What is love?

Valentine’s Day suggests it’s all about romance, but it goes much deeper than that. The Greeks had four different words to express different kinds of love: Agape, Eros, Phileo and Storge. Tracy Spiers talks with four women about love in all its guises

Agape: Love is a gift

Teacher Lisa McArdle (43) lives in Woolton, Liverpool with her husband, Stephen, a vet and their daughter Anna (5). They play an active role in the life of St Peter’s Church in Liverpool

Agape is a ‘gift love’ from God. It is not selfish or based on how you’re feeling. It doesn’t look for something in return and it doesn’t seek recognition. It draws upon the truth that Christ loves me. This is the love that Jesus has given us and calls us to give to one another.

My understanding of agape love took on a new dimension during a difficult time in my life. Suffering from infertility, I faced the prospect of not being able to have the family I had always dreamed of having.

For seven years I felt like I was on an emotional rollercoaster – at times feeling extremely hopeful, waiting with much excitement and anticipation, and other times feeling intense disappointment and upset that treatment hadn’t been successful and we would have to try again. And yet, throughout this time, I experienced intense moments of agape love. God reached out to me in the depths of my despair and filled me with a deep sense of his peace, and reassurance that he was with me and loved me unconditionally.

God did bless me with a beautiful daughter Anna and, since her birth in 2005, I have been very much involved in ministering to the under 5s and their families. I am in a very privileged position of being able to get alongside and support families, often at their most vulnerable time, and show them God’s agape love.

I am only able to love others because God first loved me. When you start seeing people with Christ’s eyes and listening with his ears, you cannot help but respond to people's needs in loving and practical ways. I’ve organised a baby shower, helped a mum-to-be to feel special, provided meals for families in the early days after the birth of their child, run a parenting course to enable parents to offload and feel supported in the difficult job of bringing up children and supported and encouraged a recently widowed mum. And so the list could go on. We keep loving others because God never stops loving us.

My prayer is this: help me Lord that instead of doing to others as I would have them do to me, I will do to others as you have done for me!

Eros: Love is physical

Retired nurse Sylvia Bridgland attends Stroud Baptist Church, is married to John and has two grown up children and three grandchildren. Sylvia undertook various courses, including creative writing, and at the age of 53 did a science degree at Bath University. Her short stories are about ‘tough love’ and she is currently writing a novel set in 18th century Cornwall. She talks about Eros love, which is a physical, romantic and sexual love. Sylvia believes the media portrays it wrongly.

In today’s society erotic love is promoted as sex to the exclusion of romance and the other kinds of love. It is blatantly used in marketing and there is an enormous burden on young girls to conform to idealised body images, causing problems with self-esteem and unhealthy lifestyles. Unaware of how precious they are to God, and misunderstanding what Eros love is all about, they lose appreciation of their own uniqueness and value.

The encouragement to promiscuous lifestyles upon those too young to realise the long-term consequences is extremely damaging, and we see the repercussions all around us in our society. When you see little girls of 12-years-old dressed up in sexy clothes, it is just so wrong.

I believe the expression “love is blind” is certainly true of erotic love. A strong physical attraction can cause someone to overlook other aspects of a potential partner’s personality and can create unions which don’t last, causing distress and heartbreak. For a long-term commitment you need a balanced, more objective, knowledge of love.

This is difficult when ‘sex’ and ‘relationships’ are portrayed as normal in the media to those without the maturity to deal with them. Sexual love has been misconstrued and yet it is something beautiful God created to be a part of marriage, but people seem to be fearful of this. If, along with physical attraction, they had the trust, friendship and affection, which develops over time – they may be more willing to take that step, providing a much better way of raising a family.

It is these other qualities, apart from Eros, which provide the staying power to overlook each other’s idiosyncrasies, and you do need to work at it to keep the relationship alive. The romantic part is not necessarily always physical and you do need to make time for each other. Of course things do go wrong and some relationships will still break down, but at least they start out with the best of intentions.

Phileo: Love is enduring

Trecia Filer (41) is a staff development officer at a further education college. She is married to Andrew, a software design engineer and they have two children, Bethany (9) and Ruth (6). She has four sisters and a brother from her parents' different relationships. She talks about Phileo love, which translates as brotherly love or friendship – a love which looks out for others.

Coming from a large family, even though we have been split because both my parents remarried, we have grown up quite close and have supported each other over the years. Now as an adult, it comes quite naturally to me to support friends and other people, and demonstrate sisterly love. I find I don’t get as much time with my own sisters and brother as I used to, so being with friends is very important.
We need to be vulnerable and honest about ourselves with others, then they open up to you in return. It is this which builds a close relationship. As you share little bits of information and it is treated with respect, then you are more likely to share more and this strengthens the friendship.

I also believe Phileo love can be extended to strangers and people we don’t know very well. It’s about seeing things and being complementary. It could be commenting on a new hairstyle or something they are wearing that looks good. It’s about noticing the little things, like a particular colour that suits them. It’s something you would do naturally with a brother or sister.

I have found that as I have done this, others around me have started to do the same, particularly at work. I think a lot of people are scared to say anything, but when I have made the first move, others follow, positivity breeds positivity. It will come back to you.

I realised quite recently that when I was growing up I was quite critical. I noticed the negatives – oh that skirt’s too tight – but when I became a Christian, I changed and found that I began using my critical nature in a positive way and complimenting instead of judging.

However, in Phileo love there is a risk of getting hurt, particularly if there is a lack of respect at any point and words are said out of turn.

You need to be able to forgive as you would your natural brother and sisters. None of us is perfect and we are bound to hurt one another at times, but if you love the person, you forgive and move on,  and it makes your relationship stronger. It’s making the effort for others as well as giving them some leeway as well.

Phileo love is an ongoing love that withstands the ups and downs of life and often it’s our friends who help us through those tough times. We all need Phileo love.

Storge: Love is unconditional

Helen Voyce (37) is married to Barrie, a youth worker and lives in Stroud, Gloucestershire. They have two children Emily (5) and Katy (2). She talks about Storge, pronounced stor-gay, which is the Greek word for the love between family members. C S Lewis, in his book, The Four Loves, calls it affection as well as “need love”. It’s the only one of the four not mentioned in the New Testament, yet it is evident through the family bonds between the likes of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

I feel Storge love is a committed, sacrificial love. Like most mums, I am devoted to my children’s welfare and therefore I will do anything for them. From the moment they are born, you no longer have a self-centred life of your own, they become your life. It’s a ‘24hrs a day’ love. It is loving your children regardless of what they do or what they say, and I guess it is as near to unconditional as we can get. Storge love often overlooks faults in those we love and regularly forgives after quarrels.

Children don’t recognise the sacrifices you make for them or that everything you do, and the decisions you make, are because you love them and want the best for them. Your child may want to do something which you know won’t be good for them and so you say no – because you love them. They just hear the word ‘no.’

But, Storge love is also a “need-love” and the first love of which we are first capable as new-born babies and has that element of what needs of ours the other can fulfil.

It is the love that my children feel towards me right from day one when I first fed them, kept them warm and protected. Storge love is where we can be comfortable and secure just being in the presence of one another. But there are times when we do take the Storge love of our family members for granted.

Storge love is natural, gives us an insight into the depth of God’s love for us and helps us understand his Father heart for us in a new way.

But, as C S Lewis states in his book, The Four Loves, Storge, Agape, Eros and Phileo operate best when they work together.