Over the past few weeks I have found myself thinking a lot about love. C.S. Lewis told us that according to the Bible there are four kinds of love: phileo, eros, agape, and storge. But I haven’t been thinking of love in such neat categories and under such clear headings. (Plus, D.A. Carson declared the clean boundaries between these four terms to be an exegetical fallacy and I would not dare to contradict him.) I have been thinking about all the different kinds of love I have been able to experience, I have been considering how each one is unique, and I have been pondering how together these loves point me to one that must envelop and transcend them all.
We all know what it is to love and what it is to be loved, but we also know that there are varieties of love and that each variety is a little different from the others. I love Cheetos but I love them in a different way than I love my children. I love my children but my love for them is very different than the love I have for my wife. We do not know all that love is from any single experience or any single relationship. Rather, it is experienced in many forms and displayed in many hues. God is love, which means he is the source of love, the only reason we can experience love. All I can conclude is that God has allowed us to enjoy many different loves and in the sheer variety to learn something about him.
Just one month ago my son, my oldest child, turned thirteen. With every passing birthday I find my love for him growing in depth and intensity. It is not the same love as it was on the day he was born or even on the day that he turned twelve. This love has changed, and has had to change, as he has grown into who he is and as he continues to grow into who he will be. I cannot easily define this love, but I can at least describe it. What was once the love of a father for his baby, a protective but still nurturing love, is turning into something equally protective but closer in proximity to friendship. I am his father still, but he and I are also becoming friends—friends who have common history and common interests. There is a new kind of protectiveness now. I would still throw myself in front of a bus if it would save him, but mostly that isn’t the kind of saving he needs. I love him in such a way that I want to teach him how to avoid all those snares I blundered into when I was his age and when I was beyond his age. I want to protect him from his own lack of wisdom and all the pain I know must come as a result of it. It is a love that wants to teach and train and in that way to protect.
My oldest daughter is ten and I am discovering a whole new kind of love in her. I have heard of this love, the love of a father for his daughter. I see in her a love for me that is also unfamiliar. We are growing into it together. She loves me deeply and longs for my affection and approval and I love her in return. This is a love that is even more protective, the love that demands that I protect her from anyone who would harm her or try to take advantage of her. I have heard many fathers tell of the importance of being affectionate with their daughters and I am beginning to see it, to see how she longs for my hand to hold hers and my arms to surround her. Men who are wiser than I have told me that it is my love that will teach her the difference between real love and so many of its counterfeits. This is a love that is powerful and fierce and sweet and innocent and so very real.
My youngest daughter is six and we are beginning to learn who she is and how I will love her. Will she need the very same kind of love as her sister, or will she need a different shade of it? Will she need to hold my hand to feel loved, or will she need to be told or shown that love? How will she love me in return? I don’t know, but I do know that I will love her deeply and that there is nothing she could do to make me stop loving her, to stop caring for her, to stop desiring the very best for her.
For eighteen years I have been learning about the love a man has for a woman and for fifteen years, the love a husband has for his wife. Those are broad categories and even within them my love for Aileen has shades and nuances that would be so different if we were any other two people. This is the love that is built upon serving and sacrificing, upon loving most by giving most. It is the love that the Bible says best displays the love Christ has for his people and it is one I would not trade for any other.
Each of these relationships is dependent upon love. Yet each love is unique. And there are many more loves besides. There is the love I have for my father and mother, for my brother and sisters, for my brothers-in-law and sister-in-law, for nieces and nephews, for parents-in-law, for friends who are men and friends who are women, for the wives of friends and the children of friends. This infinite source of love gives me the ability to love each of these people, each of these kinds of people—to love them differently but to love them genuinely.