Love & Relationships

What Is Love? A Biblical Approach to the Universal Feeling

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Date Published:
August 5, 2021

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Summary

The notion of love has been around since the dawn of time. The most common definition of love refers to a feeling of compelling attraction, deep affection, and emotional attachment.

In modern popular culture, we also find further types of love, such as unrequited love, empty love, companionate love, consummate love, infatuation, and courtly love.

Christians should seek to emulate the love that God has for us. 

The Biblical explanation of love includes our love of Christ, the love that Jesus Christ has for humanity, and the love that Christians have for Christ and for one another.

Humans have often struggled to find ways to explain how love works. 

This article considers some of the different types of love while paying particular attention to how the Bible defines love and what type is best for us.

What are the different types of love?

Ancient Greek philosophers identified nine different forms of love. Let’s take a look at each of them:

1. Storge or familial love

Storge, or familial love, refers to the love and affection we have for our family members and friends. This is also the powerful love that parents feel for their children. 

The Greeks regarded familial or fraternal love as unconditional. It is when we accept the flaws of the people we love. This form of love is committed, sacrificial, secure, comfortable, and safe.

Storge love values loyalty, duty, and responsibilities toward others above all else. This type of love is peaceful and uncomplicated, and usually stable and predictable.

2. Philia (or Phileo or Philos) 

Philia love is friendly or platonic love shown by the presence of affection, and it is usually warm and tender. This type of love is when you want friendship and seek to build close bonds with acquaintances and friends. 

This is a form of companionate love.

3. Eros 

Eros, which refers to sexual or erotic love or a love of beauty, is a passionate and intense love that arouses deep romantic feelings. 

This kind of love can trigger feelings of euphoria, which releases powerful brain chemicals (like dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin). 

Eros is a deeply emotional and sexual type of love based on initial physical attraction. It can result in infatuation and be fleeting and short-lived. We usually feel eros when we first fall in love. 

Longer-term romantic relationships and married couples also experience this when they first meet their life partner. Over time, eros love usually evolves into a longer-lasting type of love (like storge and agape).

4. Agape (unconditional, divine, and selfless love)

Agape love can be love for our fellow human beings, the love we have for God, or even love of nature. 

Agape love also describes the love God has for us, which is unconditional and unwavering. Agape love is when we overlook the flaws of the person we love. It is an unselfish type of love.

5. Ludos

Ludic love is flirtatious, playful, casual, or uncommitted love. It can be seen as lustful love that is noncommittal and usually short-lived. 

It can be shown through dancing, teasing, and flirting, as well as the act of seduction. It is often celebrated in popular culture, but it is a shallow form of love.

6. Pragma (practical love)

Pragma, or practical love, like its name suggests, is pragmatic. 

It's focused on duty or long-term interests. This kind of love isn’t concerned with sexual attraction but rather focuses on personal qualities, compatibility, and mutual goals. Some very strong marriages can be grounded in pragma love — where the couples are focused on raising children in a Christian home. 

They may also have agape love underlying their relationship as well as eros. All three of these types of love can overlap.

7. Philautia (self-love)

Philautia, or self-love, is when we love ourselves. 

It can also merge with narcissism, which is a destructive kind of self-love and is self-centered. 

Healthy self-love isn't the same as narcissism, and we all need to feel that we're worthy in the world. This kind of healthy love can be linked with self-confidence and self-awareness.

8. Xenia (guest love)

This type of love refers to how we might treat guests who visit our home. Xenia love is about having a moral obligation to be hospitable to foreigners and guests. 

9. Mania 

Mania love, which is a manic type of love, is usually obsessive, possessive, and sometimes addictive. 

It can be harmful to those practicing it, as it creates a dependence on the object of your love. It's usually fleeting and short-lived.

Loving couple cycling at sunset

You can see from the nine classifications above that love can be either a positive or a negative force in our lives. We should choose wisely how we love and do it consciously.

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Psychology of love

Love covers a range of emotional states — these are mostly positive, but it sometimes produces unwanted consequences (like codependency or obsessive, unrequited love). 

The psychology of love is the study of how our behavior and attitudes are affected by our feelings of love for other people.

Psychologists who examine love also consider the effects of different brain chemicals or neurotransmitters released when a person falls in love. Love can produce exciting feelings.  

Neurotransmitters are feel-good brain chemicals produced when you’re in love and can include adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. 

When you see the object of your desire and your heart is pounding, it could be adrenaline flowing through your bloodstream along with dopamine and serotonin. 

Dopamine is found in the reward center of the brain. When you see someone you love or experience desire for someone, and your love is returned, your brain rewards you instantly with dopamine. You can think of dopamine as a love drug.

When you hug someone, your brain will usually release both serotonin and oxytocin — essentially rewarding you for experiencing love. 

The release of these love drugs is most often seen in the early days of a romance. When love becomes longer lasting and established, the release of these love hormones settles down to normal levels.

Usually, after about two years, the intensity of the physical attraction from first love tapers off. 

The levels of serotonin and cortisol may return to normal. You'll still feel the release of love drugs, such as dopamine and oxytocin, when you hug your spouse or other loved one, but just not as intensely as when you first met.

God designed these feel-good love chemicals to reward us as a biological mechanism. They can keep couples together long enough to marry and have children. 

This is God’s way of ensuring that we procreate. In Genesis 1:28, God told Adam and Eve to “be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” And so we did — driven by love, in a way.

When our love transforms from the early days of infatuated love into a more stable and passionate love, we see the emergence of agape and storge love within relationships.

Man and woman showing affection for one another

The biological anthropologist Helen Fisher also spoke about love as a biological drive and a survival mechanism. 

She examined the science of love, how much control we have over the partners we're attracted to, and whether our love for them lasts. She gave a TED Talk entitled, “How Does Love Affect The Brain?” 

Fisher also wrote several books on the evolution and future of human sex. Her work included studying love, marriage, gender differences in the brain, and how your personality style shapes who you are and your experiences of love.

Psychologists studying love might examine why a person is willing to put someone else’s well-being and happiness above their own, such as in a codependent relationship

Psychology can also explain how, over time, love evolves from the initial physical attraction and exciting feelings (infatuation) to more established patterns of attachment and affection. 

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What is the Biblical definition of love?

The Bible considers many forms of love, but agape love describes God’s love for us. The love that God has in mind for us is unconditional. 

Family love - small boy hugging his sister

You should pay particular attention to the Bible passage from 1 Corinthians 13:4-8, which says: 

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” 

Corinthians skillfully captures the essence of the true Biblical nature of love.

What are the four types of Biblical love? 

The four types of love in the Bible are: 

  • Philos (affection and friendship)
  • Storge (family love) 
  • Eros (erotic love) 
  • Agape (unconditional or selfless love), which is God’s divine love for us

Matthew 22:39, which tells you to “love your neighbor as yourself,” is referring to both self-love (philautia) as well as guest love (xenia). 

These sentiments are repeated in Leviticus 19:34: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself.”

Selfless love (agape) can also include a combination of both eros (erotic love) and storge (affection). 

The Bible intends that agape, which is altruistic and idealistic, be the type of love we should aspire to have. This is love in its purest form, and it is the type of love most commonly linked to religious or traditional love forms. 

You often see saints and martyrs showing this type of love in their preparedness to sacrifice everything to show their love for God. 

When considering philautia (self-love), the Bible addresses how we usually put our own needs first, possibly as a survival mechanism. 

Philippians 2:3 warns us: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.” 

Healthy self-esteem is important as long as it doesn’t morph into destructive narcissism, which is the opposite of agape.

The Songs of Solomon are full of references to erotic types of love within the sanctity of marriage. Song of Solomon 4:9 says: "You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace."

God also asks us to love Him repeatedly throughout the scriptures. 

In John's gospel, God teaches us that our love for Christ means that we should follow His commandments: "If a man loves me, He will keep my word” (John 14:23). 

1 John 4:19 also explains that we should learn love from Christ’s example: “We love, because He first loved us.”

Is God’s love universal? 

The universality of God’s love for us is shown in the ultimate sacrifice of Christ on the cross. 

John 3:16 says: 

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” 

This sacrifice is the ultimate example of agape love.

Saint Thomas Aquinas also noted that even though both Jesus Christ and God the Father had the power to prevent the crucifixion of Christ on Calvary, they chose not to because of the perfect love that Christ has for us. 

The fact that God the Father offered His son Jesus as a sacrifice to atone for our sins shows the perfect love Christ has for us and the universality of this love.

Saint Teresa of Avila also spoke about perfect (agape) love as being an imitation of Christ. We should aspire to this kind of love. 

There are many Bible verses about love that we can call upon to show our devotion to our Lord.

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What is the highest form of love in the Bible?

The highest form of love in the Bible is agape love. 

This includes our love of Christ and the love that our Heavenly Father has for all of humanity. It also explains the love that Christians have for others. 

Our love for Christ should be a perfect reflection of God’s love for all His people. This is how we imitate Christ and show authentic love.

Spiritual love isn't a form of self-love — it's self-sacrificing love. It may also be about showing love through our actions, not just words. 

1 John 3:16-18 says: 

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” 

Actions speak louder than words.

Agape love is frequently referenced in the New Testament — it perfectly describes the love that Jesus Christ has for God the Father and all His followers. 

God promises to always love us — that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.

What Christian writers have said about spiritual love 

Saint Augustine taught that faith in Christ means we're one with the community in the Church, and all Christians should be seeking the unity of all people. 

Referring to Ephesians 3:14, Saint Augustine suggested that by bowing our knees and showing love for God the Father, we are truly able to know the love of Christ.

Statue of Christ

Saint Thomas Aquinas considered the perfect love that Christ has for humanity and God’s sacrifice of His only son Jesus to save the world. 

Aquinas told us that “perfect love” casts out fear, and Christ had no fear, for the love of Christ was perfect. Aquinas instructed Christians to avoid distractions, which can separate those in religious life from their love of Christ.

Saint Teresa of Avila considered perfect love to be an imitation of the love of Christ. This involves having a constant awareness of the unconditional love we receive from God. 

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What is the meaning of true love for Christians?

You may wonder about the meaning of true love in our modern societies, particularly because popular culture can send conflicting and confusing messages about modern sexuality. 

Regardless of whether you're married, single, living in a family, or living on your own, you should aim for a form of divine love in all of your relationships with others. 

The concept of romantic love and eros is found throughout scripture, and it's something to be celebrated. 

However, the Bible is very clear in its message that eros love and sexual desire should be reserved for the sanctity of marriage. Love within marriage is sacred, and God acknowledges the important role of sex in marriage for emotional and spiritual bonding, as well as reproduction.

Eros love is celebrated throughout scripture. It's part of God's design, and God intended it to be a blessing shared by married couples in a loving relationship to strengthen their bond. 

Proverbs 5:18-19 invites a married man to celebrate the beauty of his wife:

“Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, a lovely deer, a graceful doe. Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love.” 

Single Christians searching for a long-term relationship should be looking for a form of love that is mature and longer-lasting and not driven solely by “eros” or “ludos.” 

Love can be an intense feeling, but love driven by infatuation, lust, or mania will be short-lived and fleeting. You should first seek to develop an unselfish spiritual love and model the example of Christ. 

When you do this, you're more likely to attract the right kind of love into your life.

The apostle Paul told the Corinthians to always remember the importance of “agape” or divine love. 

Paul teaches us to fill our interpersonal relationships — be they with family, romantic partners, or other loved ones — with agape love. Loved ones should bind themselves together in “perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). 

In Galatians 5:13, Paul tells us to use our freedom “to serve one another in love." 

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God’s love is all around us

God’s love surrounds us. The language of love is scattered throughout scriptures — particularly divine love. 

Our love for Christ should be a perfect reflection of God’s love for all His people. This is how we imitate Christ — in showing love not just to our immediate loved ones but to our friends, our family members, our neighbors, and even strangers. 

You can embrace love by emulating the word of God, such as Ephesians 4:2-3

"...with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." 

When we learn agape love, we'll attract the best type of love from others in return.

If you want to learn more about love and how the Bible interprets it, download the pray.com app — for daily prayer, bedtime Bible stories, and more — in the Google Play and Apple Store.

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