Only God is capable of perfect love
Have you ever let a loved one down? Ever said a harsh word, not been there for them when they needed you, done something behind their back or without their knowledge, been disrespectful, selfish, or distant?
Well, you are not alone, for the disciples of Jesus, even though they loved him, let him down, and perhaps the most well-known occasion was on the night Jesus was arrested.
That night Peter denied knowing Jesus, not just once, but three times – even swearing and bringing down curses upon himself to prove his point! Then, some time later, the resurrected Jesus went to find Peter, to speak with him, and asked him three times whether Peter loved him. Three times Peter replied that Jesus knew it saying, “You know I love you.” However, there was more to their exchange than meets the eye.
In the English language we only have one word for love, but love takes many forms, and if you lived in first-century Palestine, you would have used four different words for love: eros, philia, storge, and agape. Eros was erotic or passionate love; philia was the kind of love you had for friends and equals; storge was the kind of love a parent had for a child; and agape was the kind of perfect, unconditional love expressed by God.
The first two times Jesus asked Peter, “Do you agape love me?” (ie with godly love), and Peter replied, “You know I philia love you.” (ie like a brother).
However, the last time Jesus asked Peter, “Do you philia love me?” and Peter replied, “You know I philia love you.” So what was going on here? Why did Jesus, the first two times, use agape love, then the last time switch to philia love?
There is so much that is unspoken in the exchange and perhaps it helps to understand agape love as being perfect. It is unconditional, undeserved, self-sacrificial, and altruistic, whereas philia love is human love and therefore, by definition, imperfect. Who of us has ever loved our friends with a perfect love? None of us.
By asking Peter if he could love with an agape love, Jesus asked the impossible. For of course Peter could not love Jesus in the same way that Jesus, being God, loved Peter. Answering that he could love Jesus with a brotherly or human love, was an admission that his love for Jesus was imperfect. It is important to remember that despite denying knowing Jesus on the night of his arrest, Peter never stopped loving Jesus.
Peter wept bitterly afterwards because he knew he had let down the friend whom he loved. Peter recognised that although Jesus loved him as God loves him, he could only love Jesus as a flawed human being, however, and most importantly, the third time Jesus asked Peter if Peter could love him with a philia love – and here, the unspoken meaning was that Jesus recognised and accepted that Peter’s love would be human and flawed; that Peter was imperfect; and that was OK. Jesus was saying that Peter’s philia love was enough.
At the time Peter was questioned by Jesus, he was indignant that he should be asked more than once, but I think it was only with hindsight that Peter fully understood that this was a moment where he and God were coming to an understanding.
Peter recognised the perfection of God’s love expressed through Jesus, an unconditional love that accepted and welcomed him and covered over all his mistakes and denials. Peter knew that the flawed, human love that he could return, was enough.
Jesus and Peter made peace, and Jesus brought Peter to the place where he knew he no longer needed to try to earn God’s love, and it is the same with us. Perhaps the most difficult lesson for us to learn on our Christian journey is that God loves us with no conditions, no caveats, and no stipulations. We cannot earn it and we do not deserve it. We do not have to be perfect.
Imagine, for a moment, that God is asking you the question, “Can you love me with the kind of love that I have for you?” Our answer will be, “No, but I can love you as a friend.” Now, imagine God’s reply, “OK, well, will you love me as a friend then?” and our reply will be, “Yes, I can do that! I will love you as a friend.” God asks nothing more of us. Like Peter, our philia love is enough.
As human beings we have high expectations of our close friends, partners, and spouses. We often expect them to love us with a perfect love – to not make mistakes, not reject us, dismiss us, break promises, or hurt us, but that is unrealistic.
And talk about pressure! We all make mistakes. We all mess up in our relationships, however, there is nothing more life-changing and wonderful than being accepted by God or another human being, warts and all.
The even better news is that it does not stop there. It is not simply the case that we have to live and struggle with imperfection, because if we are connected to a God who loves us with an agape love, that love transforms us. It enables us to become the people we long to be. It makes us more forgiving, more accepting, more faithful, more committed, and ultimately, more loving.
Imagine an equilateral triangle with its base horizontal. You and your friend, partner, or spouse are the two points at the base, and God is the point at the top. As you both focus on God and draw closer to him, you also end up drawing closer to each other. It is a simple analogy, but it is true.
Dear friends, my prayer for you today is that you would know that the love you have for your friends, your spouse, or your partner, though imperfect, is enough, and that you may draw closer to them as you allow the all-encompassing agape love of God to embrace and transform you. God loves you with a perfect love and always will.
• The Reverend Gavin Tyte is the pastor at St Mark’s Anglican Church. Visit stmarks.bm