Created for Love - A Look at the 4 Types of Love

Since we are destined to be people made alive with the love of our God, we must find out what the love of God looks like. History offers us many ideas of what godlike love is. One of the most famous is found in the mythological Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, who was so beautiful she was believed to be irresistible. While she was called the goddess of love, she was known as the goddess of sexual rapture. Though married, she continually had affairs with other gods as well as humans. As a normal part of worship in her temple, Aphrodite’s priestesses would serve as “stand-ins” for Aphrodite by having sex with her worshippers. In this way, it was said that divine love visited humanity.

In many ways, the story of Aphrodite epitomizes the cultural understanding (both then and now) of divine love. We see it acted out over and over on the movie screen. But does this image of a beautiful and passionate, yet unfaithful and selfish, lover accurately describe the love of God? Many believe this is the ultimate experience of love, yet as Christians, we know true love means so much more. Even the Greeks, though they worshipped Aphrodite, recognized a love much greater than hers.  

Ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, contained four primary words for love—storgē, eros, phileō, and agapē. In these definitions we find the great variety of meaning encompassed by the single English word love. An understanding of these four loves illuminates what God means when He says He loves us—and how that differs from affection for a friend or the love of coffee.

First, let’s consider eros, or erotic love, the kind of love epitomized in Aphrodite. Eros is characterized by overwhelming passion that seizes and absorbs itself in the mind. It is an emotional involvement with another person based on body chemistry, and it is motivated by self-satisfaction. Though this type of love is directed toward another person, it is actually a vehicle of selfishness. A person driven by eros believes, “I love you because you make me happy.” Because eros is based on the pleasure another person brings, when that pleasure ceases, the reason for such love vanishes. Thus, a person may “fall out of love” with another. Simply put, eros is motivated by what it can receive, and it gives in order to receive. When expectations go unmet, eros can quickly foster bitterness and resentment within a person. The flip side is that those who experience eros from others soon learn that being loved is dependent on being attractive or pleasing to another person. It is an earned or conditional love. Not surprisingly, though this is our culture’s primary definition of romantic love, the word eros is completely absent from the New Testament. Contrary to the Greek standard for divine love, eros is not how God loves, and it’s not how He wants us to love either.

Second is storgē, a love most simply defined as “natural affection” or “natural obligation.” This natural movement of the soul toward a spouse, child, friend, or pet is based in one’s own nature. It is a quiet and abiding feeling within oneself based on something one feels good about. In the New Testament, storgē is twice used in the negative form, meaning “unloving” or “without natural affection” (see Rom. 1:31; 2 Tim. 3:3). In both instances, it is used to describe individuals who have given themselves over to sin. They are so far from God that they lack even the storgē kind of love. In Romans 12:10, it is combined with philos to mean “devoted” or “kindly affectioned,” indicating the type of loving devotion we should show toward other believers.

Third is phileō, a companionable love characterized by affection, fondness, or liking. It is awakened in one’s heart through positive qualities in others. This is the type of love that responds to kindness, appreciation, or love, and it entails both giving and receiving. It is a higher form of love than eros, because it is based on our happiness instead of my happiness. However, when the bonds of phileō are greatly strained, they can collapse in a crisis. In the New Testament, phileō is used multiple times in a positive form (see Matt. 6:5; 10:37; 23:6; 26:48; Mark 14:44; Luke 20:46; 22:47; John 5:20; 11:3, 36; 12:25; 15:19; 16:27; 20:2; 1 Cor. 16:22; Titus 3:15; Rev. 3:19; 22:15). Phileō is also used, in John 21:15–17, to create a contrast between itself and the fourth type of love—agapē. We will look at this passage in more depth later.

Forth is agapē, the God kind of love. Agapē is stirred in one’s heart by the great value of the one who is loved. It carries with it the ideas of esteem, evaluation, and prizing. Agapē is not based on the merit of the one loved but is rooted in the God-nature within a person. This radical kind of love only originates in God, because it is the embodiment of who He is. When we agapē, we are living out the very nature of God that He placed within us. Agapē delights in giving, desires only the good of the loved one, and is characterized by a consuming passion for the well-being of others. It keeps on loving, even when the loved one is unresponsive, unkind, unlovable, and unworthy. It is unconditional love.

Though there are only a few known occurrences of agapē in non-biblical Greek writings, in the New Testament it appears approximately 320 times. Some of the most notable references include John 3:16, 35; 13:34; 14:15; 15:9, 13; Romans 5:5; 13:8–10; Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 3:17; 4:2, 15; 5:2, 25; Colossians 3:14; First Thessalonians 3:12, 4:9–10; and First Peter 4:8.2

In John 21:15–17, we find a vivid contrast between phileō and agapē. Here is the famous dialogue between Jesus and Peter, when Jesus restored Peter to ministry after he denied Him three times (see Luke 22:54–62). In the text, I have inserted the Greeks words Jesus and Peter used for love:

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love [agapē] me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love [phileō] you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love [agapē] me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love [phileō] you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love [phileō] me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love [phileō] me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love [phileō] you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15–17)3

Twice Jesus asked Peter whether he had agapē love for Him, and Peter responded both times acknowledging his phileō love for Him. Peter had just denied Jesus three times while Jesus faced death, so we can assume Peter’s response here was based on his assessment of his own personal ability to love. He knew he had not done a good job loving Jesus unconditionally, and this is why he grieved when Jesus used phileō the third time, seeming to agree with Peter’s assessment of himself. Yet in Jesus’ final words to him—“Feed my sheep”—we can see Peter’s redemption. It was as though Jesus said to him, “Even though you don’t know how to love with My kind of sacrificial and unconditional love yet, I still trust you and want you to lead My people.” Jesus knew Peter would receive and learn to live in agapē when he experienced the new birth—and He knows each one of us can, too.

He made us for agapē.

margie fleurant