When Jesus was sharing his last meal with his disciples before his death, he gave them a new command: love one another.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit―fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other. (John 15:16-17 (NIV))
Unlike the Greek language of Jesus’s day, the English language makes it hard to capture that command in a single word. We use “love” for many different kinds of affection, sometimes showing the deepest engagement of our hearts and sometimes just meaning we like something a lot.
The four words for “love” in the Koine Greek of Jesus’s day are phileo, storge, eros, and agape.
Phileo is the affection between good friends. It’s a give-and-take kind of love that grows out of companionship.
Storge is the natural affection for members of one’s own family. While it doesn’t have to be earned to start (it’s normal to love a newborn baby), it can be either strengthened or destroyed by the actions of the one we love.
Eros is the emotional involvement based on physical attraction. It’s a self-centered kind of love where one’s own pleasure is most important.
The love that Jesus commands is agape love, love that is unearned and unconditional. It’s not a natural emotion for one person to love another even when there is a good reason to dislike or even hate that person. Agape love is an act of will, not an emotion.
The quality of our love for our fellow believers, for people not especially our friends, for those who wish us harm―that speaks more loudly about our faith than anything we say.
We can choose agape love even when our feelings pull us in the opposite direction. It’s lived out in actions, not just feelings.
And sometimes it can be very hard. It’s loving in spite of what another person does. It’s what lets us choose to forgive the unforgivable.
Agape love is the first of the gifts of the Holy Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22, and it leads to the next two, joy and peace.
The power of agape love underlies the historical novels of my Light in the Empire series. Set in the Roman Empire shortly after AD 100, they are stories about deep cultural conflicts, the power of Christian love to overcome those, and the transformation that can result in response to that love.
Agape love can crack the shell around the hardest heart. It can open first a mind and then a heart to consider how much God loves each of us and what Jesus did so we can experience that love in this life and beyond.
Transformed hearts, our own and the hearts of those we love unconditionally―that’s the fruit that will last.
Have you seen the fruit of choosing to love someone who is difficult to love?