With MLK Day behind us and Valentine’s Day quickly approaching, the idea of Christian love has been on my mind. What does it mean today? Recently I watched Selma, a movie about the campaign against voting restrictions levied on African Americans in Alabama. What really struck me though was Dr. Martin Luther King's powerful oratory skills which I later learned, he honed inside the church.
Many civil rights leaders were also pastors. Inspired by Jesus' teachings and other Biblical principles, their movement of nonviolent resistance was led by Dr. King whose beliefs and practices was deeply permeated by the gospel. Chief among them was the concept of love which he wove throughout his speeches, sermons and writings.
In the apostle John's first letter to the churches of Asia Minor, readers are also urged to love one another (4:7). Why? Because God first loved us by sending His only Son to be the propitiation for our sins (4:9-10, 19). Earlier in chapter 3, verse 16, John writes, "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers."
God sets the standard of love for us. And yet, everyone defines love differently. The word is often misappropriated because I can love my wife as much as I love ahi poke or Syracuse basketball. Culture has also hijacked love to mean blind acceptance. Anything but is labeled in- tolerant. Biblical love as described in 1 John and elsewhere is so much deeper plus so much harder.
Greek defines love in four ways: storge which is a natural type of love found between parent and child or siblings; eros (erotic) which is a passionate or sexual love designed for relationships like marriage; philia (Philadelphia) which is a brotherly love often found among best friends; and agape which is the ultimate expression of sacrificial love.
How is agape love different than the rest? Unlike the best-friend-forever love of philia or the eros love found in romantic relationships, the New Testament use of agape involves intentionality. It requires effort on our part in order to put the interests of others before ours. Even when we do not feel like it. We may choose to philia love our friends and not others. But we cannot pick and choose who to agape love.
Agape love simply does not come naturally to us. Our sin, our fallen nature renders us more likely to hate than to love in the self-sacrificing way God commands of us. Dr. King had every reason to return the hate he and millions of African Americans experienced. He also understood it was easier to hate, and much harder to demonstrate agape love in the same way God did on the cross.
Preaching on the Sermon on the Mount at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in 1957, Dr. King shared:
"...it's significant that [Jesus] does not say, 'Like your enemy.' Like is a sentimental something, an affectionate something. There are a lot of people that I find it difficult to like. I don't like what they do to me. I don't like what they say about me and other people. I don't like their attitudes. I don't like some of the things they're doing. I don't like them. But Jesus says love them. And love is greater than like. Love is understanding, redemptive goodwill for all men, so that you love everybody, because God loves them."
A few weeks ago, my wife and I were asked to lead Ohana Bible Study in how to engage other cultures with the gospel. One participant commented that underneath the layers of culture, language and other barriers are people who just want to be loved, valued and cared for. God loves them just as much as He loves us. And we love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19).
Let us remember to agape love this Valentine's Day and every other day.