Is love an emotion? These days this question may seem oxymoronic.
According to most in the helping professions, apparently it is not.
In Solzhenitsyn's description of "our sewage disposal system,"
(a phrase he employs to describe the conduit through which humans were
transferred from society to the Gulags) he refers to a term popular
in his day, "social prophylaxis." This was the term used
by repression forces in their efforts to protect Russian society from
the political decadence of the bourgeoisie.
"A convenient juridical term," Solzhenitsyn called it.1
I do not wish to compare the Christian community with the bolshevik
revolution, but I must note that the modern movement (for that is what
it has become) toward understanding love as a "decision," is very much
a social prophylaxis. We are afraid our unpredictable feelings or
passions will corrupt us, so under the pretense of re-examining love,
we re-define it to be more intellectually and spiritually sterile.
Such thinking has become a trend. It is now trendy to identify love
as an action only -- one which one chooses to make. Much
is made of the greek word, agape, and the more misunderstood
word, phile, is soft-pedaled if not dismissed entirely.
Why? How did this issue come to the forefront? Why is it important?
It is always important when the natural order of things is challenged.
Look how far the "gay forces" have taken their case. Yet Strom Thurmond's
admonition to the young homosexual sailor is compelling: "Son, your
style of living is just unnatural." It doesn't take a Ph.D. to know
that the senator is right. It often takes a Ph.D. to confuse the issue.
Basically, this is what has happened to the natural character of love.
This is disconcerting for many of us.
To address the question, "Why?," we must look deeper into motivation.
The fact is that "natural love" is an enigma to everyone. It creates
theological discomfort for others. It is an enigma because some, owing
to their environmental stressors, have never known it, much less understood
it. Theological discomfort because we are "commanded" to have it -- and
how do you command your emotions? The answer is you can't.
So love, we are taught, must be a decision; an exercise of rationality,
an intellectual enterprise, a prophylaxis. The feelings of love with
which we are all so familiar and about which the songs and poems are
written, are a pathology.
Alfred Adler, one of the fathers of modern psychotherapy, gives his
opinion that "There is a Law that man should love his neighbor as
himself. In a few years it should be as natural to mankind as breathing
or the upright gait; but if he does not learn it he must perish."
Intimacy is predicated on love. It is impossible to be psychologically
intimate with anyone with whom we are not experiencing love on some level.
If one is a Christian, one draws his resources from the Bible in defining
his Christianity. The Bible is prolific in its teachings about love. It
is critical then, to know with precision what the Scripture says about the
most fundamental psychodynamic phenomena in human experience.
I think it is safe to say that when believers are trying to understand
biblical love, they begin with the rubric that God is Love. In
their attempts to clarify that love, often they turn to a dialogue that
Jesus had with Peter after the resurrection and in the presence of the
Our Lord, perhaps amused at Peter's rashness at throwing himself into
the sea, began this dialogue,
For reasons that are unclear, this passage is almost universally
interpreted to suggest that Peter was using an inferior
word for love. The inevitable (but perhaps unintended) result of
such reasoning is that we believers are taught to love with
agape love as preferable to phile love.
Phile is a "friendly" love, a fondness like the love we
have for our fellow man as compared to our unconditional agape
love for God and his agape love for us, etc.
It is our view that this widely accepted notion of biblical love presents
an emotionally insensitive, psychologically naive and intellectually
convoluted perspective. Consequently, the phenomena of love itself
becomes convoluted in a morass of heart feelings, rationalizations and
intellectual misunderstandings. This interpretation has become conventional;
it has set the foxes tails afire and is burning up the wheat.
Yet we are not in error when we use agape to describe the love of God.
The overwhelming choice for love as expressed in the New Testament is in fact,
agape (as in LXX). The error is in the diminishment of phile
to a form (kind) of love that is less than divine. The error is in relegating
it to the realm of the mundane instead of the sublime. The greatest error
however, is the denigration of the normal emotional expression of love.
A basic Christian hermeneutic in understanding the Old Testament is that
it must be interpreted in the light of and from the perspective of the New
Testament. It is perhaps also valid that the reverse is sometimes true.
We find the usage of the word for love in the Old Testament to cast significant
influence on our understanding of its use in the New.
This OT concept of action based on feeling is less definitive in the NT.
Neither agape or phile seem to completely capture the essence
of Aheb. For the Christian to whom these words carry great import,
this presents a bit of a puzzle. However, when assembled with discretion,
the pieces fit. The integrity of the OT Aheb, is maintained.
The only cause for alarm is what we have done with phile.
We should be aware that there are three words used for love in the New Testament,
not just the two under discussion. The third, (-storge), is used as
a suffix to phile and only occurs once in the Bible. The other greek
word for love, eros, does not occur at all. As already noted,
eros occurs once in the LXX, (Prov. 7:18).
Equated with phile:
Jesus loved (agape) Martha and her sister and Lazarus.14 Then
the Jews said, "See how he loved (phile) him!"15
The Jews may have actually spoken in Aramaic. But since koine
-- the common Greek -- was used routinely, they well may have used these
exact words. The Jews chose phile to describe the emotion
expressed by Jesus. John, the gospel writer chose agape.
Could it be that Jesus expressed agape with such emotion that
the Jews used a word that better seemed to capture those feelings?
Something I remember from my high-school geometry class: "Things equal
to the same thing are equal to each other." This is called a syllogism.
It is one of the reasons why we understand that the Father, the Son and
the Holy Spirit can all be God. It seems their friends could not tell
the difference. As with phile, we cannot take the space to discuss
all of the relevant passages.
What can one make of all this? Simply this: there is little if any
difference between agape and phile. Friedrich puts it
“. . . throughout the Gospel . . . agapao and phileo are synonymous.16>
If he is right, then this means that there is no epigraphic "God's kind of love."
There is no substance to the notion that there are two "kinds" of love based on
exegetical assessment. There are simply different octaves of love used to create
the over-all impressionistic harmony. It could well be that the Old Testament
idea of aheb (that of action arising out of an emotional feeling which
one has naturally and spontaneously), is divided by the New Testament into two
separate ideas. If there is a difference one might surmise that agape
is more action and phile is more feeling. Or, perhaps agape
is the larger of the two terms which includes the feeling character of
the more specific phile. But this too, is speculative. It is doubtless,
more precise to note that aheb and agape are the two most common
words for love and are really not unlike our present day use of the word "love."
A further study of these two words might also suggest something else:
It is perfectly natural and good to have feelings of love. Isn't this
obvious? It is comforting to know that God has "feelings," (Heb. 4:15
KJV) that his emotions are not mere anthropomorphisms.
It is good to cry; it is good to laugh and be "in love." What liberty
it brings to know that one is not required to have a clinical,
decision oriented agape love and discount the more
feeling phile love. We are "freed" from religious legalistic
concerns of obligatory and forced feelings. We do not have to make a
distinction between one kind of love and another at all. We can simply
be ourselves and love in the natural way God has given us the measure
to do so.
Nor do we want to miss Kittel's point. Biblical love is love which
acts upon its feeling. I do not think it wise to argue
that if one will decide to act loving, the feelings will come. It is
true -- most of the time, perhaps. As someone who has several of decades
of experience helping others work through their pain, I can speak forcefully
to the point that it is not true all of the time. And those times
when it does not work are those times when not only is action oriented love
not returned, it is held in contempt and high scorn. When acts of love are
consistently, violently or indifferently rejected; when acts of love are
seen as weakness and held in contempt, they will never engender emotion,
and if emotion is there, given enough resistance and rape of soul, it too
What of unconditional love? Is there such a thing? Yes, happily
there is! God loves absolutely without condition. But sorrowfully, it stops
there. We humans are too imperfect to give love in the Absolute
sense of the word (which is what unconditional demands). We are
incapable of anything good that is "unconditional." For instance, if our
hand is held in hot coals long enough, our screams will smother our feelings
of love for our torturer and our intent to act upon it. If that is true, then
we are incapable of unconditional love. When we are most secure about the
unconditionality of our love, let us remember what we humans do when in Pain.
Now we can return to the dialogue between Jesus and Peter. In that
conversation Jesus used agape twice and phile once
(the last time). Peter never used agape. What can we make
of this obvious play on words? What sense can we make of this biblical
conversation which has been so misrepresented and tangled over the years?
(An assumption is generally made here that Jesus and Peter were speaking
in Greek. It is possible. It is also possible that they were speaking in
Aramaic and John recorded the translation in Greek. It is a point
to note but given the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not one which influences
the sense of the argument at all.)
First, understand the personality of as well as the education of Peter.
Peter was not a learned man. He was a fisherman like his father before him
and his father before him. He did not play with the sophistry of word making.
He was a simple man. Straightforward. Brave. And for a brief moment,
disillusioned. I cannot believe that Peter was capable of the quaint interplay
on words that we like to ascribe to him.
A passionate man. Impulsive and intense. The only one of the disciples
with the courage to walk on water. In a fit of rage he accosted Jesus, grabbing
him by his robes shaking him from sleep with the accusing words, "Carest thou
not that we perish?" Peter who could not stomach the Lord's washing his feet
and had the courage to tell him so. Peter who had a proclivity for asking
awkward questions, ("What shall this man do?"). Awestruck with wonder, he
impulsively volunteered to build three tabernacles: one each for Jesus, Moses
and Elijah. And it was Peter who was scolded by Jesus, ("you do not understand
the things of God!"). This, the only time recorded where Jesus spoke in anger
to one of his own. Peter who drew his sword at Jesus' arrest and cut off Malchus'
ear. It was Peter who just a few moments before this celebrated exchange,
recklessly threw himself into the water to swim to his Master.
With this characterization of Peter, isn't it incredulous for a man like this to
stand before the risen Christ and tell him, "I'm only fond of you?"
Peter was not capable of such mild emotions. It contradicts completely the
character of the man to suggest that he only had warm fuzzy feelings for Jesus.
The old disciple is intense. Here is a man who desperately wants to
make amends. Here is a man who must be heard, who must be convincing
no matter what! Jesus asks Peter to compare his love with that of the
others, "Peter do you love me more than the other disciples?"
Peter replies, "Master, you know me! This is me! Peter!" You know
that I love you from the depths of my heart."
It was a message straight from the deepest kernel of his soul. Jesus did
indeed know that. The reason he asks this comparative question is to
emphasize the depth of Peter's love. There need be no surprise at Peter's
use of the word phile; indeed one would expect the use
of the more emotionally intense word. There is no condescending look from
Jesus, but the simple quiet statement, "Then feed my lambs."
With perhaps a gentle smile on his lips Jesus asks a second time,
"Peter, do you really love me?" Has anyone whom you love deeply
and intensely ever taken you by the shoulders, looked you in the eye and
asked you of your love? You want to burst in your desire to
"Yes!" Peter responds, "and you know that!"
"Then put that big heart of yours to work -- lead my sheep."
We can hear Jesus laughing as he finally uses Peter's word, "Peter
come now, do you love (phile) me? Do you really love me that much?"
At this point the writer of the Gospel interjects an editorial observation,
"Peter was grieved," said John, "that he asked him a third time
'Do you love (phile) me.'" This observation is of interest because John
chose to represent all of Jesus' questions of love with phile.
As Friedrich notes, "the little clause 'the third time,' supports the
meaning 'for the third time,' not 'on the third time.'"17
In short, John saw no play on words at all. To him, (at least in this case)
the words meant the same thing.
If Peter made any distinction between these two words at all, he thought he
was using the more intense, the more rare, the more
specific, the more meaningful word. Peter, consistent with
his type "A" personality, was getting tired of this. Frustrated. Three
times already! Enough is enough!
More than that, you have to conclude that Jesus was thrilled at his old friend's answers.
He knew exactly what Peter was feeling and it had to give him immense
pleasure. His final word to him is "feed my sheep." "You are my rock,
Peter. I have given you the keys to the kingdom. And (more soberly
with loving sadness, phile if you will), you will die like me."
What a giant of God Peter turned out to be! It was through the preaching
of this giant that ushered in the most significant day for Christians since
the resurrection (Pentecost). The mere shadow of this big fisherman passing
by was enough to bring sight to the blind and make the lame to walk.
Why labor this issue? Why not leave established ideas alone?
Because as a Redemptive Therapist, I am concerned. This conventional
assessment of biblical love has created far more problems than it has solved.
Not to speak of the conclusion that it is plainly wrong. Recent books have
been published by respected psychologists and psychiatrists which, while well
intended, have missed the mark. Their message represents once again of the
psychotherapeutic community's theological limitations. We might trace the
beginning of the "Love is a decision" movement back to a work which made the
New York Times best seller list for years. I refer to Scott Peck's The
Road Less Traveled. Peck minces no words in his observations of love . . .
"Love is not a feeling. I have defined love as the will to
extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual
growth. Genuine love is volitional rather than emotional. The person who
truly loves does so because of a decision to love. This person has made a
commitment to be loving whether or not the feeling is present. It is not
only possible but necessary for a loving person to avoid acting on
the feelings of love.18
This is probably the most anemic definition of love this writer has ever
encountered. Dr. Peck is wrong about love. Dead wrong. He seems to trip
over his own language for he tells us that love is not a feeling,
and in the same discourse speaks of the feelings of love. Further,
he has done us all a great disservice with doctrinaire notions that are
truly damaging because of their fundamental unnatural character.
It is not helpful to tell us to love and not feel it; and if we do feel it,
to tell us it is not love.
I feel I have accurately represented Dr. Peck's viewpoints and have not taken
them out of context. His words speak for themselves. I feel he has partially
understood agape but in unknowingly discrediting phile, he
has erred to our loss. I say "unknowingly" because Peck does not use the biblical
words, but his position relative to loving feelings and the decision to love is
abundantly clear. In his writings, he seems very taken with the concept of
cathexis, the expression of emotion toward an object or idea. He states that
society has confused cathexis with love. I suggest that Peck has confused
cathexis with intimacy. Humans are not "objects" or "ideas." An object or
idea cannot reciprocate; and it is the possibility of reciprocation that forms
the basis for relationship and intimacy.
Bloom further comments on our use of the term relationship:
"Isolation, a sense of lack of profound contact with other human beings,
seems to be the disease of our time. There are great industries of psychotherapy
that address our difficulties in 'relationships' -- that pallid, pseudoscientific
word the very timidity of which makes substantial attachments impossible. Yet
one has to have a tin ear to describe one's great love as a relationship. Did
Romeo and Juliet have a relationship? The term is suitable only for
expressions like 'they had a relationship.' It betokens a chaste egalitarianism l
eveling different ranks and degrees of attachment. 'Relationships' are based on
'commitments,' as in 'I'm not ready to make a commitment.' It is a term empty
of content, implying that human connectedness can arise only out of a motiveless
act of freedom."19
Peck's observations and conclusions (by his own admission) are based on
his evaluation of his clients. Hardly a place to find truth about so basic
a concept; so pristine a need. His comments about romantic love are
especially disturbing and suggest the prevailing attitude of the secular
Do loving feelings produce loving deeds? Obviously. A second grader can
tell you that. Can you act in a loving way towards others when you don't
feel love for them? Of course you can. That is no revelation. It is called
being nice and charitable. We have been doing it as a society for years.
Will loving feelings follow loving deeds? Will you develop the feelings of
love toward someone if you treat them in a loving way long enough? Maybe.
It depends on their response. Your love and your actions of love are not
unconditional as we have discussed. To continue to "love someone" when they
treat you despicably, usually results in a pathological form of enablement
Some interesting studies have been conducted which cast revealing light on
our attitudinal postures toward intimacy and love. Mikulincer and Erev explored
what they called "adult attachment processes" among 337 secure, avoidant or
ambivalent people. They found that secure people put more emphasis on
intimacy than avoidant and ambivalent people. Their relationships were
characterized by high intimacy. The romantic relationship of ambivalent
people was characterized by failure to realize their desire for a warm and
secure love. Finally, avoidant people experienced less intimacy than secure
people, but more commitment than ambivalent people in their relationships.20
This study reveals that love uncharacterized by intimacy represents an
impaired condition -- not a desirable condition.
Love provides a generous paradigm for the foundation of self-esteem as well.
Fascinating information emerges when the work of Drs. Walsh; and Drs. Medora,
Goldstein and Von der Hellen are examined together. Drs. Walsh noted that
love was "the most powerful predictor of self-esteem."21
This followed by the other researchers, "Two variables were significantly
related to self-esteem -- the incidence of sexual abuse and the incidence of
abortion."22 These studies clearly illustrate the fact that
subjective and active love produces self-esteem while abortion is placed
alongside sexual abuse as an example of what destroys self-esteem.
Lastly, Cochrane demonstrates the relationship of physical love (contact)
with the incidence of depression:
Following the demonstration of a strong association between unsatisfactory
physical contact and depression, a significant relationship is found between
depression and the experience of being not loved. These two relationships are
shown to exist independently of one another and when causation is investigated,
both unsatisfactory physical contact and the experience of being not loved are
seen to cause depression rather than vice versa.23
It should be clear that the above studies are discussing felt-love. Real
intimacy -- not cathexis or decision making. If we do not feel loved, we are
depressed, lacking in self-esteem and are possibly avoidant, insecure or
ambivalent in our relationships with others and with God. For the Christian,
the strongest stimulus for self-esteem procurable is the ultimate act of the
love of Christ. Self-esteem bespeaks of self-worth. We believers derive our
self-worth from the cross. If we want to know how much we are worth to God,
we envision the cross. There, in all of its stark realism, is the final
measure of what we are worth to him. If we are worth that much to the Father,
how can we say of ourselves that we are worth less?
Peck feels of course, that romantic love is a myth; that "falling in love"
is a fanciful fiction. In our view, another book entitled A Severe Mercy,
written by one far less "credentialed" than Dr. Peck, has a far better grasp
of the subject and one easily more understandable, for he speaks in a language
of love we all know and can appreciate:
". . . one of us found something on falling in love that, with the
appropriate pronouns, was just the way it was for both of us. A bit
sentimental, perhaps, but then lovers are. It is quoted from memory, perhaps
inaccurately, with thanks to the unknown author:
'To hold her in my arms against the twilight and be her comrade for ever --
this was all I wanted so long as my life should last . . . And this, I told
myself with a kind of wonder, this was what love was: this consecration,
this curious uplifting, this sudden inexplicable joy, this intolerable pain.'
What was happening was happening to us both. I believe it was always so, mutual,
and at least at first, equally intense, if it is genuine inloveness. The
actual thing -- inloveness -- requires something like a spark leaping back
and forth from one to the other becoming more intense every moment, love
building up like voltage in a coil. Here there is no sound of one hand
clapping. Unreciprocated love is something else, not genuine inloveness.
I think, perhaps, it is infatuation or passion or, perhaps potential inloveness.
I believe that genuine inloveness is rather less common than romantic novelists
suggest. One who has never been in love might mistake either infatuation or a
mixture of affection and sexual attraction for being in love. But when the
"real thing" happens, there is no doubt. A man in the jungle at night, as
someone said, may suppose a hyena's growl to be a lion's, but when he hears a
lion's growl, he knows damn well it's a lion."24
Both Christian and secular society is affected by the "love is a
decision" concept. The basic reason why this movement exists antedates
even Peck and focuses primarily on Freud and Kinsey for whom sex was
nothing but sex. It has bred a generation of believers who cry with
Tina Turner, "What's Love Got To Do With It?" Being a romantic
in today's Christian and secular society is as our friend Bloom remarks,
". . . a little like being a virgin in a whorehouse."
I mentioned above that as a Redemptive Therapist, I am concerned.
For the following reasons, I am concerned that the accepted "love is a decision"
philosophy will harm Christian personality formation and human authenticity.
1. The current and accepted view of agape and phile suggests
a legalistic quality. To state that believers under Grace are required to do
anything that does not spring from an authentic and genuine emotional base when
it comes to love is adding evil upon evil. Because the conventional religious
approach to love is inaccurate and misleading. Inaccurate because it does not
adhere to the most basic of hermeneutical principles: Consider all of
the evidence before drawing a conclusion. Misleading because it sends
us off in a direction that is contrary to nature and will ultimately end in
exasperation. If to feel love for another and be loved in kind is the most
basic of psychological needs, then such misdirection is tragic indeed.
2. The accepted view seems to completely ignore the basic meaning of aheb
in the Old Testament and its influence on our understanding of love in the New
Testament. This is a major hermeneutical oversight. If the OT is relegated into
functional irrelevance for the Christian, what shall we do with its Truth? With
its revelation of God? If we ignore aheb in our attempts to understand
agape and phile, we have theologically impoverished our
understanding of God, hence our understanding of Love.
3. It makes love rational. Far from a decision based upon relevant facts or
even a Divine command, love (especially the love of God) is the most irrational
of psychodynamic realities. It is primal – visceral. The conventional
view suggests that love is an `upper story' intellectual decision. It thus creates
a tension between a man and his God where there should be none. If God loves with
a rational love, how can He accept us given our proclivity to sin? That
is irrational! Love is not a sterile, objective act of the will devoid of passion.
4. It creates a false piety in that it makes love an objective to achieve
rather than a spontaneous experience. It places love "out of reach" for those of
us who are very much in touch with our need to sin. To suggest that we should strive
for love when it is something to relax with and experience does severe damage to
our idea of God.
Once when I visited my home state of California, I visited with a woman who knew
me when I was a very young Christian. She spoke condescendingly of living the
"holy life;" of maintaining "God's standards." I admire her idealism, but it
is misplaced. Christ is our standard. His death, burial and resurrection is
the only one the Father will accept. What kind of "standards" do we think God
has for us? Perfectionism. He wants us to be perfect. Can we pull this off?
Of course not. So he did it for us in the sacrifice of our blessed Lord. So
what does God expect from you and me? He expects us to do exactly what he knows
already that we will do -- fall short of being perfect. We will never do anything
else in this life. "God's standards" are something we cannot attain. It comes
only through the shedding of blood. So the best we can do "is live justly,
love mercy, and walk humbly with our God."25 This, with his help, we can do.
5. We are not God. We cannot and do not love unconditionally. I think deep
down inside we know that. The fact that God can and does love us unconditionally,
gives us a sense of hope. Our love does not have to be a performance. God loves
us with emotion which births action. I can do that. If I feel love for someone,
it is a natural expression to treat them accordingly. And if I do not feel it,
I do not have to treat them badly.
6. Finally, the passage in John just makes more sense if we understand
phile in the way we suggest in this discussion. We do not need to force
the meaning of the passage. Even the risen Christ as he conversed with Peter
and as he is now, is still human. With his humanity comes human feelings of
love. We should remember that. PDM
Someday, after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity,
we shall harness for God the energy of love;
and for the second time in the history of the world,
man will have discovered fire.
. . . Pierre Teilhard De Chardin
I never knew how to worship until I knew how to love.
. . . Henry Ward Beecher
1. Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr. I. The Gulag Archipelago, Harper & Row, New York, 1973. p.42.
2. John 21:15-17.
3. Kittel, Gerhard. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Geoffrey W. Bromiley,
Translator and Editor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids. Vol. I, p. 29.
4. Matthew 10:37.
5. John 5:20.
6. John 16:17.
7. 1 Peter 1:21-23.
8. Titus 3:3-6.
9. Luke 6:32.
10. Luke 7:3-5.
11. Luke 7:47.
12. The American Heritage Dictionary defines syndrome as "a collection of symptoms
which characterize a disease, psychological disorder or other abnormal condition."
Such a characterization fits nicely our view of the position this paper examines.
13. John 3:19.
14. John 11:5.
15. John 11:35-36.
16. Friedrich, Gerhard. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Geoffrey W.
Bromiley, Translator and Editor. Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, Grand Rapids.
Vol. IX. p. 135. 1974
17. Ibid. p. 135.
18. Peck, M. Scott, M.D., The Road Less Traveled, Simon and Schuster, New York,
1978. p. 119.
19. Ibid. p. 14.
20. Mikulincer M., Erev I., "Attachment style and the structure of romantic love."
British Journal of Social Psychology. 1991, Dec;30 ( Pt 4):273_91
21. Walsh A., Walsh P.A., Love, Self_esteem, and Multiple Sclerosis. Social Science
and Medicine, 1989;29(7):793_8
22. Medora N.P., Goldstein A., Von der Hellen C., "Variables related to romanticism
and self_esteem in pregnant teenagers." Adolescence. 1993 Spring;28(109):159_70
23. Cochrane N, "Physical Contact Experience and Depression." Acta Psychiatric
Scandinavian Supplement. 1990;357:1_91
24. Vanauken, Sheldon. A Severe Mercy. Phoenix Press, Walker and Company.
New York. 1977. p.40.
25. Micah 6:8.