What Is Love?

“Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God—for God is love”

(1st John 4:7-8, New Living Translation).

What is love? Valentine’s Day makes this a pertinent question. My favorite writer on the subject didn’t get married until he was 58, and even then it was for charitable, not romantic, reasons. C. S. Lewis, the famous author of the Narnia series of books, married Joy Davidman in a government office to provide her with British citizenship. A few months later Joy was diagnosed with cancer, and her condition deteriorated rapidly. Jack, as Lewis was known by his friends, chose to love and care for Joy. The feeling between them grew, and nearly a year after the marriage of convenience there was a hospital wedding presided over by a clergyman from the Church of England. ’Til death do we part was a potent reality. Joy left the hospital to convalesce. It was not until this point that she moved in with Jack. God worked and Joy’s cancer went into remission. Jack and Joy lived happily for three more years. Then the cancer returned and took Joy. Jack wept.

C. S. Lewis understood love as no one else whom I’ve read on the subject. At first this understanding was philosophical and academic. He wrote The Four Loves, an intelligent and insightful book describing the different types of love and their corresponding relationships. Lewis used Greek words to define each love. Agape’ is God’s unconditional gift love, exemplified in Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. Philos is the love between family and friends, which the philosopher Plato called “the milk of human kindness.” Eros is erotic or sexual love, designed by God to connect one man and one woman for life. Finally, storge’ is what we would call affection. It is found in each of the previous three loves, expressing itself appropriately in different relationships.

C. S. Lewis lived out his creed. He was unlike like the men of his day, and his perspective is entirely foreign to us today. A breakdown of the timeline of Lewis’s relationship with Joy will reveal this.

Joy was a divorced American author seeking British citizenship when her visa was not renewed. Lewis gave her his name in a civil marriage to provide this. So, Jack, as Lewis was known to his friends,  entered into a relationship with Joy because he wanted to help a friend. This is agape’ love.

A friendship had also grown between Jack and Joy as they discovered common intellectual, literary and personal interests. The friendship deepened as the two pushed through life’s struggles together. This is philos love.

After Joy’s cancer was discovered she was hospitalized. At this point, Lewis realized something he hadn’t previously. He loved this woman as a man loves no other person.  Jack determined to express love to her on another level. He decided to marry her in eyes of the church, and asked a minister of the Anglican communion to perform the ceremony in her hospital room.

Afterward, Jack brought his beloved Joy home and began to care for her in earnest. The cancer went into remission, and the two lived together as man and wife, and enjoyed several years of happiness. It is important to note that the relationship between Joy and Jack did not become romantic or sexual until after the two were married in the eyes of God. This is eros love.

In the end the cancer returned and took Joy from Jack. Lewis had written several notebooks full of personal feelings and observations during this time, and anonymously published them in the book, A Grief Observed. It was a terrible loss for him and the book presents honest observations.

It was friendship and divine compassion (philos and agape’) that drew Jack and Joy together, love that sustained them in her illness, and it was the love of God that strengthened Jack in his grief when Joy was gone.

What is love?  It is indeed a “many splendored thing,” but fundamentally love is genuine compassion for another person. Love is the commitment to act in the best interest of the beloved, regardless of self-interest. Love must be the basis for every human relationship.

So, the next time you choose a friend or a lover, ask yourself:  is this about love, or something else? Then do what is good and right and God-like: choose to love.