Unlike the other forms of love, agape is a choice versus an emotion. Two of its characteristics make this clear.
First, Agape Is Unconditional
Phileo is conditional. Two friends might have phileo for each other because of qualities they share or circumstances that bring them together. But if those qualities or circumstances change, their phileo for each other might also change.
In contrast, agape is unconditional. It is not affected by a person’s actions, looks, or possessions. People might successfully create phileo in someone else by being a better friend, but agape cannot be earned or merited. Nothing can be done to increase or decrease agape. It can only be given. Agape does not demand reciprocation and is independent of how it is treated in return. Agape loves even when rejected, mistreated, or scorned. That is what makes this form of love so unique and distinguishable.
An Old Testament Example
The Old Testament provides a beautiful picture of agape’s unconditional nature. In fact, if a husband asked me, “Pastor, how far should I be willing to go for my wife?” I would tell him to read the account of the prophet Hosea (Hosea chapters 1 and 3 specifically). His story begins when God tells him to marry a woman named Gomer as an object lesson of God’s relationship with Israel:
The Lord said to Hosea: “Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land has committed great harlotry by departing from the Lord.”Hosea 1:2
We do not know whether Gomer was a harlot when Hosea married her or became one later, but at some point, Gomer left Hosea, either to resume her career as a harlot or to pursue adulterous relationships. Eventually she found herself destitute and either sold herself or was sold into slavery. We know this was a sexual slavery, akin to human trafficking today, because God commanded Hosea:
“Go again, love a woman who is loved by a lover and is committing adultery.”Hosea 3:1
In obedience to God, Hosea purchased Gomer back from slavery, and restored her to her position as his wife. It is significant that God did not only instruct Hosea to return to Gomer. He commanded him to love her: “Go again, love a woman . . .” Going back to Gomer after her unfaithfulness would have required an unimaginable amount of forgiveness and grace, but Hosea also had to love her. This is unconditional love. This is agape.
Did Hosea obey? Did Gomer respond? The context would indicate that they did since the account is presented as a parallel to the love story between God and His people. Let’s see how the story ends:
“Afterward the children of Israel [represented by Hose] shall return and seek the Lord their God . . . I [God] will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely.”Hosea 3:5, 14:4
The parallel shows a repentant bride and a husband who freely loves and forgives. It is a wonderful picture of what can take place in even the most broken marriages when a husband will agape his wife.
A Present Day Example
Katie and I have some dear friends I’ll call Brian and Jennifer, and they gave me permission to share their Hosea and Gomer story. Much of their testimony revolves around Jennifer’s unfaithfulness to Brian early in their marriage before they were Christians. Jennifer was running around on Brian, even living with other men for stretches of time. Days went by when Brian did not know where Jennifer was or how she was doing.
As Brian and Jennifer share their testimony, there is one point when Jennifer always becomes emotional. She shares how she had been with some man for a period of time and came home hoping to have pushed Brian far enough that he would divorce her. Jennifer did not know that while she had been away, Brian became a Christian. While Brian recognized the sin in Jennifer’s life, he also recognized the sin in his own life. He knew he needed a Savior just as much as Jennifer. As a result, he was willing to forgive her. When Jennifer walked in, Brian was sitting in a chair reading his Bible. Looking up at her, he said simply, “I am so glad you’re home. I was very worried about you.”
Brian’s unconditional love for Jennifer finally won her back. She became a Christian and is one of the godliest women I have ever met. Over the decades of their marriage they have faithfully served Christ and brought Him much glory. God used Brian’s agape to redeem Jennifer and make her an instrument for His kingdom.
Second, Agape Is Sacrificial
Agape is not about feelings or emotions. It is a choice. It is an act of the will. This is important to keep in mind, because we tend to think love is a feeling. You get shot by Cupid’s arrow and then you are “in love.” Unfortunately, feelings can come and go.
In contrast, agape is about what we are willing to do. In the Love Chapter we read:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Corinthians 13:4-7
How many words here describe feelings and emotions? None! How many words are verbs or action words describing what love is willing to do? All of them.
A New Testament Example
Jesus told a parable in Luke 10:25–37 that illustrates the sacrificial nature of agape. The prelude to this story is that a lawyer sought to test Jesus: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”
“What is written in the law?” Jesus asked.
In response, the lawyer quoted two well-known Old Testament passages: “You shall love (agape) the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind (Deuteronomy 6:5)” and “love (agape) your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
“You have answered rightly,” Jesus assured the lawyer. “Do this and you will live.”
The lawyer understood that to receive eternal life, he needed to have agape for God and his neighbors. But agape is something nobody can exercise perfectly, which could be why the lawyer tried to justify himself by asking another question: “And who is my neighbor?”
Jesus never specifically answered the question but instead told The Parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate what agape looks like. A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho was set upon by thieves, robbed of his clothes, and left half-dead. A Jewish priest and Levite in turn passed by but did not bother to help. Then a Samaritan, both a foreigner and historic enemy to the Jews, saw the man. With compassion, he tended the man’s wounds, set the man on his donkey, and took him to a nearby inn where he left funds to cover the man’s care.
Jesus then asked the lawyer, “So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?” His question could as easily be phrased: “Which of these three do you think showed agape?”
Three Ways the Good Samaritan Depicts Agape
- The Samaritan’s love was not conditional on anything the wounded man had done for him. In the story, the man was clearly a stranger. So why did the Samaritan help him? Was it all the good times they had shared together? All the wonderful things the injured man had done for him in the past? Some expectation the man would pay the Samaritan back in the future? No. The man had done absolutely nothing for the Samaritan, and the Samaritan did not expect anything in return. That is the unconditional nature of agape.
- The Samaritan’s agape is shown in that he loved a man who despised him. Jews hated Samaritans, but the Samaritan was willing to help the man anyway. Agape loves even when it is rejected.
- The Samaritan’s actions reveal the sacrificial nature of agape. He bandaged the man’s wounds. There were no first aid kits in those days, so he must have made the bandages from his clothes. He used oil and wine to clean the wounds. He put the man on his animal and walked to the inn where he paid the man’s bill and promised to pay even more in the future if needed. All this took time, effort, and money. Agape is demonstrated not by words but by sacrifice and actions.
Agape Is God’s Love for Man
God is love (agape).1 John 4:8 and 16
God is the embodiment of agape. One of Scripture’s most famous verses describe God’s agape for us:
For God so loved (agape) the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.John 3:16
Think of the other ways this verse could be worded: For God so loved the world that He:
- Created a beautiful planet for people to enjoy
- Gave us the wonderful gift of marriage
- Blesses us with children
- Established the church so His people could be part of a spiritual family
All these are true statements, but they do not reveal God’s agape because they lack one of agape’s required characteristics: sacrifice. The sacrificial nature of God’s agape is made evident in His willingness to give “His only begotten Son.”
This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.1 John 4:10
This communicates the unconditional nature of agape in that God loved us even when we did not love Him. The words “sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins,” communicate the sacrificial nature of God’s agape.
God demonstrates His own love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:8
This verse reveals the same two characteristics of God’s agape toward us:
- The words “while we were still sinners” reveal the unconditional nature of agape. God loved us when we were in rebellion against Him. Just as God sent Hosea back to Gomer to love her when she was committing physical adultery, so God loved us even when we were living in rebellion against Him and committing spiritual adultery.
- The words “Christ died for us” reveal the sacrificial nature of God’s agape.
When I Finally Understood Agape
I never understood well God’s unconditional, sacrificial agape until I became a father. Children can be cruel. Countless children rebel against their parents, but how do parents respond? I remember a conversation with our oldest child, Rhea, who was seven at the time. She was asking me if I would love her if she did certain things she considered to be terrible. Each time she would start out, “Would you still love me if I . . .”
I finally told her: “Yes, I love you so much, and there is nothing you could ever do that would make me love you any less. Truthfully, I love you so much I don’t know how I could even love you more.”
When I said this to Rhea, I meant it, and I know other parents would say the same to their children. That is agape. The beautiful reality can be revealed when we contrast ourselves with God. If I, a fallen man with imperfect love, can feel this way toward my children, how much greater must God’s agape be for us,considering His perfection? Considering He is love? I love Rhea because she is my daughter, but the far greater unconditional and sacrificial nature of God’s agape was demonstrated when He was willing to sacrifice His Son for unloving sinners who were not then part of the family of God but in active rebellion against Him. That is agape, and that is God’s love for us.
Agape Is Man’s Love for Sin
Up to this point we have discussed the positive elements of agape, but for a full understanding we must know it is used one other way in Scripture. Agape also describes the love man has for sin. Interestingly, this usage occurs in the same discussion as God’s agape in John 3:16. The setting is a late-night meeting between Jesus and a Pharisee, Nicodemus. After explaining God’s agape for the world in John 3:16, Jesus says just three verses later: “This is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved (agape) darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.”
Considering our discussion up to this point, this usage for agape should make perfect sense:
- Agape loves even when not reciprocated. Man loves sin even though sin does not love in return. In fact, sin does the opposite: “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Sin’s response to those who love it is death.
- Agape loves unconditionally. It is a love that is completely independent of how the object of the love acts toward or treats the one loving it. Thus, man continues to love sin regardless of the guilt, punishment, suffering, or discipline he experiences as a consequence.
- Agape loves sacrificially. Think of everything people are willing to give up for sin: health, dignity, jobs, finances, children, parents, marriages, friendships, churches, and even relationships with the Lord. The tragedy is that there is very little man will not sacrifice for sin.
Do not love (agape) the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves (agape) the world, the love (agape) of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.1 John 2:15-16
When we give in to these lusts, we choose sin over our spouses. What does this look like? A husband gives in to:
- The lust of the flesh when he gets drunk
- The lust of the eyes when he looks at pornography
- The pride of life when he puts in unnecessary hours at work to receive praise
A wife gives in to:
- The lust of the flesh when she makes purchases behind her husband’s back
- The lust of the eyes when she covets the home of a friend
- The pride of life when she embraces the flirtations of a man who is not her husband
When we satisfy these lusts, we demonstrate a greater love for sin than for our spouses. The motivation behind sinning is always selfish, whereas the motivation behind loving one’s husband or wife is always the best interests of the spouse. Sinning is an act of the will, but so is love. We choose to love our spouses when we choose not to give in to our flesh.
- Describe a time you witnessed the unconditional nature of agape. For example, a father forgiving a son who deeply hurt him or a girl helping a sister who mistreated her.
- When have you experienced someone showing you unconditional love?
- Describe a time you witnessed the sacrificial nature of agape. For example, a mother tirelessly taking care of her baby, or someone going to extremes to help a friend in need.
- Describe a time when your spouse showed you sacrificial agape.
- How would you compare agape and phileo?
- What does it mean that God’s love for us is both sacrificial and unconditional? What should be our response to this wonderful reality?
- Has your understanding of agape changed since reading this post? If so, how?