One of C.S. Lewis’s last, and best, books was called The Four Loves. Drawing from four different Greek words for love, the book celebrates affection, friendship, eros, and charity and considers the moral, ethical, and spiritual dynamics at play in each form of love.
As worthy as Lewis’s writing might be, I think Jesus offers his own take on “four loves” that considers not the dynamic of love so much as the object of our love. Here are two Biblical passages that illustrate Jesus’s four loves:
One of the scribes, when he came forward and heard them disputing and saw how well he had answered them, asked him, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” Jesus replied, “The first is this: ‘Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:43-48)
So for Jesus, the four loves consist of
- Love of God,
- Love of neighbor,
- Love of self, and even
- Love of enemies.
And you can see from the passages above how these four loves are linked together. Love of God is the first and greatest commandment, and the love of neighbor — as we love ourselves — is, according to Matthew 22:39, “like it.” And in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus points out that loving our enemies is the culmination of the love of neighbor, and that doing so makes us “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
But what do these loves look like in practice?
I’d like to suggest that Christian spirituality offers us gifts, or charisms, to guide us in our lifelong quest to love God, neighbors, self, and enemies. If we want to love, then cultivating these gifts would be a helpful step in the right direction.
Let’s start with self-love, since that is perhaps the most primal, reptilian form of love. The Christian wisdom tradition offers discernment as the key to self-love. Perhaps it is natural to love one’s self, but without discernment, self-love can be dysfunctional, a love that crowds out all other forms of love: narcissism rather than healthy self-care. So discernment helps us to keep our self-love healthy, balance, appropriate, and therefore prepared to flow out into the other, more generous forms of love.
Even harder than the justice required to love our neighbor is the demand of loving even our enemies, our adversaries, our rivals, our competitors. While sometimes we have enemies because of our own mistakes, other times enemies exist because of their misdeeds. So the gift required to truly love our enemies is mercy or forgiveness. This is the love that acknowledges the demands of justice but goes above and beyond. It’s the love that says “love is not just quid pro quo; it is a force for good in the cosmos that can, and should, be brought to be even in places where love currently is absent. In other words, we love our enemies — show them mercy and forgive them — not because they deserve it, indeed precisely because they do not deserve it — but because our commitment to love requires nothing less of ourselves. We show others mercy and forgiveness because it is the right and wise and loving thing to do. It is not a statement about them, it is a statement about who we are. And we can only be such loving persons because God first loved us. Love of enemies implies that we are loving with a love that is greater than our own — a love that has been given to us.
Which brings me to the first and most important love — love for God, which is always in response to God’s prior love for us. I don’t think one word can truly capture the gift of loving God, so let me offer three possibilities. First is awe. If we truly, truly get it that God loves us, lavishly and unconditionally, our response will be flat out awe. Related to this is adoration — which literally means “speaking to” God, adoration is a response to God’s love with love. And while the word adoration implies language used to love God, the contemplative tradition of Christianity suggests that there is something higher than knowledge, beyond language, beyond human cognition. This higher, mysterious way of loving can only be accessed through silence. So while it may seem empty or barren, silence lovingly offered to God may be the most pure way to express our awe and adoration before God’s infinite mystery. In that silent love, in a level deeper than words or thoughts or feelings, we bask in the love of God — the love that moves the sun and other stars, and that also empowers us to love humanity with discernment, justice, and mercy.