If the topics of forming faith and hope were complex and many-facetted, this one is even more so! ‘Forming love’ is surely what life is all about.
As humans, one of our basic needs is to love and be loved, as the social psychologist Maslow put it long ago. Do we learn to love, or do we love inherently and perhaps, at least to some degree, lose that ability and perhaps need to regain it? Maybe at least to some extend we all learn false or less helpful ways to love, and need to refine them or improve on them.
So to begin: what do we mean by ‘love’ here? The word is in so many ways overused and misused. We say we love a person, but also we love a piece of music, a place, a country, a certain kind of food, and so on.
It is helpful to note that while in English there is just the one word, love, in many other cultures there are more nuanced ideas and multiple words for love. Thus the ancient Greeks had at least four different words for love, indicating different ways of loving: agape, phileo, storge and eros. Eros refers to the kind of passionate and romantic love that finds its expression sexually. Then there are two kinds of love that each may express themselves in friendship or family relations. Phileo is a kind of committed love that is affectionate and devoted, usually within family relations or longer term friendships. Similarly, storge is the love of family members, perhaps not so much chosen as a ‘given’ in relationships. In some ways agape contrasts with these, implying a strong degree of chosen commitment to the well-being of the other. It may even have an element of ‘in spite of’ in it: it is love that is undeterred by the other’s faults or difficulties, and simply cares for and works for the best that person can be. In some ways it may be costly and self-giving. But it is not all about
These are not entirely exhaustive or separate concepts, but rather nuances within the overall concept of love and relationship.
In an earlier blog post, relating to love as one of the ‘fruits’ of the Spirit, I wrote on these 10 aspects of love:
- Love is redemptive;
- Love makes a home;
- Love is embodied;
- Love creates relationship;
- Love, as described in 1 Corinthians 13, is patient and kind, and keeps no score of wrongs;
- We see this love in Jesus: a love that is not sucked into ideological scheming and manipulation;
- Love requires work;
- Love grows, and breaks forth;
- Love is gift;
- God is love.
I still firmly agree with all these observations. Now I would add that ‘forming’ love is inherently about spiritual formation—that is, formation in and by the Spirit of God. It is formation in what God is and what God does.
To explain this a little more, I turn to the Gospel of John, which has often been called the Gospel of Love.
My particular interest, though, is in the idea of living with or living ‘in’ God. In John’s Gospel we find the idea of a mutual in-dwelling. This idea is especially important for the development of the Christian doctrine of God as Trinity: in this gospel, Jesus speaks of a mutual indwelling, where he lives in the Father and the Father lives in him. This is a relationship of intimate love.
But that same mutual love is extended by Jesus to the relationship he has with his followers. They are to live in him and he in them. So, just to address one small section, in chapter 14. v 23 we read:
‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’
This idea of God being at home with and in Jesus’ followers is quite evocative. It is a mutual self-giving: it is a being-with and being-at-home kind of living and indeed loving. It’s a living relationship. Some other translations use the expression ‘indwelling’ here. The sense of God making a home in us, and us finding a home in God is very evocative.
Forming love is, then, nothing less than learning to live as a person, woman or man, of God and with God. We might think of it, as some other biblical ideas suggest, as children of God, living in God’s home and inheriting God’s characteristics and purposes for the home. This is far more, though, than phileo love. It has the quality of agape.
So, then, forming love is about learning to live and grow in the love of God, the love which is God. It will involve prayer and other forms of reflection. But it will also involve many forms of action. In the book of Hosea, for example, there is a strong refrain concerning the ‘steadfast love’ of God. (Hosea Chapters 6 – 12). What is significant here is that this love is to be practiced, enacted—by the people of Israel, and its specific recipients are to be those in need, the landless and homeless, the hungry, the widows and fatherless. In short, the love of God is for these ‘neighbours’ especially and there is no true worship and love of God without practicing this love in this way. Justice is love in practice.
Forming love is, then, that unique combination of ‘spiritual’ disciplines with ethical practice, pastoral care and whole-of-life worship. It is all about living.
When I was a young person I was deeply attracted to a saying of the youth counter-culture of that era:
Love is the one power on earth that can unite things without destroying them.
The desire to unite things must allow things (and persons) to be themselves. It is not about taking them over in order to force unity or sameness. Love lets be. But in so do, it may evoke genuine and chosen relationship.
Love enables being together: and in this way it transforms what is possible into what is becoming.
Forming love thus depends absolutely upon faith and hope, and arises from them. Forming love is living in faith and hope, in and with God and all God has called into being.