The Four Loves

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, February 3rd, 2019


In 1958, an academic who had not all that long before become a passionate convert to Christianity went onto BBC Radio to give a series of talks about love. The academic was a guy called Clive Lewis, better known to the world as CS Lewis, one of the greatest apologists for the Christian faith in modern times.

He took as his starting point the assertion in the First Letter of John that ‘God is Love’. Fair enough. And he developed this in his radio talks to discuss the various types of love which exist. He started out by thinking that there were perhaps two main kinds of love: first, what he called ‘Need-Love’ – in other words, the kind of need which a baby needs from its mother in order to survive so, in other words, a kind of hard-wired attachment through dependence.


He contrasted this with the other kind of love, which he called ‘Gift-Love’. He suggested that this wasn’t a love which was based on dependence or survival or necessity, but driven by a conscious desire to offer something kind or generous simply for the act of kindness or generosity itself: i.e. that the giver might not get anything out of it.

Lewis soon realized that his neat two-fold description was pretty inadequate. A child’s love for its parent is patently not necessarily based on selfish needs, and apparent acts of selfless kindness may in fact have more complex motivations than are on the surface.

So Lewis decided to develop a more nuanced approach by focusing in on the four words for love in the Greek language.

Now, we may think that English is a very rich language and, in many ways, it is. English does apparently tend to have many words for something that in other languages there are only one or two. Having said that, it’s partly about context. For example, in Inuit languages, such as are spoken in Greenland and parts of Canada, there are around 40-50 words for our one word, ‘snow’. So there’s a different word for ‘snow falling’ and a different word for ‘slightly wetter snow’, or ‘snow good for driving a sled’ and so on. I note that there is no word for ‘Snow that shuts down the entire school system'.

In Greek there was – and I presume still are – four words for our one word, ‘love’. These words you will have likely heard of to an extent.

These words are: στοργή (storge), φιλία (philia), ἔρως (eros) and ἀγάπη (agape). You might not be familiar with the first one, but the others you may well be.

Let’s take a look at each one.

First there is ‘storge’. This describes the kind of love that is brought about through being thrown together by circumstance and, crucially, familiarity. Not by accident, then, is the word ‘family’ from the same root as ‘familiarity’. As the sage said, ‘you don’t get to choose your family’. And whilst you might not have otherwise gravitated toward your siblings, or your parents, or your offspring, if they weren’t related to you, love binds you to them, irrespective of how much – or how little – you may actually have in common with them. So, ‘storge’ is what is described as the ‘empathy bond’.


Then there is ‘philia’. Now, this is, unlike ‘storge’ one which is elective. Putting it another one, you get to choose who you share this kind of love with. It is often described as ‘brotherly’ or ‘sisterly’ love. And you may, hopefully you will, experience not only ‘storge’ with those that you are thrown together with, without any choice, but also ‘philia’: the friendship and companionship love that characterizes the relationships which you have chosen to have with those that connect with you, and you with them, on a fundamental level of shared activity, insight, emotion and aspiration.

Then, the next love in Greek is the most famous. ‘Eros’. Now, despite the apparent connection with sexual love, it actually is more about romantic love’. That’s because there is a distinction between lust and love. It’s an important distinction. Lust is not really loving. And ‘eros’ is a definition of love, not lust. So, it is about the love that seeks not any partner for gratification but one partner for a bond. The way Lewis made this distinction was between an ‘instinctual alley-cat’ and a ‘reasoning angel’ which I cannot help but feel is a little unfair to cats. But there you are.

Then there is the fourth Greek word for love, ‘agape’. This is a kind of steadfast, sacrificial love that endures irrespective of changing circumstances. Lewis says that this, of the four loves (and, incidentally, Lewis reworked his radio talks into a book called, perhaps not that surprisingly, ‘The Four Loves’) – that this, agape, of the four loves, is the most important. The fundamental reason that he said that it was the most important was because it was the only one that absolutely involved God. The first three were human loves. The fourth, agape, was a reflection of God’s love, and a reciprocation of God’s love.

In some ways, though, the fourth love, whilst the most important, is perhaps the most elusive in our world. The first three are important, vital and wonderful, to be sure. But we need all four loves to be fully-rounded human beings.

Agape is the love which is often translated from the Greek as ‘Charity’. And, although it is not immediately obvious, the whole of our first reading today was about Charity. [So there you go, Charity!]

Whilst our translation of the Bible, the New Revised Standard Version for those of you who like to know these things, the King James Version of the 17th century translated the word ‘agape’ in this passage from the First Letter to the Corinthians not as ‘love’ but as ‘charity’. And in many ways it is a helpful distinction which our modern translation loses, which just goes to show you that progress is not always as smart as we think.

So, yes. Whenever that first reading uses the word, ‘love’ what it is is a translation of the Greek word, ‘agape’. So what St Paul is talking about is this: that you can apparently be the most handsome, biggest donating, most well-read, most highly-praised and most apparently well-liked individual in the history of the world, a great sibling, a great spouse, the greatest pillar of your community, but if you don’t reflect the selfless, sacrificial love of God in your life, all of the rest of it is as nothing. As the graphic in your bulletin puts it. Without ‘agape’ love, your life is bankrupt, because the apparent love that you display or receive I based either on necessity or on companionship or on romance, all of which are self-serving to some degree. Rather, all three of the human loves, ‘storge’, ‘philia’ and ‘eros’ need to be complemented with ‘agape’ in order to be fully loving. We need all four loves, but the one we cannot possibly be fully rounded human beings without is ‘agape’.

That first reading we had today is one of the most well-known Bible readings there is, largely thanks to it being read at, like, eleven million weddings every month. I just made that statistic up, but you get my point. In it, Paul tells us how to identify is agape is present. And there is a long list of qualities: patience, kindness, and there is a list of things that ‘agape’ is not, such as that it is lacking in the keeping of petty scores or grudges, that it lacks ‘puffed-up-ness’, and so on.

It’s difficult to know how to say it any more simply than this, since Paul’s words are pretty much crystal clear. To be a good person, you need to reflect God’s love. And in order to reflect God’s love all you need to do is: be patient, be kind, rejoice in the truth and bear everything that’s thrown at you with good grace. Similarly, in order to reflect God’s love, don’t be self-serving, irritable, resentful, envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. Oh, and stop with the schadenfreude. And we might say, “yeah, but’ well you know, we need to be realistic, I mean well, that’s kind of a bit naïve, a bit simplistic, isn’t it, Nils? I mean…” No, it’s not simplistic. Rather, it’s simple. That list is simple. It’s just not easy.

Why shouldn’t we try to follow that list? After all, it’s the only thing that’s really going to change this world for the better.

Print Friendly and PDF