The word “love” is one of the most indiscriminately used words in the English language. The statements “I love God,” “I love my children,” and “I love chalupas at Taco Bell” all use the same words to describe radically different emotional states. After all, if you love God and chalupas in the same way, then either God does not mean too much to you or chalupas mean far too much. Either way, your love is misplaced.
The Greeks have an advantage over us English-speaking folks, for they employed four words for love: storge, philia, eros, and agape. Storge is the word they used to describe familial affection. Philia – from which we get the word Philadelphia – is the word they used to describe friendship. They used eros to describe not merely sexual (i.e., erotic) love, but any love that is directed toward an object of high value. (Love of a beautiful woman, a fast car, and chalupas are all erotic insofar as the lover holds them in high value – which just goes to show that erotic love is not necessarily rational. I mean, really, chalupas?) Finally, there is agape, a word that under Christian influence came to describe selfless love. Often, agape is directed at an unworthy object.
Agape is the term Paul uses for love in 1 Corinthians 13.
The problem with the Corinthians is that their love was of the erotic kind. I don’t simply mean that some of them were sex-obsessed (although that is true as well). I mean, more broadly, that they directed their affections only toward objects that they considered to be highly valuable. They eros-ed philosophy and rhetoric because they valued wisdom and eloquence. They eros-ed to eat meals at pagan temples because they valued their spiritual freedom and individual rights. They eros-ed to speak in tongues because they valued mystical experiences and displays of spiritual prowess.
They eros-ed when they should have agape-d. They loved worthy objects when they should have loved unworthy ones, just as God had loved them. They should have agape-d the other parties in their many quarrelsome disputations. They should have agape-d the weaker brothers and sisters whose consciences they violated by eating meat sacrificed to idols. And they should have agape-d their non-tongues-speaking neighbors who had other, less dramatic spiritual gifts.
At the end of the day, in other words, the Corinthians had loved selfishly when they should have loved selflessly, for that is the primary distinction between eros and agape. Eros is love given with hope of return: a beautiful woman to satisfy desire, a fast car to sate the need for speed, and chalupas to fill an empty stomach. Agape is love with no hope of return; it is given gratis. Agape is grace.
And so we read in verses 4-7: “Agape is patient, agape 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. Agape does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”
Beautiful women age. Fast cars break down. Chalupas only satisfy till we’re hungry again. But, as verse 8 puts it, agape never fails.