Agape and Phileo Love: We Need Both

The Greek language has many variations on the word love, where English is unfortunately limited to one. There’s lost meaning and nuance in using only one word to describe such a vast sentiment.

The Bible even recognizes the differences and it helps us to derive meaning and understanding from the text. One of the most common conversations around the uses of the word love comes from John 21:15-17. Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him three separate times. The first two times, the Bible uses the ‘agape’ form of love, which is understood to be a general meaning of the word. This love is not based on merit of the person loved, but rather unconditional and based on them as an image bearer of Christ. This love is kind and generous. It continues to give even when the other is unkind, unresponsive and unworthy. It only desires good things for the other and is compassionate.

But the third time that Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him, He uses ‘phileo,’ which speaks of affection, fondness and liking the other. This love is companionable and relational. It’s brotherly and friendship love.

While agape is a more universally understood meaning of love that is shown to a person from no doing of their own, I’m intrigued that Jesus chose to use ‘phileo’ as a way to force Peter to think deeper. He wanted to know if Peter loved Him not just because of who He was in God, but rather that they had built a deep and intimate friendship. He wanted to know that Peter cared about Him as a person and a brother. He wanted Peter to know what true reconciliation looked like and it required both kinds of love.

I believe that the Bible is asking us to go deeper in how we express love to others.

There’s an ancient Jewish practice that says that a man is free to divorce his wife if she did something that displeases him. Jesus speaks out against that often in His teachings. This isn’t a display of deep, biblical love.

My dad has Alzheimer's disease and every day my mom goes to visit him at the care facility. She sits with him, she shares a meal with him and she speaks to him. He’s not giving back in any way and isn’t in a state where he can physically take care of himself. She loves him with both ‘agape’ and ‘phileo’ love. She loves him unconditionally, but she also loves him relationally and intimately after years and years of living life together. Recently, while visiting my dad, I noticed a man who was taking care of his wife in the same way and with the same level of devotion. She was in a far worse state than my dad and yet, he remained steadfast. When I asked him about his wife, after engaging him in casual conversation, he replied, “I made a pledge, a vow to be there. That’s not conditional on anything. I’m gonna live that out.”

I’m humbled by these simple and yet profound displays of love on many levels and I think that is what God calls us to. He wants us to go deeper, to offer love unconditionally, despite the actions of others. It says that ‘I will love you, even when you deny me love in return. I will love you even when you don’t love yourself.’

We need to build people in our lives who will ‘agape’ love us, but also who will ‘phileo’ love us even when we are frustrated, angry and disillusioned. We need to offer that to others. We need to offer that to the vulnerable and to those who aren’t like us just as much as we need to offer that to those with whom we are closest.

There are several different kinds of loves that encompass the human condition, but we have to realize that we can go deeper and we can be more profound in our love for God’s children. We have the capacity to love without condition.

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