Love has many different guises. It’s not all about the romantic view of love which is portrayed in the media. In Greek, there are many different words to describe different kinds of love. C.S. Lewis has written a book called ‘The Four Loves’ which looks at the different Greek words for love: Storge is fondness or affection through familiarity (a brotherly love), especially between family members or people who have otherwise found themselves together by chance. Eros is romantic or sexual love (the words erotic and eroticism have their roots in this word). Philia is the love between friends, the strong bond existing between people who share a common interest or activity. Agape is unconditional love and is the word used in 1 John 4:8 and 16 when we read ‘God is love’. Other people have tried to define the different levels of love that we can have. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, a twelfth-century monk, said there were four ‘degrees of love’: the first degree being to love one’s self for one’s own sake; the second ‘loving God for one’s own sake’ – in other words, for what we can get out of Him! This is perhaps the stage that many of us feel we are at: we love God for what He can do for us and what He can give us more than for who He actually is in Himself. But as we mature, we move to the third stage, ‘the love of God for God’s sake’ when we actually begin to value God for who He is more than for what He does. The fourth stage is ‘loving one’s self for God’s sake’, whereby there is a mutuality in love. God’s love for us actually permeates our love for God. Our own human wholeness is somehow affirmed in the love of God and all these other three stages are somehow completed.
Other books recognise that love is manifested in different ways: Gary Chapman’s ‘The Five Love Languages’ looks at how love can be expressed through physical touch, through time spent with loved ones, through gifts, through words of affirmation and through acts of service. It is often helpful to married couples to recognise that there are different ways of expressing love, for we often feel unloved if love is expressed in a ‘language’ with which we are not familiar.
We cannot be prescriptive about how we love God, but the fact remains that love has to be visible and demonstrable. Some ways that other Christians have found to do this through the ages include food banks, helping the unemployed with job applications, founding pregnancy crisis centres, housing the homeless, working against poverty, working with the addicted, campaigning against slavery and human trafficking, prison visiting. But love is also shown in faithfully helping with church outreaches: youth groups, coffee mornings, parent and toddler groups, schools’ ministries and so on.
The Radio 4 iPM news programme features a ‘New Year’s Honours awards’ where listeners nominate local people who are involved in outstanding community work. The winner this year was a youth worker in South London, Stu Thomson. When the interviewer asked him at the end of the interview why he had done this work so faithfully for so many years when so many of the people he had tried to help had been so violent and abusive towards him, he said that he did it because of his faith in God: ‘I know this is where God wants me to be at this moment.’ That kind of commitment to loving people because of God’s love for us and for them is played out over and over again in church communities the whole world over and we must never underestimate the power of our ‘ordinary’ love in the lives of ordinary people.
Interview with Stu Thomson, 5th January 2013