“To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.” – Thomas Merton
This is how God loves.
It’s good to have a working definition of agape’ love. I often tell my students that their duty—well beyond academic excellence—is to cultivate their capacity to love sacrificially, to deepen their agape love for everything that needs love. I encourage them to wake up every morning and re-state their day’s ultimate objective. Agape love is our ultimate marching order.
Again, it is good to have a working definition of agape love, one that is mentally retrievable on command in order to immediately remember our duty in all circumstances. One working definition of “agape love” I suggest is “caring about the best interests of the object of love, regardless of their response.” This is how God loves, even a world that ignores and defies him.
As one of the four Greek words that represent our one English word, love, agape is the Greek word used when describing God’s love for the world in John 3:16 and Jesus love for us in 1 John 3:16. It is also the word used by Saint Paul in I Corinthians 13, as the apostle seeks to provide his original readers with a working definition of what love is by unfolding how it behaves. “Love is patient, love is kind, is not envious…” (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7). Those verses of the “love chapter” are important enough to memorize one phrase at a time. Then, as mentioned above, they can become a daily manifesto, a central portion of our lifetime curriculum because love is our duty, our privilege, and profoundly central to our being.
Think for a moment of the relationships of family and friends that you want to see thrive, let alone survive. Each relationship will require your willing sacrifice to serve in order for it to remain alive and vibrant. Agape is always about a sacrificial willingness to serve, partly because that’s what life requires. And it is what is required of you. It is why vibrant life in Christ will mean a willingness to pick up more than your share of the mess and less than your share of the praise. Agape doesn’t keep score of rights or wrongs, doesn’t seek to make things even, or aggressively compete for affirmations.
Ideally, we want to be increasingly capable of sacrificial service to others partly because this is the pattern of Christian maturity. This is the work to which we’ve been called and for which we’re empowered. For instance, five years from now, we hope to be five years better and wiser at the necessary art of agape love. Again, this is all tied to our ultimate purpose and function in life: We love because God is love.
Saint Paul notes to the church in Galatia that in the midst of the controversy over circumcision, in the grand scheme of things, neither circumcision, nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts, he asserts, is “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6). It follows that in the grand scheme of things in life, whatever the controversies, worries, or insecurities that sometimes sidetrack us, the thing that really matters is agape, the sacrificial willingness to serve.
Of course, this includes those we don’t like, those whose attitudes and actions rub us the wrong way. Don’t forget that there is no biblical command requiring us to “like” others. The greatest command of Jesus is that we “love” one another, including our enemies (Matthew 5: 44). Again, this is not a command to trigger some kind of emotionally positive regard for someone persistently irritating or off-putting. Agape is an action, a way of treating others, as we would hope to be treated.
For instance, the Mosaic Law required that when you see your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering away, though our impulse might be to privately find glee in their potential loss, the law was to bring their animal back to them. The law goes on to say that even if the donkey of one who hates you is seen faltering under its heavy load, don’t just stand there watching it struggle, help him (Exodus 23: 4, 5). This is how “agape love” works. Notice, Moses isn’t commanding that the people of Israel pretend to “like” or “befriend” an enemy or someone who clearly hates them, but to respond in a helpful way to their need. The command informs us that such love isn’t an option. The bias toward family, friends, and neighborly affection isn’t even in play. Love those who hate you. Love even your enemies—caring about the best interest of the object of love, regardless of their response.
This is how God loves.
Paul D. Patton, Ph.D., is a professor of communication and theater at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He has graduate degrees in Guidance and Counseling, Religious Education, and Script and Screenwriting, and a doctorate in Communication with an emphasis in theater arts. He has been married to his wife Beth for over forty years and has three daughters (all actresses)—Jessica, Emily, and Grace, three sons-in-law, David, Joe, and Eric, and four grandsons, Caleb Rock, Logan Justice, Micah Blaze, and Miles Dean.