Four Greek words describe what we refer to as love:
1) eros or romantic love;
2) phileo, brotherly love between friends;
3) storge depicts familial love; and
4) agape illustrates unconditional, selfless love.
Of these four terms, agape is considered the highest form of love. God Himself manifested it when He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us (John 3:16).
Agape love is of and from God, whose very nature is love itself (1 John 4:8). It is the kind of love we are commanded to have for one another (1 John 4:7). While we profess it through preaching, teaching, and speaking, it is often hard to practice.
When I learned of the tragic shooting of the nine individuals in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, anger and grief, as opposed to agape love, were some of the emotions that I felt on that fateful night. A pastor, just like me, was engaged in a Wednesday evening prayer meeting in his local church with parishioners. The believers came together to study the Bible. Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old White young man who appeared to be a typical visitor seeking a relationship with God, entered the church, enjoyed the camaraderie of the members, and after an hour or so, opened fire on the gathering, killing the pastor and eight other individuals. He left two survivors; a five-year-old child and an adult woman, whom he wanted to bear witness to what she saw. When asked why he performed this dreadful deed, he replied, “I wanted to start a race war.”*
A Hard Thing
Perhaps you read about this tragedy and then read in the Bible, “Beloved, let us love one another” (1 John 4:7); “Let love be without dissimulation. Abhor that which is evil; cleave to that which is good” (Romans 12:9); and “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). All of these biblical statements typify agape love, but if we are honest with ourselves, it is hard to reconcile feelings of anger with agape. Retaliation? Maybe. Retribution? Perhaps. Revenge? Possibly. But agape love? That is hard.
At Roof’s bond hearing, the victims’ family members uttered some of the greatest sermons I have ever heard in my life. Despite the loss of their loved ones, one by one shooting survivors, and family members of slain, spoke to Roof.
“I forgive you,” they said time and again, leaving a stunned nation to witness the scene.
In his book, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis used agape to describe what he believed was the highest level of love known to humanity—a selfless love that was passionately committed to the well-being of another. This is what we are called upon to do—because of our love for God. We are challenged to love one another. Perhaps the family members of the slain knew this. Maybe they did not. But one thing is for sure, they practiced it.
Who is your Dylann Roof? Whom can’t you forgive? Perhaps you can profess agape love, but can you practice it?
“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
*(Source: Payne, Ed, and Botelho, Greg. “Charleston Church Shooting: Suspect Confesses, says he sought Race War.” CNN.com, June 19, 2015.)