Modern usage of the word love gives the idea a completely emotional connotation, making biblical commands to “love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44) or to “love one another” (John 15:17) hard for us to understand. Therefore, when we as Christians try to feel this emotion toward those who are our enemies or toward brethren with whom we seem to have little in common, we often give up after growing discouraged. It’s just as if our Heavenly Father has suggested that we feel an emotion toward one when the “chemistry” is not there. Realizing that the Lord would not expect of us something we could not do, the problem must rest in our understanding of the word love.
In the language which the Holy Spirit chose for the New Testament, there were several kinds of love, each expressed by a different word. Two of these words which describe love for one’s family (storge) and passionate love (eros) do not appear in the New Testament. Two other nouns describing love and their verb forms are quite common in the Scriptures. These words describe human friendship or fondness (philia/phileo) and the kind of love which God has shown toward us (agape/agapao).
From the meaning of three of these words it would appear that early Christians would have had the same trouble that we do understanding love as anything other than an emotion. However, the word used most often in the New Testament (agape) does not suffer from such a limitation. This kind of love is the kind that God showed toward us through a deliberate exercise of His will. This love was not dependent upon our worthiness to be loved, but simply on the Lord’s choice to love us. I believe this love is best expressed in Romans 5:8 where Paul says, “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” When we were at our most unlovable, when humanity was crucifying the lamb of God, spitting in His face and cursing His name, Christ died for us. I must confess that, in a similar position, I would have decided that mankind just was not worth the trouble and sacrifice, and I would have called in the angels, nuked the place, and gone back home. But instead, my Lord died alone for me.
Based on such a dramatic demonstration of love on the part of Deity, we have a wonderful example of how we are to fulfill our obligations to love. “Love one another” in John 15:17, in the light of Jesus’ sacrifice, means more than just “like other Christians if they are likable.” It means that we have the sacred duty to show our love for God by showing active good will toward His people in spite of their unworthiness, their eccentricities, or their personalities. When Jesus said, “Love your enemies” in Matthew 5:44, He knew that He would show us how by dying for the very ones who put the lash to His back and the nails in His hands. Our job, then, is to do good and pray for those who mistreat us, separating the sin from the sinner just as Christ showed His hatred for sin by being sacrificed for the ones caught in Satan’s snare.
You see, once we remove love of our enemies from the emotional to the realm of the will, then we are free to see even our enemies as poor human beings caught up in self-interest and sin, desperately in need of the forgiveness made available in Jesus. Also, when we bless and pray for those who hate us, it becomes more difficult for us to develop attitudes that can keep us out of heaven. It is so hard to hate someone when you are praying for them.
Dedicating ourselves to Christ-like love in our lives may take quite a readjustment in our thinking and quite a stiffening of our will to serve God, but this is the only way to obey our scriptural obligations to love.