No word in the English language has been bandied about more than the word “love.” As one writer put it, “Love is the most smudged, dog-eared, tired, and overworked word in our vocabulary. One even hesitates to use the word anymore for it has generally lost its true meaning.” Then he added, “But I must use it, for love is the ultimate human answer to the ultimate human question.”
The Greeks had three words for love: Eros – for that love between people that is in part a refined caring for oneself, in part mutual need satisfaction and concern, and in part libido; philia – for that love manifested in the best of human friendship marked by loyalty, integrity, trust, reciprocal sharing, and kindness; and agape – for love that is given freely, generously, unconditionally expecting nothing in return, sacrificially, spontaneously, gratefully for no other reason than this is what such love does.
In the New Testament, when the love of God is cited, agape is the word most often used, which means that agape love always has the feel of transcendence and eternity about it. When Jesus spoke of love, most of the time the word he used was agape. Not only does God love us with unconditional love in Jesus Christ, but in Jesus God calls us to love others unconditionally, sacrificially, completely.
One of the defining and distinguishing marks of agape love is “constancy,” the willingness and the commitment to be with and for another person regardless, to be available and reachable for others, to respond warmly to others even when we do not feel like it, to respond with concern, understanding, empathy, positive support, and respect. Love that is constancy can always be counted on and never lets a person down. Constancy means love is never withheld to manipulate, coerce, or punish. Constancy of love is steady and dependable, accessible, accepting, and affirming.
When Jesus speaks of himself as the good shepherd, he contrasts the good shepherd’s love for his sheep with the provisional concern of those hired to do a shepherd’s job, and who often run off if danger threatens or a sacrifice is called for, who walk away if they don’t feel good or if they have other things to do or if they are tired and bored.
Thus does Jesus underscore the constancy of agape love in which people are always there for us and stay beside us, who are willing to sacrifice and never give up or give in. John’s Gospel testifies to such love in Jesus, Who “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Such constancy of love is the missing dimension of so many relationship today. Without such constancy of love our relationships become tentative and superficial, provisional and subject to emotional whim. I had a couple recently come to discuss being married in our Sanctuary. In talking with them about the meaning of love and their marriage vows, they told me that they wanted to change the vows so they would conclude not with “until we are parted by death,” but “as long as our love lasts.”
I tried to point out to them that making the vow conditional eviscerates the commitment it articulates and precludes the bonding, the trust, and the intimacy that a marriage should yield. They told me, “Thanks a lot,” and said they would find a minister who was not such a “dinosaur,” who was enlightened and “with it”.
And I am sure they did find someone, given the current tendency to “lighten up” on keeping promises, honoring commitments, and staying faithful to vows over the long haul. Then we wonder why one out of every two marriages fails these days, why family life is so fragile, and why so many people lack a sense of positive direction, and are confused and wistful about who they are and where they belong.
Conversely, when our love has staying power-- when it is a constancy-- we keep and live out our promises and uphold our vows, no matter what problems, challenges, and crises tempt us to do otherwise.
When we choose healthy love and keep on loving, we can move beyond almost any difference or misunderstanding, along with the brokenness and down turnings of life. When we do, we discover how God opens possibilities for our love, and most incredible of all, “that if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us!”
That is why it is always a joyful occasion when someone comes to celebrate 50 years of shared love in the covenant of marriage surrounded by their family and friends for they have discovered how-- as one person observed-- “Love is what we’ve been through together.” Yes, beyond the fantasies, the romantic illusions, the self-centered expectations that we equate with love, is love that is constancy, rejoicing and gratitude, reverence and respect, trust and loyalty.
A certain young wife and mother lived out what such love means. Her husband contracted a crippling and debilitating disease. They had three young children and for the next eight years, the wife stood by her husband, cared for him, took over most of the responsibilities for the family, tried to make ends meet, prayed a lot, and tried to keep her children on track. Friends would often say to her, “But how do you stand it? Haven’t you thought of leaving him, putting him in an institution, even divorcing him? After all, it is more than should be asked of anyone.” The woman replied, “Perhaps it is, but it is not more than love wants to give.”
She one time told her pastor of the lover’s ritual the two of them had developed through the years of their marriage. They would take each other’s hand and one would say, “I love you!” and the other would respond, “Yes, and I love you, too.” As the husband grew weaker and fought back the darkness of total paralysis and death, the ritual continued, even when he could no longer hold her hand. On the last day of her husband’s life, the wife took his limp hand and said, “Honey, I love you more than I ever loved you.” He tried to respond but he could only say, “Love!” but that was enough.
Love as constancy is derivative of God’s undefeated love for us in Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for us. “We love because God first loves us,” as John declares. And because of the constancy of God’s love for us, we are to love one another with constancy, to love one another to the end.
The artist, Henri Matisse, gripped by the miracle of such love could sing, “Love wants to rise, not to be held down by anything base ... Nothing is more gentle than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing larger, nothing more complete, nothing better in heaven or on earth-- because love is born of God and cannot rest other than in God above all. He who loves flies, runs, and rejoices. She who loves is free for a world that shines – yes, shines!” So be it!
Rev. Dr. Fred Andrea is the pastor of Aiken’s First Baptist Church.