Agape love is a spontaneous and generous love that is self-giving to the point of being self-sacrificial. Gracious, faithful, and enduring - agape is most like the love God sheds upon us in Christ through the Spirit.
Agape is love for the sake of the good of the beloved. Agape is love that seeks nothing in return, that wishes only to benefit the one loved. It is love offered in spite of the attractiveness or repulsiveness of the beloved (see Romans 5:6-8 and Titus 3:3-7). It is freely given with no thought of repayment, and therefore it cannot be earned. The Christian term used to describe such a transaction is "grace".
Agape is beautiful because it is divine in origin. However, agape is not the only divine expression of love or the only model for human love. Because agape is love without regard to personal fulfillment, it is easily perceived as unemotional and disinterested - a sheer act of the will. But love is more than a dispassionate act of the will. Love is an act of the heart.
Eros is passionate love. The deep feelings that accompany eros are often exclusively associated with sexuality, but eros is not limited to it. Passion extends beyond genital gratification. One can have a passion for gardening, reading, knitting, airplanes, and more. People find these actions deeply fulfilling (and many others), and thus, engage in such activities with self-interested passion. Edward Vacek writes,
Eros springs from and is directed to fulfilling the interests or development of the self. Eros affirms the other in view of the benefits the lover receives. These benefits might include goods received in return from the beloved, a certain enrichment from being united to the beloved, or merely the fulfillment that comes from acting.
Though eros is motivated by self-interest, one should not conclude that eros is always selfish. Eros is not intrinsically bad. It has to do with desire and fulfillment - and neither one of these things is intrinsically bad. Indeed, we are driven by eros far more than we realize. For example, how long would you continue to attend a worship service if it was not fulfilling in some way? Likewise, how long would a marriage last if it did not have moments of deep fulfillment and personal joy? Certainly, agape is needed at times - especially in regard to fulfilling one's commitment to one's spouse - but not all the time. There is more to love than agape.
Eros is also immensely powerful - it can be both constructive but also destructive. Eros is certainly dangerous when it stands alone. When everything exclusively revolves around our self-interests - when we solely live for our passions - we objectify others and fail to love them as we should. Vacek rightly points out that "[t]he problem here is not the presence of eros in our lives; the problem occurs when every other thing is seen predominantly or only in relation to ourselves. This is a selfish existence."
When I measure everything only in accordance with the benefits I receive, then love is disordered. When neighbors only have value if they promote my self-interest, I have failed to love as I should. Human actions should not be evaluated solely by whether they lead to our happiness. "When... our motive for action is the attainment of our happiness, the focus of our life is off-center. Christian life should be centered on union and cooperation with God."
The ancients considered eros as a sort of madness for good reason. We are all acquainted with "crimes of passion." And yet, we also affirm the beauty of deep, passionate, fulfilling love. For this reason, eros must be combined with agape. Catholic theologian Christopher West puts it well, "Two thousand years ago, Christianity produced a 'revolution of love' in the social order, not because it rejected eros in favor of agape, but because it purified and infused eros with agape."
Our challenge as Christians is to reclaim eros. Tragically, "[i]n our day, that which is 'erotic' has become almost synonymous with that which is 'pornographic.' As a result, many Christians seem to think the only proper response to eros is to avoid it, repress it, and stamp it out in favor of a 'higher,' more 'spiritual' love." But eros, when rightly ordered with the other loves, is a deeply spiritual expression of love.
Our goal is not to eliminate desire, but to order our desires rightly. This is an essential part of spiritual formation:
The history of Christianity is often told in terms of orthodoxy, the truth of doctrines believed; and Christians are frequently evaluated in terms of their orthopraxy, the good that they do. But the inner history of Christianity is what we might call its orthokardia, the ordered affections that unite us with God, ourselves, other people, and the world. These affections give rise to both doctrine and practice. Ultimately, our perfection as a person is measured strictly according to the degree of development of our loves.
To live a Christian life, it is not sufficient to think about God's revelation, nor is it sufficient to will the deeds required by it. A Christian is one who has felt the love of God and who desires to respond with love.
Vacek continues, "Western philosophy has emphasized intellect. Christianity likewise has emphasized the intellect in dogma and the will in morality as obedience to God's will. Philosophical and theological anthropology must be expanded to include the emotions." Therefore, "The formation and transformation of our emotional life is a major task of our moral development." This is in harmony with Jesus' teaching: "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:21). A major part of "guarding our hearts" (Proverbs 4:23) is learning to order our loves rightly so that we love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind, and with it, we love our neighbor as ourselves.
Love and Creation
Eros has been built into the order of creation by God. William Countryman rightly points out that
the Bible begins with sex, which is the one feature of human existence that both creation narratives specifically mention. (Genesis 1 speaks of it in terms of procreation, Genesis 2 in terms of companionship. But they agree that it is intrinsic to our divinely created humanity.) You might also notice that the Bible ends sexually, with the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 21).
The first and last human words in the Bible speak of our union with God, as a bride to her bridegroom. This is the language of passion, of eros. This metaphor carries throughout the entirety of sacred scripture. Israel is pictured as God's bride in the Old Testament (Isaiah 54:5-6; 62:1-5; Jeremiah 2:2; Ezekiel 16:8-14; Hosea 2:16-20). The church is Christ's bride in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:23-25; Revelation 19:7-9; 21:9). Jesus is the bridegroom who is coming for his bride (Matthew 9:15; 25:1; John 3:29). God's people are called to fidelity to their beloved spouse. When they go astray, they have committed spiritual adultery (Ezekiel 16, 23; Hosea 1-3; Matthew 12:39; James 4:4; Revelation 2:22).
The whole story of our salvation, the whole of biblical revelation, is contained "between" the love initiated by the Bridegroom and the response of the Bride. And so we have in these nuptial "bookends" a key for interpreting all that lies between. Through this lens we learn that God's eternal plan is to "marry" us--to live with us in communion: in an eternal exchange of love. If we take the analogy further, we see that, through this loving union, God wants to "impregnate" the Bride with eternal life, that is, he wants us lovingly to conceive his life within us and bear it forth.
In the early centuries of the Christian movement, this truth was obscured by an attempt to root out the passions rather than nurture them in an ordered fashion. This is most prominent in the early church's emphasis on virginity as a "higher" way to live:
The early Christian turn toward virginity (a topic rare in scripture itself) had its roots in the Stoic ideal of apatheia, of freedom from passion. This heritage combined with a spirituality that increasingly saw the development of the individual's relationship with God as incompatible with familial and social responsibilities; hermits like Antony of Egypt "fled" into the desert to escape them. And the resulting practice of virginity spread partly because of the relative freedom that it opened up for women, who now, almost for the first time, had an opportunity to lead lives defined by their own purposes rather than the will of their father or husband.
This emphasis on "freedom from passion" does not accord with scripture. God takes delight in God's people. The prophet Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, writes "I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul" (Jeremiah 32:41). King David proclaimed, "He brought me out into a broad place; he delivered me, because he delighted in me" (2 Samuel 22:20). Likewise, the righteous person "delights in the law of the Lord" (Psalm 1:2) and in God's will (Psalm 40:8). We are encouraged to "Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart" (Psalm 37:4). This is a far cry from a dispassionate love that has no concern for fulfillment. Instead, the call is to reflect God's love - to delight in that which delights God - and thus share the heart of God for ourselves, others, and our world.
Agape is love that seeks nothing in return, that wishes only to benefit the one loved. Agape is beautiful, but God's love is not exclusively expressed in agape.Since eros is an aspect of God's creative and redemptive love, God desires something in return. God wants something from us - our love.
If it were true that God's love was simply selfless, then God would have only our good at heart. God would affirm us solely for our sakes. It should make little difference to God whether we glorify or give thanks to God. A purely agapic God should have little complaint against atheistic humanists, as long as such persons are striving to live good human lives.
God desires that we love God. Even more, God wants us to love God, others, and creation with divine passion. "We have all been with lifeless, emotionally 'dead' people. Such people have no strong delights or desires for themselves. Surely this is not the ideal of Christian life. A human life without eros is a life devoid of some of the major features of our identity." A person with passion is dangerous, but never boring!
Eros is passionate love that yearns to find fulfillment in object of its longing. We are all familiar with eros. It haunts us throughout our lives and can lead to our destruction or transformation.
At the deepest level we crave for fulfillment. We find ourselves empty and long for completion. "We find ourselves incomplete. This incompleteness is the source of our search for wholeness or fulfillment. Armed with an infinite desire, we find ourselves in a world of finite objects."
Though we may find moments when our yearning is fulfilled, these moments are transitory. Pascal spoke of a "God-shaped vacuum" in the human heart - a space that could only be filled by God. Though we seek to satisfy this yearning with all manner of people, places, and things, we still find ourselves longing for more. Eros without agape cannot grant ultimate and lasting happiness. The Rolling Stones hit, "I can't get no satisfaction" is the theme-song of eros without agape. Augustine understood this, but also knew the answer: "Lord, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you."
Eros without agape can be maddening, offering moments of pleasure, but no lasting happiness. Eros with agape is another matter altogether. Eros is "a way of living desire. It becomes one with desire." Loving God is not limited to, but certainly includes "delighting in God" and living in expectation of fulfilling reward.
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Thus, our greatest problem is not that we have desires, but that our desires are often disordered. We must nurture deeper yearnings for God, and we do this by contemplating the beauty, attractiveness, and wonder of God. It is God's glory that allures and invites us to deeper passions for divine hunger.
When we learn to satisfy our deepest longs in God's love, we are enabled to truly offer agape love to others, for we do not need others to fulfill us. We love others from the overflow of passion we have in and for God.
 Edward Collins Vacek, Love, Human and Divine: The Heart of Christian Ethics (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994), 247.
 Vacek, Love, Human and Divine, 265.
 Vacek, Love, Human and Divine, 159.
 Christopher West, The Love That Satisfies: Reflections on Eros & Agape (West Chester, PA: Ascension Press, 2007), 5.
 West, The Love That Satisfies, 5.
 Vacek, Love, Human and Divine, 5.
 Vacek, Love, Human and Divine, 6.
 Vacek, Love, Human and Divine, 16.
 L. William Countryman, Love Human and Divine: Reflections on Love, Sexuality, and Friendship (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Morehouse, 2005), 23.
 West, The Love That Satisfies, 12.
 Countryman, Love Human and Divine, 26-27.
 Vacek, Love, Human and Divine, 229.
 Vacek, Love, Human and Divine, 261-262.
 Mark Patrick Hederman, Love Impatient, Love Unkind: Eros Human and Divine (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), 42.
 Hederman, Love Impatient, Love Unkind, 48.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
© Richard J. Vincent, 2008