The Owl on Agape

Back from hiatus, the Owl remembers his promise to clarify What the Owl Is Trying to Say, under the key terms Faith, Covenant, Love, Freedom, and Obedience. We are up to what is probably the biggest of all: Love.

Let us start with a curious fact: Nowhere in the New Testament Greek, nor in the Septuagint (the most ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures) do we find the word eros. That word, which most of us learned is Greek for love simply is not there. The word for love in the New Testament is ἀγάπη, transliterated, agape. Commentators make much of this word, but what they agree on is again, God’s initiative. We love God because he first loved us. We love our fellow creatures because we know God loves them enough to have created them, and now sustains them, and sent his Son to show forth his love in the most poignant and catastrophic way.

A useful clue about the meaning of this love can be got from looking at its antonym, hate, as for example at Luke 14:26:

If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

or at John 12:25:

He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

The world hates Jesus in a terrible sense, even to the point of killing him, but these examples show there is another sense, in which hate means turning away from, say, a family member, or devaluing something like one’s own life in comparison to more important things—soldiers are trained to do so every day. Of course, “hate” has sharper meanings elsewhere among Jesus’ sayings, but here it has more to do with ordinary daily decision-making.

Eros is not the love we are commanded to show our neighbor; not just any chichi form of desiring, embracing love, however charming and exotic. Agape is love that expresses itself in faithfulness to the neighbor, living for others who need succor. That thought brings us to the topic of faithful behavior: What are we to do? of which there is much to be said in due time. For the moment we return to the fact of God’s initiative. The model for agape is God’s love; Jesus’ life for others, which demonstrates how far, and through how much suffering God persists.

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With that maybe we are in a position to ask, what is specifically Christian in all this? For surely there is no culture on earth that hasn’t some sort of love at its foundation. The answer is suggested elsewhere in the Owl’s writing: Resurrection faith, or what is synonymous: Eschatological faith. Together they refer to our true life, hidden with Christ in God; a life we cannot lose (Colossians 3:3). While we live in this world with all its pains and opportunities for service, we have a dual citizenship, one life here and another in God’s heavenly kingdom. The following may sound presumptuous, or silly, or otherwise dubious. So be it; one has to take risks to say what needs to be said.

The moment I became convinced that Jesus is alive was a few months after I joined my Episcopal parish. A certain preacher spoke during Lent and simply invited his hearers who wished to say a simple prayer, which he rehearsed first, so he wouldn’t be trapping anyone. I tossed skepticism aside—really, not tentatively, not experimentally, or intellectually—and prayed. The question was not: Do I think some bizarre event took place in Palestine at some time or other? It was: Here He is; the God who made you, who made the world, who knows you better than you know yourself. He, that God, offers you love. Do you want it, or not? That is about the same as to ask: Do I want to keep living; do I consider life itself a gift, or not? I was old enough to have learned it is an act of courage to accept one’s life as a gift. For once, I wanted to be a courageous man—which is to say, a man at all. The tomb stories made it harder, not easier; less believable than the reality of people praying right around me. Then there he was, saying “You have a perfect father in heaven.” The words themselves were not as important as the knowledge of Who it was speaking them.

It isn’t obvious to everyone that God has done anything for them or that God loves them. To such people the command to love God makes little sense, or even takes on a perverse sense. But there are enough to whom it is obvious. Some event has occurred to them, and still occurs between them and God, and between them and others to whom it is not yet obvious, which event makes them children of God. That event depends upon God’s action, God’s grace, and an outpouring of God’s Spirit, which makes faithful people objective signs of God’s revelation. They can’t live without seeking God, but they are what they are because He has already found them. Such is God’s love: he waits for his gift to be freely accepted.

4 thoughts on “The Owl on Agape”

  1. In my life of loving, it has been a recent realization that love is not always comfortable. I was raised to believe that “love” is a comforting and positive “feeling” and connected to a commitment. “Loving” has been a romantic aura that provides protection and solace when on the receiving end. Where that all falls in any biblical sense, I do not know. All I know is that I now have to forgive myself for not feeling “loving” when I am called upon to have negative thoughts and anger toward others, whom I “should” or do love.

    My love of God is comfortable, and prayer reinforces that connection and joy. This is true, especially, in prayer of thanksgiving. Love of family members can be uncomfortable, especially in the face of rejection. But, for some reason, it remains steadfast. Love of family who have died remains steadfast, but with the accompaniment of some regrets and sadness, which visit at the oddest times! (I hope they are omniscient in the afterlife and know how much I appreciate their contribution to whom I have become).

    Love of friends is a very different category of “love” and deserves some insight. Friends and colleagues are attracted to others based on some agenda that is not the same as familial relationships. Some relationships are strong and abiding and truly grow into “love.” There is a category of “love” that is much more distant and less consistent than a deep relationship. These “loves” are more fleeting. While strong, in the moment, those relationships do not have a continuing character-building factor in one’s life. Valuable, yes. Positive/uncomfortable, yes. Often memorable, yes.

    Well, that is my summary of “love” in my life. What I have learned from the loves in my life, in all categories, is that I have to forgive myself for feeling “uncomfortable” and for not being as loving (in moments) as I could have. I also need to be consistently more loving and caring. This is true to my spouse, my family members, my pets, my plants, animals, the environment and strangers to whom I come in contact. There is a wealth of that nice, positive side of love available out there.


    1. Thank you, Carol, for your summary of the variety of loves we enjoy as human beings. The insight I would like to pick out is that about love as a feeling that one is supposed to have. Your remarks imply, correctly, that whether or not a certain feeling is there, love is still operating, and it might change over time for all kinds of reasons. Part of the meaning of agape, God’s love, is freedom. God’s love is free because he is free, and God’s love always leaves us free to respond how we will. The Owl will have more to say about freedom, the next of our five key words.

  2. Owl, I just this morning reviewed all of your series of posts on “What the Owl Is Trying to Say.” Actually, I printed them, to be able to read them and understand them better. I think you did a good job with the more succinct definitions now on your main page, leading to a better understanding of what you say in each post.

    Any “religious” or “spiritual” approach to understanding things which starts with humans first, and not God first, is bound to go astray, sometimes with very serious consequences; and the God with which it starts has to be the God who is love.

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