It’s beginning to look a lot like Valentine’s Day, everywhere we go, from the overstuffed Hallmark stands at the neighborhood Target to the Whitney Houston and Faith Hill music loops at the local mall. The stores are crowded as we rush to buy chocolates and gifts, as we plan dinners and desserts for our loved ones.
Yet, in the midst of the busy-ness, those of us who are parents want to find a way to teach our children about Valentine’s Day. We want this holiday to spark a discussion about true love. How can we do that? One way to do that is to use C. S. Lewis’ book, The Four Loves, to teach our children about four types of true love, each of which is represented by an ancient Greek word.
The first type of love is storge, which is translated affection in English. It is the broadest type of love; we experience affection toward a wide variety of people and things. It describes the sort of experience we have when we enjoy something or somebody familiar. We might experience affection when we play with a puppy, enjoy a conversation with a neighbor, or pull for our favorite university during a football game.
We teach our children that affection is important because it “makes the world go ‘round.” It makes the world a warm and enjoyable type of place. However, we also teach our children that our affections shouldn’t be imbalanced or disordered. We should have more affection for our family than for our favorite football team, more affection for our God than for our favorite dessert.
The second type of love is phileo, which translates as friendship. Friendship is more selective than affection, and therefore more concentrated and powerful. Often friendships form because two people share similar interests and goals, and develop their familiarity and concern for one another through pursuing and talking about those interests and goals. Friendship is related to the other human loves. Sometimes, romantic love leads to friendship; other times, friendship leads to romantic love.
We teach our children the irreplaceable importance of friendship as a type of love. We encourage them to love their friends truly rather than selfishly, by looking out for their friends’ interests rather than merely their own. We also encourage them not to be “cliquish;” they can be selective about who their close friends are, but they should engage in those friendships in ways that don’t make other children feel bad for not being a part of certain close friendships.
The third type of love is eros, which translates as romantic love. It is the least easy to analyze but the most deeply felt. Although we live in an era in which people think of romance more in terms of “falling in love” than “being in love,” there is in fact a big difference between the two. The most significant difference is that falling in love is a happenstance but being in love is a commitment. True romantic love is “being committed to one another in love.” Depending on the time and season, romantic love may or may not involve sex. Yet, it always involves commitment.
As for romantic love, we can teach our children that falling in love may be relatively easy (and often is based in fleeting emotions), but being in love can be difficult (because it is based in commitment). It is worthwhile and good and beautiful, but it is never easy. In fact, the goodness and beauty of it is found precisely in its difficulty. In romantic love, we learn the hard but rewarding discipline of loving another person truly and enduringly, even in spite of their peculiarities and character flaws. We can also teach them to pray that God would begin preparing them to love their future husband or wife.
The fourth type of love is agape, which translates as divine love. Although the Greeks did not necessarily ascribe divine connotations to it, Christians do, because it is the highest and most unselfish of loves. The Bible describes it in 1 John 3:16, “This is how we know what [agape] love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” Agape is not a natural human love; in fact, it goes against our nature. But agape is part of God’s nature. He loves the unlovable, finds beauty in ugliness, and ascribes value to the undeserving. Divine love gives of itself without asking for a gift in return.
We teach our children that God’s love is the highest love, and that it is God’s greatest gift. Affectionate-love can adore our pets, friendship-love can embrace our childhood besties, romantic-love can treat our spouses to an unforgettable night out, yet divine-love expands and transforms those loves. It is this divinely oriented and sacrificial love that gives us the fullest affections, the deepest friendships, and the most abiding marriages.
Bruce Ashford is the Provost and Dean of Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.