Generally speaking, humanity is obsessed with love. From our earliest epic poetry, in which the hero sails across an ocean or goes to war with a neighboring state to rescue his lost love, to our more recent television shows (one of which is actually called Love), human beings have continued to find unique and interesting ways to depict love in art. People fight for love, they die for love, they pine for love—and we can't get enough of it. There is something about love that grabs our attention, that moves us in ways we can't explain, and that creates a hunger within us for it. We want to love and to be loved.
But this leads to an obvious question. It's one that many people—people who are smarter and godlier than me—have asked and answered about before, and at this point it might strike us as cliché. But it's still a question worth asking: What is love? And not only that, but how does one love? What does love do? We've been trying to define love for as long as we've been around, and most of us still probably have no clue how to answer that question. Homer and Hollywood haven't actually been much help.
Recently I read Søren Kierkegaard's Works of Love for class, and I think he has come closer than anyone else to giving a succinct explanation of biblical love. Others have contributed a lot to the conversation, too—C.S. Lewis, for instance, or Rick Astley—but the way Kierkegaard talks about love has captured my imagination in a way others haven't, for some reason. Also, I think it's fair to say that he laid the groundwork for others like Lewis, who have largely built on his work.
Kierkegaard is, to my knowledge, the first to make the distinction between agape and eros we hear about so much in our churches today. He didn't exactly use that terminology, but the guy who did (Anders Nygren) was clearly influenced by Kierkegaard. And there's a reason we hear so much about it—it's a great way to differentiate between the love we're naturally drawn to and the love to which we are called by God. Godly love, agape, is not only a much more powerful and beautiful kind of love, but it's also the only kind of love that really makes us free.
The biggest difference between agape and eros, according to Kierkegaard, is that agape loves the other person in the way they need to be loved, not the way they want to be loved. Most people, Kierkegaard says, love others the way they want to be loved so that their love is reciprocated. In other words: "If I make this person feel good, if I do nice things for her and tell her good things about herself—hopefully she'll love me back." If we think about that for a second, we'll realize that this is, at its core, self-love. We are trying to secure love for ourselves, not give it away, as God commands us to do.
But agape? Real, biblical love? This is a totally giving endeavor. Those who want to love the way God commands them to do everything in their power to love others the way they need to be loved. This kind of love constantly accepts the risk that it won't receive love back. This kind of love doesn't need reciprocation, because it's focused totally on loving the other person. It's the kind of love parents show their children, and the kind of love that God shows us.
Kierkegaard even says that agape is the kind of love that invites hatred. Have you ever loved someone so much that, in order to do what was best for them, you were willing to make them hate you? Because that's the kind of love God is calling us to show others. Agape speaks the truth to the beloved. It doesn't pull punches because it's afraid it won't be received well. It doesn't pander to the shallow or harmful desires of the beloved in order to ensure reciprocation. It simply loves the other.
And I think this is why Kierkegaard says that agape is the most freeing kind of love there is. When you don't love others for their own sake, it naturally follows that you are loving them for your own. Eros makes us dependent on our love being validated and reciprocated by the other person. But agape doesn't need any of that. Agape loves because God says, "You ought to love." It loves because God has commanded it. This kind of love can look an enemy straight in the face and say, "Even though you hate me, I'm going to continue loving you."
"A new command I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34). This love that Jesus commands is difficult. It doesn't guarantee that we'll be liked, or that our love will be returned to us. But, as he proved on the cross, it is the most powerful force in the universe. It is the most beautiful thing human beings can do for one another, and it is the only kind of love that removes our dependence on others reciprocating our feelings. Who knew that a law could set us free like that?