Articles Archive -- Topical Index -- Textual Index

by Al Maxey

Issue #870 -- August 5, 2023
Love is union with somebody, or something,
outside of oneself. ...It is an experience of
sharing, of communing, which permits the
full unfolding of one's own inner activity.

Erich Fromm [1900-1980]

A Giving God of Ahavah
Questions on the Nature of Love as
Perceived from Biblical Greek & Hebrew

Let's face it - Love is a challenging concept, as well as a controversial one. It is something most long for in their lives, yet have difficulty understanding and applying. What exactly is this thing called "love," and how, and to whom, should we show it? In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stated, "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor, and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-44). He goes on to point out that by doing so we model the very nature of our God, who bestows kindness and goodness indiscriminately upon both good and evil persons (vs. 45). He then challenges us to manifest the same maturity as our Father in Heaven (vs. 48). This is controversial; it goes against human nature. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) wrote, "A love that does not discriminate seems to me to forfeit a part of its own value, ... for not all men are worthy of love" [Civilization and Its Discontents]. In that same work he declared, "If this grandiose commandment (i.e., 'Love thy neighbor as thyself') had run 'Love thy neighbor as thy neighbor loves thee,' I should not take exception to it. And there is a second commandment, which seems to me even more incomprehensible and arouses still stronger opposition in me. It is 'Love thine enemies'." While Freud took exception to the teaching of Jesus, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) took exception to the teaching of Freud. "Agape does not begin by discriminating between worthy and unworthy people, or any qualities people possess. ... Agape makes no distinction between friend and enemy; it is directed toward both" [Stride Toward Freedom]. The Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) stated the dilemma well, writing, "Human love serves to love those dear to us, but to love one's enemies we need Divine love" [War and Peace].

As Jesus suggested in His statement quoted above, if we would be more like God, we must love like God. The Trappist monk and theologian Thomas Merton (1915-1968) strongly believed that we have "an innate tendency, an inborn capacity" buried deep within our human nature toward this divine indiscriminate love. In his work "The Seven Storey Mountain," he wrote, "This power to love another for his own sake is one of the things that makes us like God." Merton also provided the following insights: "Love both gives and receives, and in giving it receives" [The Good Samaritan]. "We are obliged to love one another. We are not strictly bound to 'like' one another" [No Man is an Island]. That last point is an important one, and I have many times shared it with those I've counseled who were struggling with showing love toward certain persons. I've pointed out that we are commanded to love others, but nowhere are we commanded to like them (although, most certainly, that would be the ideal). The reality is: one may command an action, but one cannot command an emotion. In this way, just like God, I can do good to others (even those who hate me); I can be kind to them; I can be charitable - even though I may not feel affection for them personally or for their behavior. God showed His love for us "while we were yet enemies ... ungodly ... sinners" (Romans 5:5-11), and I am so thankful that He did. I show my gratitude by trying to emulate that divine attitude. And yes, it is difficult.

Thus, I will love ("agapao") others, but I don't always like ("phileo") some of them! And the good news is: I don't have to. I'm commanded to love them, not like them. Yes, hopefully in time, I may come to feel the latter by faithfully doing the former. This distinction is often noted when doing a comparative word study between agape/agapao and phileo. For example, the following comes from a Greek language site online: "Phileo signifies friendship, fondness, affection, delight, and personal attachment. This word is about a feeling - a heart of love, whereas agape is a matter of benevolence, duty, and commitment. We are commanded to have agape love, but NOT phileo love, because feelings cannot be commanded." For example, in the military one may command that a soldier ACT in a respectful manner toward a senior officer (salute him, call him "sir," etc.), but there is no way one can command that soldier to FEEL respect for that officer. Yes, the ideal would be for him to do so, but that is something that must grow and develop within a person; it is a process. The same is true of love and affection. I can show love toward another, even an enemy, in my actions; in what I DO for that person; by acts of sacrificial good and benevolence, even at my own expense. But liking that person may take time - and, frankly, it may never come! And that is okay! We are not doomed to Hell for this human weakness, for we are commanded to love, not necessarily to like.

The apostle Peter notes this distinction in his appeal to his readers in his second epistle: "Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love" (2 Peter 1:5-7, ESV). He then urges us to "grow" or "increase" in these qualities (the ultimate of which is LOVE - agape). Yes, increase in showing acts of love and kindness, but also increase in genuinely feeling the affection (phileo) that ennobles those acts to a status above mere duty alone. In 1st Peter 1:22, Peter points out that as we become more pure and mature within ourselves, our affection for one another will become more "sincere" or "genuine," and we will thus "fervently love (agape) one another from the heart." The ACTS of love are commanded, and they must be done, and they must continue in our daily lives. The goal, the ideal, however, is that as we mature in our heart, soul, and mind, we will increase in our FEELINGS of affection for those for whom we perform these acts of love. This again reflects the reality that one can command an action, but feelings and emotions cannot be coerced; they must grow and increase from within (and God gives us His Spirit to help us in this growth toward the attitude and image of Christ Jesus, who Himself was a reflection of the nature of God the Father).

One of the aspects of the Greek language that can at times be troubling to those who seek greater clarity on certain critical doctrines is that there is a tendency to employ a number of different words to convey what might seem to the casual reader to be a single concept. The concept of "love," for example. In Greek we find several words that may all be translated by the one word "love," and this can be confusing. "Eros" and "storge" are not too complicated for most students, but the distinctions between "agape/agapao" and "phileo" tend to confuse many, for one is commanded and one is not (although it is highly encouraged). This especially becomes troubling when we tie such words to one's eternal salvation. I've had people come to me for counseling over the years who were living in terror of Hell because they didn't "like" or feel "affection" for some person. They admitted to showing that person kindness, and doing good for them, but in their hearts and minds they couldn't "feel" any "warm fuzzies" for them, so they feared they would be condemned. As noted above, I generally tried to get them to see that the emotional aspect of "love" was never commanded, for you can't command a feeling; rather, we are to DO good unto others; we are to SHOW loving ACTS toward others. Hopefully, the feelings would follow, but if not, there is nothing in Scripture that says Hell will be filled with those who couldn't feel affection. Then, on July 28, I got an email from a reader in West Virginia who wrote, "Al, there is one passage that threw a monkey wrench in my thinking on this point you've made. It is 1 Corinthians 16:22. Paul says that anyone who does not love (and he uses the word 'phileo') is to be accursed. What is going on?!!"

At first glance, this does indeed appear to be the proverbial "monkey wrench." The word "accursed" in this passage is actually the word "anathema." It speaks of something or someone being "fit for destruction," or "to place under a curse." In 1 Corinthians 12:3 Paul contrasts those being filled with and led by the Holy Spirit with those being devoted to and led astray by "dumb idols." Then he points out that "no one speaking by the Spirit of God says, 'Jesus is accursed (anathema);' and no one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit." This is a doctrinal context that must not be overlooked when just a few chapters later Paul returns to this thought: "If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed (anathema)" (1 Corinthians 16:22). Notice that the "anathema" is not general in nature, but quite specific: it is upon those who do not have any affection within their hearts for the Lord Jesus!! Indeed, such are so devoid of affection and devotion that they curse HIM - something Paul says they would never do if filled with His Spirit. Thus, these people not only don't have affection for Jesus, they don't even have God's Spirit within them! To blaspheme (to speak in such a way as to bring great harm to) the Lord, to wish destructive curses upon Him, invites that same curse upon themselves!! This is a far different scenario than those disciples of Christ who may be showing acts of love (agape) toward other men and women, but who are still struggling within themselves to feel affection for those who may have wronged them. The "anathema" of 1 Corinthians 16:22 is NOT for this latter group, but only for the person who is utterly devoid of any kindly feelings for Jesus the Lord, and indeed devoid of the Holy Spirit itself.

"The word here translated 'love' (phileo) applies to the intimate and familiar personal affection subsisting between individuals, rather than the wider and more general love (agape) usually enjoined in the NT. It is the word used when our Lord, for the third time, asks St. Peter the question, 'Lovest (phileo) thou Me?' (John 21:17). Christians are to cultivate a feeling of personal loyalty and affection for Jesus Christ" [The Cambridge Bible for Schools & Colleges, e-Sword]. As noted, it was when Jesus questioned even Peter's affirmation of affection for Him that Peter "was grieved" (John 21:17). Peter was being challenged to consider whether or not he even liked the Lord (note: see my article "Breakfast on the Beach: Dramatic Dialogue at a Fish Fry - An Analysis of John 21:15-17" - Reflections #189). In 1 Corinthians 16:22 we find "Paul's only use of 'phileo' with regard to our love to Christ, which recalls the significant change from 'agapao' to 'phileo' in Christ's transaction with Peter recorded in John 21:15-17. 'Phileo' means liking, affection, personal attachment. ... We are not told to like our enemies but to love them; just as God does not like the foul world, yet He loves it. ... If we lack this affection toward Christ, our hearts are cold and dead indeed. ... Whoever lacks this love is hopeless!" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretatioin of St. Paul's 1st & 2nd Epistles to the Corinthians, p. 786]. The Expositor's Greek Testament observes, "The use of 'phileo' is noticeable: it strikes a deep note of accusation; it is a charge of heartlessness - human affection to the Master is wanting, to say nothing of the higher love, as with Judas and his traitor kiss" [vol. 2, p. 952]. "Real Christians would show in the Christian community and in society some outward indications of their affection for ('phileo') and commitment to the Lord. If some, as seemed to be the case in Corinth, did not, they were showing that they did not belong to the Lord," which is an accursed condition indeed [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 297]. For an examination of this passage in much greater depth, see my study titled "A Curse upon the Unloving: The Great Anathema of 1 Cor. 16:22" (Reflections #516).

Shifting gears a bit, the reader from West Virginia, in his email to me, also wrote, "I would especially like to find out the Hebrew meaning of 'love.' I'm looking forward to your research and life-experiences on this topic. Thank you, Al; I really appreciate your work." And I appreciate this brother making this request, for bringing the Hebrew word for love into this study provides some very valuable insight into the nature of God's love for us, and then, by extension, what His expectation is of us with respect to our daily manifestations of a loving heart. Although the Greek language uses a number of different words to convey various aspects of the concept of love, the Hebrew tends toward a more unified, rather than compartmentalized, expression. The most commonly used word for love in Hebrew is "Ahavah," which "covers a broad spectrum of concepts of love." A biblical Hebrew site stated, "In Hebrew, 'Ahavah' is used to refer to both romantic love and the love of family, friends, and others. The Torah speaks extensively about love, using the Hebrew word 'Ahavah.' In Israel, where Hebrew is the national language, love is also a way of life; it is not just an emotion, but an action." In other words, it is an encompassing of the various distinctive Greek terms into a single Hebrew term. It is truly a love that incorporates every aspect of our being, which can be seen powerfully in the wording of Deuteronomy 6:5 ("You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might") and Leviticus 19:18 ("You shall love your neighbor as yourself"). Paul informs us that such love is the complete fulfillment of law (Romans 13:8, 10), and Jesus, quoting the two OT texts mentioned above, said they were the foremost/greatest of all commandments, and the scribe to whom He spoke added that they were also "much more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices," to which Jesus responded that this man "had answered intelligently" (Mark 12:28-34).

But the Hebrew word "ahavah" is much, much more!! "Understanding the concepts that are invested in words can aid us in our own lives. As an interesting example, the word 'love,' which is thrown about so freely in English, has a special meaning in Hebrew" [Ahuva Bloomfield, "Love, Jewish Style," from the April 1999 edition of The Jewish Magazine]. This article was very short, but very eye-opening! The author rightly points out that the Hebrew word "ahavah," most commonly translated "love" in the OT writings, is actually derived from the root word meaning "to give." Thus, the author emphasizes, in Hebrew "to love" is also "to give." Notice the following from this article: "Love is giving. Not only is love giving, but the actual process of giving develops the very connection between the giver and the receiver. ... The more giving one does, the greater the connection. The process of giving is a vehicle through which the giver, through his act of giving, is able to give of himself to another. This act of giving something is not merely helping another; it is much more than that. Giving is a method that enables us to make a connection to another." The author states that givers take something that could have been used to do good for themselves, and utilize it to do good for others (perhaps even those who may have wronged them). It is self-sacrificial giving from the heart for the good of another, and it makes a connection between the giver and the one to whom he/she has given. Bloomfield wrote, "Giving is a condition that creates and sustains love. Without giving, there is no connection that is sustaining. The true relationships that are meaningful in our lives are those in which mutual giving takes place. The giving may be physical, emotional, intellectual, or a combination. But without giving from ourselves, no relationship can be enduring."

I believe God has revealed something quite significant to us in this word: Genuine, sincere, Godlike love GIVES!! It gives sacrificially of self (e.g., 2 Corinthians 8:5 - "They gave in a way we did not expect: They first gave themselves..."). It connects us with others and it builds relationships. We are never more like God than when we GIVE of ourselves IN LOVE unto others. "For God so loved the world that He GAVE..." (John 3:16). "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above and comes down from the Father of lights" (James 1:17, KJV). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus revealed that our Father in Heaven knows how to give "good gifts" to His children: "He gives what is good to those who ask Him" (Matthew 7:11). Love gives - "Ahavah." Paul wrote that we are "justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Romans 3:24), and that "God demonstrates His own LOVE toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). "The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). In the spirit of Paul, we too can exclaim, in the face of such divine LOVE, "Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift" (2 Corinthians 9:15). Thomas Kempis (1380-1471), in his classic work titled "The Imitation of Christ," wrote, "Love gives all for all, resting in One who is highest above all things, from whom every good flows and proceeds. Love does not regard the gifts, but turns to the Giver of all good gifts." One can never outgive God, for "God is LOVE" (1 John 4:8, 16); He is thus the ultimate GIVER, and what/Who He has freely given unto sinful man is the ultimate GIFT. And by this Ahavah a connection has been made between God and man! Relationship is renewed through a gift of selfless redeeming! Love wins!! Dear Lord, help us to love like this, for we love best when we give our best, both to You and to others!


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Readers' Reflections
NOTE: Differing views and understandings are always welcome here,
yet they do not necessarily reflect my own views and understandings.
They're opportunities for readers to voice what is on their hearts, with
a view toward greater dialogue among disciples with a Berean spirit.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

Dear Al, Please send me your special thumb drive containing your recorded Sunday morning classes and handouts on your study "The Minor Prophets: Major Messages for Our Troubled World Today." My check is enclosed. Thank you for being such a light in a dark world! Blessings to you!

From an Elder in New Mexico:

"Surviving the Fall of a Nation: Personal Devotion During National Decline" (Reflections #868) is a great and timely article, Al. Blessings to you!

From a Reader in California:

Al, I would like to know your "take" on the Calvinist doctrine that man cannot come to God on his own volition, but that God has to draw a person unto Himself. I would be most grateful for your view on this subject. Thanks! By the way, I really appreciated your very scholarly, informative article "The Great 'Sun-Stop' Story: A Reflective Study of Joshua 10:12-13" (Reflections #869). As always, great writing, Sir!

From a Ph.D. in Texas:

Dear Al, I hope you and your family are well. I have only recently become aware of the Church of Christ document called "A Christian Affirmation 2005." I have read your response to it, and also that of Dr. Leroy Garrett. Both are excellent, of course, and I agree with what you said in your response to that document. I have also discovered, for what it is worth, that this document does not give a true account of what Hans Kung actually said in his book "The Church." I know a few of the signers of that document, and I have emailed them and asked them, "Why was this document created, and who was behind this?" So far, none of them have responded. That makes me curious! Why are they so reluctant to discuss this document?!

From an Author in California:

Dear Al, I just received and read your fine "Sun-Stop" article (Reflections #869). I have written on this also - "Joshua's Long Day: How Long Was It?" Some people continue to echo the NASA "missing day" story, despite the evidence to the contrary!

From a Reader in Toronto, Canada:

Joshua Jones appeared before the judge, and he was charged with bootlegging. The judge asked the defendant, "Are you the Joshua who made the sun stand still?" To which the defendant replied, "No, your honor. I'm the Joshua who made the moonshine still." LOL - Sorry, I couldn't resist!!

From a Reader in Hawaii:

Al, It is very interesting to me to see the many different thoughts that men have devised to answer this "long day" of Joshua. On the other hand, I see something not discussed in your article: if I were one of Joshua's soldiers, after having marched all night and then going into battle, I would not have appreciated an extra long day!! (LOL)

From a Reader in California:

Thanks, Al, for your article on "The Great 'Sun-Stop' Story." I like your explanation. My own explanation is that Joshua went to a shopping mall with his wife that day, and it only seemed as though the sun would never go down! (LOL)

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