1st Corinthians 13:1-13, but especially verses 4-8.
A lot of people love a romantic comedy. What is your favorite?
TCM fans may prefer the Frank Capra classic “It Happened One Night.” Made and set in 1934, at the height of the depression, when everyone needed a laugh, it is the story of a spoiled rich girl and a hard-bitten newspaper reporter who wants her story until he discovers he wants her more. There is a happy ending in the movie—the guy gets the girl, and for the movie because “It Happened One Night” is one of only three movies to win all five major Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screen Play.
Perhaps you prefer less comedy and more romance like 1957’s “An Affair to Remember.” Many women and some grown men have been known to cry when the hero discovers that the heroine did not meet him at the top of the Empire State Building—or seek him out after because she was hit by a car and left unable to walk.
Perhaps you prefer your romance with a big slice of action like, “An Officer and a Gentleman.” It is the story of a troubled young man who overcomes all odds, including a tough-as-nails Drill Instructor to become a Navy officer and a gentleman. It is also the story of a young Puget Sound woman who thought she would do anything to catch a Navy pilot in the making so that she can break free of her dead-end life. In the end, she can’t for her courage and character run too deep.
There are some notable exceptions–perhaps even those mentioned, but most romantic comedies perpetuate the myth that love is a powerful feeling, rooted in biology, and stirred by the fates until it lifts all who serve it “…up where we belong, where the eagles cry, on a mountain high.”
The Greeks called this kind of irresistible love, Eros, and gave it the status of a god. The Romans changed the name of the god to Cupid, which is Latin for “desire,” and depicted him as a little cherub armed with a bow and a quiver of arrows to shoot into the hearts of his victims.
The Hebrew Bible recognizes the power of eros. No one can read the “Song of Solomon” and doubt this for a nanosecond.
O that you would kiss me …
For your love is better than wine…
The Hebrew Bible accepts eros as a part of the human experience–and a good one, but warns that when eros is left unchecked, bad things happen because as C.S. Lewis warns us, eros has a dark side.[Note 1:] King David is under the sway of eros when he steals the love of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, and then sends him to the forefront of the battle so he will be killed to cover up his own kingly shame. And King David’s son, Amnon, is under the sway of eros when he seduces his half-sister, Tamar, and then despises her for it. And David’s other son, Absalom, is under the sway of eros when he kills Amnon in revenge for what he did to their sister.
With all this as background, we can reasonably conclude that eros is best experienced in small doses. It is better suited to falling in love, a process in which the ego boundaries in two people shrink until they feel, think, and act as one than it is suited for the long haul, which requires a more durable kind of love. Eros needs augmentation.
The poet Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese American Christian, was exposing the difference between falling in love and loving when he wrote:
Let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.
For only the hand of Life (God) can contain your hearts.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress
Grow not in one another’s shadow.
Gibran wrote these words for husbands and wives, but they are equally appropriate for parents and children, for brothers and sisters, and for friends, too. If a person is not fit to stand alone, they are not ready to stand with another, whether in a family, or in a friendship, or in a marriage. And when we don’t know how to claim our God-given freedom for ourselves, we cannot give that same freedom to others.
The Bible recognizes several forms of love that are higher, and more durable than eros.
A few years ago, everyone was talking about Agape love, which is love so passionate it will make any sacrifice. God is practicing agape love when he spares not his only son but freely gives Him up for us all. And Jesus is practicing agape love when he says, “Greater love hath no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” and then does exactly that. In “An Affair to Remember,” the heroine is practicing Agape love when she refuses to hold her guy with her inability to walk. In “An Officer and a Gentleman,” the heroine is practicing agape love sets her guy free so that he might freely choose whether he wants her, or not.
In 1st Corinthians 13, St. Paul uses the word Agape over and over again when he defines a love that is the exact opposite of Eros, for he defines this love not as an emotion, but as an action or a series of actions to be repeated over and over again. We do not fall into this kind of love helplessly, and mindlessly, we choose it and march into it wide awake and ever alert to the needs of another. Paul writes:
4 Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; 5 it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends…(RSV)
In this passage, Paul uses the Greek word Agape for he wants to remind us that God’s Agape love is the foundation of all human love. However, his description of love is equally suited to a love the Greeks called Phile (noun) or Phileo (verb). Phile or Phileo defines a love that is more common than Agape love, and much better suited to the long haul than Eros.
Jesus has this kind of love in mind when he told his followers that the second most important commandment was “to love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Not surprisingly, the love that Paul describes in 1st Corinthians 13, can be called neighborly love. It is the kind of love I have experienced from my good, back-door neighbor, Ray Martini for more than twenty years. I hope he has experienced it from me. Or it can be called brotherly and sisterly love. It is the kind of love the early Moravians had for one another in Herrnhut, after, not before, but after the revival of August 13, 1727. Or it can be called the love between friends. According to John 21, it is the kind of love that Jesus reasonably expected from his disciples and friends, like Peter.
I like to call the love Paul describes in 1st Corinthians 13, it roommate love, for Paul has perfectly described the kind of person we all want to live with. This is true whether we are living as a family, with parents and children, and brothers and sisters, and grandparents, or living with a couple of friends in our first apartment, or living with a husband or a wife in a little house by the side of the road. It is the kind of love we need from those with whom we share space 24/7 in the age of Covid. It is the kind of love we need from the people with whom we share a shrinking and resource-challenged planet in the morning of the 21st Century.
Think about it! The person that Paul described would be the perfect roommate, for he or she would allow us to make our own choices, and give us time to make them, and they would share the TV remote with us, and celebrate with us when we get good news, and sympathizes with us when we get bad news, and tell us the truth, and pay their share of the rent, and take their turn doing the dishes and taking out the trash, and they would do all these things forever. And when we forget to love and do something to offend them, they would be quick to forget. I love 1st Corinthians 13:5b as translated by Good News for Modern Man, “Love does not keep a record of wrongs!” Love is impossible without forgiveness.
And some will say, “Worth, in saying that 1st Corinthians 13 just describes a good roommate, you have taken love down off its pedestal and made it common.” And I would answer, “Really, I hope so.” That is exactly what God wants us to do. God wants us to take the idol we call eros or cupid or romantic love down off a pedestal and replace it with an action-oriented love that is as practical, human, and universal as the people who are all around us. God knows this is possible because God has “poured his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which he has given to us.” (Romans 5)
Worth Green, Th.M., D.Min.
Note 1: This was pointed out by C.S. Lewis in his book, “The Four Loves.” Specifically, he notes how “…Eros in all (its)* splendor… may urge to evil as well as good.” *Lewis says, “his,” for he is speaking of Eros, as the Greeks did, that is as a god.