Agape - No Strings Attached
By Lia Fuller O'Neil
Love. It's such a simple word. And such a complex emotion. Even when we desire to love in a simple, uncomplicated way, love has a way of twisting itself back on us, catching us unawares. It's not easy to keep the different kinds of love, the different kinds of relationships, in their proper contexts. Even when we desire with our whole hearts to pursue love it is often very difficult to keep from falling in love.
Love does not like to sit still while we neatly pigeonhole it. There are an infinite number of ways we can love people, art, nature, and God. The lines may be fairly easy to see in some kinds of love, but the lines differentiating the love for a friend and the love for a lover are extraordinarily complex.
Sometimes our feelings fall totally on one side of the line or the other, but more often I've found the differences to be quantitative rather than qualitative. In other words, it's not the kind of love that differs so much as the degree. The deep but unromantic affection we can feel for a friend (which we may call phileo), can very easily be transformed into a compelling, dramatic, romantic love (eros) with appallingly little rhyme or reason. There doesn't seem to be a way for us to tell our hearts to switch gears, or to stop our feelings at a certain point. Our affection for a friend and our romantic love for a lover both issue from the same spring.
When someone starts discovering our spirit and heart in the pursuit of love, spends time with us, gives of himself or herself; becomes involved in our life, we sometimes can't help falling in love in the process of growing to love, even when we are pursuing love with a pure heart.
That's all right if the other person is also falling in love. But what if he isn't? What if he's still operating within the context of phileo love? With all our good intentions about pursuing love, what are we to do when eros starts to eclipse phileo in our hearts?
If we understand where our friend's heart is at, we probably don't even want the intense feelings of eros to develop, knowing that it will just make things difficult. It often makes the continuation of the friendship virtually impossible, even though we really desire to be free from the pressures of those kind of feelings and to return to the easiness and the freedom of phileo. But what on earth are we to do with those emotions?
Can we suppress them and get back to the easy relationship we used to have? Do we just stop seeing our friend because it's too painful? Do we weep and rage and get bitter because he or she made us fall in love and had no intention of following through on it? Do we just hold it all inside and try to pretend it isn't there so we don't scare him away? What do we do?
First of all, if it is true that our love is based on a quantitative rather than a qualitative foundation, to hope that we can banish eros in favor of phileo is not very realistic. Once our care has grown beyond an affection to a deeper love, how are we suddenly going to empty out some of that feeling unless we lie to ourselves? (We can do that simply by trying to make ourselves believe that we don't really care that much, or by dwelling on his or her faults and weaknesses in a way that's totally out of proportion. Needless to say, it's a very unhealthy, unloving way to solve the problem, but it's also quite common.) And the other alternative, to stop seeing each other, is certainly one way to avoid the problem, but not solve it, or grow from it, or learn whatever the Lord is trying to teach either of us through it.
A related problem enters the picture here because we're all so conditioned to the "love-and-marriage" syndrome. That is, that they're supposed to go together, especially in the Christian ethic where marriage is the only legitimate option beyond friendship. From there we have sometimes made the mistake of thinking that it is the only legitimate option for people who respect, care for, and love each other.
Instead of relaxing in the knowledge that it is perfectly possible for a man and a woman to have great respect for each other, to care deeply about each other and even to love each other without getting married, we get a mite over-anxious, perhaps, about the "Is this the one?" question. And that produces that "weirdness" which results from expectations expectations of having the relationship lead somewhere, of being loved, of being fulfilled, of being cherished and cared for in a special way. These expectations rob a relationship of spontaneity and unselfconsciousness; they make us terribly preoccupied with ourselves and an imagined, even planned for future; they rob us of the freedom to enjoy each other with true agape love. And as soon as expectations start taking over our minds, the pursuit of love is doomed, because at that point we are no longer seeking the other person's total good, but seeking our own satisfaction. (1 am talking here about expectations which arise out of one's own selfish desires-in spite of communication between the two and the tenor of their relationship. If one of them is leading the other on, however, or being less than honest and straightforward about his or her feelings and intentions, that is another situation entirely.)
The key to the solution of this problem lies not in our fighting the fact that we love someone, not in trying to love less in order to get back to phileo but in trying to love more, to get beyond eros to agape, the kind of love the Lord has for us. The exciting and beautiful thing about agape love is finding out that you truly can love someone very deeply and yet allow him complete freedom to respond to you in whatever way God leads him to respond.
The goal or result of love is not always marriage. God, judging from the way he set things up in Eden, and the way he made us physically, no doubt intends most of us to be married, but that's not to say that loving friendships between men and women aren't also good and right. We don't love just one person during our lives; we love many, in varying degrees and in many ways. Love is not a rein sum game in which the more we love one the less we can love others. Rather, the more we learn how to love one the more we are
able to love others.
We need to legitimize love between men and women who don't feel the Lord is leading them into marriage. (I am definitely not using love here to include sexual love.) We need to understand that it is all right to love a friend. Such friends often help to fill those deep needs for love and affection before we do find that one person we'd like to marry. And that's OK. That's what we're here for to help each other out, to love each other as Christ loves us.
But this type of relationship demands a kind of freedom that is impossible when we are bound by expectations. It requires a love that isn't concerned with the fulfillment of our own ends. This in turn requires trusting God to fulfill those needs.
What it comes down to, then, is, first of all, how much do we really love that person? Do we love to the point that we want him to be part of our life, that we need him in order to be fulfilled and happy? Or do we love him enough that we want him to be happy, even if it means without us? Do we love him so much that we think we'll die without him? Whose interests are we seeking to serve his or ours? How much do we really love him? Enough to pray that God would send him the right woman to be his mate, even if it might turn out to he someone else? Enough to put concern for his happiness above our concern to have our own needs fulfilled? Isn't that what Jesus would do?
And what kind of love is it, really? Is it the love that bubbles forth from a full vessel, a vessel overflowing with the love which pours through us from the Lord? Or is it a result of our own lack of spiritual fruit, so that we look to someone else to give us love, joy, and peace, rather than looking to God? If it's that kind of love we won't be able to truly pray for our friend's complete happiness we'll be too concerned for our own. That kind of love is born not only of a lack within ourselves but of a lack of trust in God.
So the next concern is, how much do we trust God? Do we really trust him to supply all our needs? Do we trust his love for us and his knowledge of what the absolute best is for us, as well as for the one we love?
To the degree that we trust God and allow him to direct our lives and our relationships, we can be free from the leech of expectations and free to let the Lord love that person through us. And the degree to which we yield ourselves as vessels, allowing him to fill us with his life and his love, allowing him to transform us into his likeness to that degree, and that degree only, will we be able to love with true agape love.
And if we can trust him, if we can yield, we can then pray wholeheartedly for our friend's happiness, secure in the knowledge that God is going to fulfill all our needs (not necessarily all our wants), and we don't have to depend on a person to do it. We can say with our whole being, "I love you, and there are no strings. I just want to be around to support you in whatever way you and the Lord want me to. I want to pray for you, share your burdens and be involved in your life because I love you, but I'm not expecting anything from you. I simply and truly want to see you happy and fulfilled." That is the pursuit of agape love. That is serving rather than being served, and loving rather than being loved.
Originally published by Discovery Publishing, the publications ministry of Peninsula Bible Church, Palo Alto California. Visit at www.pbc.org/dp/index.html. Used by Permission.