For those of us who are still single, Valentine’s Day can be a particularly sore point in the year. It certainly hurts to see all our friends in love and enjoying themselves while we watch from the sidelines, doing our best to stick it out until it’s all over. In reality, a day intended to celebrate love doesn’t have to be so painful or one-dimensional. Valentine’s Day is completely saturated with images and feelings of romantic love, but those of us who can’t participate in that aspect of the holiday can still use it as a reminder of other kinds of love that can be celebrated.
These other definitions of love are laid out for us especially clearly in a biblical context. However, these can be difficult to perceive if the Bible isn’t read with the original text and meaning in mind. The English language limits us to just one word for “love”, and when it is written or spoken, we are expected to understand the meaning behind it from contextual evidence. Meanwhile, much of the Bible was originally written in Greek, which has several distinct words for different types of love, and four of these are emphasized prevalently throughout. These are eros, storge, philia, and agape. Understanding these four kinds of love is crucial to understanding the nuances of the love described in the Bible.
Eros is the type of love that is overwhelmingly recognized by Valentine’s Day. It is described as romantic, erotic, passionate infatuation. It is mainly expressed through physical and sexual manifestations, and for the most part it is self-serving. It may seem odd that this sort of thing is portrayed in the Bible, which is widely known for its strict prohibition of promiscuity and sex before marriage. However, this is not a prohibition of the enjoyment of sexual pleasures within marriage. Though the word Hebrew equivalent of “eros” is not used in the Old Testament, it is described thoroughly in the book of Song of Solomon.
Storge is the close familial connection that is experienced between parents and children and shared between siblings. Characterized by familiarity and fondness, it is a love that develops naturally and easily, lasting for a lifetime. Storge is demonstrated in the love and concern that Jacob had for his twelve sons in the Old Testament. Mary and Martha displayed storge for their brother Lazarus in their grieving of his death and in their celebration when he was raised back to life in John 11:1-44.
Philia is the intimate and emotional connection that good friends share with one another. People can share philia in close-knit groups between more than two people. It is distinct from the others as the most inorganic and independent of biology. The intentional choices made to develop and grow philia is what makes it so important and meaningful. Philia is also what draws Christians together into fellowship and community, encouraging them to go through the motions of life with one another rather than alone. It is what creates compassion for people in need and drives action towards helping their situations.
Finally, agape is the highest and greatest type of love that the Bible describes. It is the eternal and unchanging love that God has for all of humanity.
1 John 4:8 characterizes the incredible linkage between God and love: “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Only a devotion of this magnitude would drive a perfect God to live among men only to die and pay the ultimate price for sin.
Human nature and imperfectability get in the way of pure love of any variety. We can never achieve perfection, but joy and fulfillment can be found in the effort to do so. This Valentine’s Day, I believe it is important to acknowledge and celebrate all the types of love the Bible describes.
Many of these categories of love often fall by the wayside and are overshadowed by eros, especially on Valentine’s day. These other loves are certainly worth celebrating, and eros becomes even more meaningful when expressed in conjunction with the others. Two people in a romantic relationship can share the steadiness of storge and the emotional intimacy of philia, so why focus only on eros? Let’s reexamine where love comes from this Valentine’s Day and center our attention on the many beautiful and stubstanceful aspects of love.