All you need is love

“There is nothing you can do to make God love you less, and there is nothing you can do to make God love you more!” How often have you heard this said? It’s pithy, it’s simple, it’s designed to convey deep truths about undeserving humans and a gracious, fair God. But is it true? Not exactly.

Most people who have been Christians for a while, been raised in church or even just listened occasionally in RE class will know there are different kinds of love in Greek: storgē, eros, phileó and agapaó. The first is a term for familial affection and is barely mentioned in the New Testament (and then, only in it’s negative or in combination with phileó). The second is sexually desirous love and therefore very specific in its remit.

But phileó and agapaó? Again, most Christians know that phileó is brotherly love, and that agapaó is self-giving, unconditional love, a love that wants the best for the object in question. And this is true; agapaó is a one-way street.

So how does God love us? Agapaó, right? Right. Job done? Not quite…

God loved (agapaó) the world in this way: that he gave His only Son so that whoever believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life. This was while we were still sinners; it was a love demonstrated to everybody. Murderers, idolaters, criminals of the highest order. Hitler, Pol Pot, everybody. God loved them unconditionally with a charitable, wanting-the-best-for-them love. So yes, with respect to agapaó, there is nothing you can do to make God love you any more or any less. And yes, God does love you “just the way you are”, because it’s unconditional. He loved Genghis Khan the same way.

It is also the way you are supposed to love your neighbour, and your enemies. Does it mean you are best buddies with them? Or even friends? No. You are supposed to agapaó-love terrorists and predatory paedophiles. Are you going to send them fruit baskets? Give them a big hug, kiss and a backrub?

Undeserved kindness – an encounter with grace – can indeed be a powerful tool for change. But we are not called to be affectionate to people who revel in evil things. Neither is that how God loves us unconditionally. We are called to want the best for them, as we want the best for ourselves. But if they have committed a terrible crime, the best probably involves some serious chastisement.

But what about phileó? Does God phileó-love everyone unconditionally? No.

Does God phileó anyone? Yes. The Father and the Son share phileó love. Unlike agapaó, phileó is a two-way street. It’s reciprocal. Your love is affected by the response of the person, it’s about brotherly unity, shared interests, a strong brotherly affection. Jonathan and David would be the classic Biblical example. It is the way Jesus loved “the disciple who Jesus loved”, and also the way He loved Lazarus. It is the way we are supposed to love other believers. We are never asked to phileó-love our enemies. You do not have to struggle to work out how you can embrace or have affection for mass-murderers.

But does God love everyone like this? No. Let’s look at John 16:27:

“For the Father Himself loves you (the disciples), because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.”

To share a reciprocal, two-way love with God, you have to do something. You have to believe Jesus is who He says He is, and love Him. If we love Jesus, the Father (phileó) loves us. God unconditionally wants the best for us and demonstrated that when He sent His son, but we do have to respond with faith and love if we want to share a brotherly love with Him.

Quite how we do that is for another day…!