wall hanging.

Originally published in the Logos Fall 2013 issue on Love, Sex, & Christianity

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