What is Love (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)

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In today’s post I’d like to examine how we use the word “love.” I’ll briefly look at how the Greeks used the word, and then in light of that, see what more we can learn from the passage in John 21 where Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me.”

Love and Pancakes

Yesterday, at breakfast, my five year old son said to his pancakes, “I love you pancakes. I wish you had lips so that I could kiss you.”

Weird, I know; but it was the catalyst for a good conversation about love.

“What is love, Liam?” I asked.

“It’s when you really like something.” He said.

“That can be a part of what love is,” I said, “but it’s more than that. Love is to will the good of the other. To want what is best for them and, when possible, help them attain it. You can’t do that for a pancake; it being an inanimate substance and all.”

(Yes I talk that way to my children, and yes I was a much more bearable human being before I started studying philosophy).

4 Words For Love

The Greeks had at least four words for love. This makes a great deal of sense, especially when reflecting on how we throw the word around. I speak of loving my wife, and loving sushi; loving Jesus Christ, and loving surfing. My Son speaks of loving his Mother . . . and loving his pancakes. Surely in these cases we’re using the word “love” in different senses.

Let’s take a look at the four Greek words for love.

Storge means affection. So one might experiece storge for his children, pets; comic book collection, and so forth.

Philia pertains to love between friends. We see this in the word, Philadelphia,  which means “brotherly love,” from phile “loving” and adelphos “brother.”

Eros refers to passionate love, “not only of a sexual nature, but also of an aesthetic or spiritual nature, for what is conceived of as supremely beautiful and desirable.” [1]

Agape refers to the love of God. It is self-donating love which doesn’t count the cost, and expects no reward.

Peter, Do You Love Me?

With those four definitions in mind, Let’s take a look at that beautiful conversation between Jesus and St. Peter in John 21. In particular, let’s look at the greek words used for love to see if we can gain greater insight into what’s going on:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love [Agapos] me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love [Philos] you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 

A second time he said to him, “Simon, son of John, do you love [Agaposme?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love [Philos] you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love [Philos] me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love [Philos] me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love [Philos] you.”

When we understand the meaning of Agape and Philia it’s reasonable to conclude that, though Jesus was desirous of a heroic, and self-sacrificial love of Peter, he condescended to Peter’s level, settling for what he was capable of.

It’s interesting to note, also, that after this exchange Jesus foretells Peter’s martyrdom, as if to say, “I understand that right now you’re capable only of philia, and so right now that’s all I will demand of you, but by my grace, you will one day be capable of agape.”

What are your thoughts?


[1] Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Encyclopedia on “love.”

14 thoughts on “What is Love (Baby Don’t Hurt Me)

  1. Really wonderful post Matt. The subtleties of that exchange between our Lord and Peter are completely lost in translation, and I never knew that two different words for love were being used there. This is why I want to learn to read ancient Greek!

  2. I really enjoyed the post and hope you continue to do more. I only have one question. Why would Peter continue to use a lesser word for love if our Lord is asking him if he feels a greater love for him?

    In my mind I can only come up with a couple of options.
    1. Peter is unfamiliar with the word Agape and Jesus brought this new word for love with him to earth.
    2. Peter is incapable of lying to the Lord.
    3. Not reading it all in Greek makes it difficult to understand.

    In my head if Jesus said do you Agape me? I would either say “YES Lord, of course I do” if it were the truth or I would say “No Lord but I want you to teach me to!”

    Let me know if I am way off the radar with this one. Thanks again for your work in the church.

    1. Thanks. Jesus did not invent the word “Agape.” It existed prior to him using it. Christianity adopted the term, however, to refer to the love of God. The term, Agape—or Agapao— is used well over three hundred times in the New Testament.

      It may be the case that the inspired author did not intend anything other than to avoid redundancy. In this same passage John uses two different nouns for sheep, and two different verbs for “feed,” and “know.”

      When I read it, I understand Peter to mean that he is aware of is inability to love heroically and that Jesus accepts him where he is at.

  3. Matt, I really hope I have the ability to talk to my kids the way you talk to yours when they’re bigger. Too many people patronize children, but I say lets talk to them and engage with them. That how they learn about things like love. Also, as John Paul II said, “love is an act!” (at least I think it was him who said it. Im not so sure now hahaha)

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