“I love you.” This is arguably the most common, yet power packed, emotion-invoking phrase on the planet. The energy it takes for one half of a new couple to muster the courage to say it to the other could power a city. The dreaded anticipation of the ‘I love you return’ is equally as stirring. It is not reserved for romantic relationships only though; we also love our pets, our cars, our Netflix and Hulu shows, meals, and entertainers we’ve never met. How is this possible? Well, it’s because we Americans have one word for love, while in the original Greek, there are eight.
The one we use for romantic relationships is Eros. The love you have for your best friend is Phileo. Love for a family member is Storge (pronounced STOR-gay). Pragma is a practical love, or one of convenience (think arranged marriage). Philautia is self-love, which could go two ways. The negative form is when our favorite piece of furniture is a full-length mirror, also known as narcissism. The positive form is pride (the good kind) in oneself, like Leviticus 19:18: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The last is the highest form of love, called Agape (uh-GOP-ay). It is a selfless, sacrificial love. It’s no wonder the same spelling in English means ‘the state of the mouth being wide open in surprise and wonderment.’ When it’s actually accomplished, that’s the kind of effect it has. This is the one we all strive for, and the one we mean when we say it to our betrothed. By the way, I didn’t miscount; the other two ‘loves’ are Ludus (game-playing, uncommitted love) and Mania (obsessive love). I would argue they are not really love because they don’t fit God’s character, and 1 John 4:8 tells us God is love.
As powerful as love is, it may also be the most misunderstood. Though it is defined in countless ways, and means different things to different people, there is but one definition which originated long before Noah Webster, or Noah’s Ark for that matter. 1 Corinthians 13 tells us exactly what it is, and what it is not. If you say you love someone, here is your litmus test. If you consistently perform each of love’s characteristics, then you are a true lover. One caveat: you can’t truly love without knowing God. Not only is God love, but that same passage says everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God. Notice two things: (a) if you want to know if you know God, just ask yourself if you are able to check off everything in 1 Corinthians 13; and (b) love is used as a verb. In other words, it requires action, and it requires choice. It’s been said you can’t choose whom you love. That may be true for Eros, but not Agape. The very nature of Agape is choosing to love, and proving it through action. It is when you pay the toll for the jerk who’s been tailgating you for three miles. It is when your friend conveniently has to use the bathroom when the check comes, but you pay it (plus tip), then offer to treat him/her to the movies the following week. It is when you provide a foot massage to your spouse who just finished screaming at you over a misunderstanding. These are instances where you have every right to retaliate, but you give up that right for the sake of the relationship. You sacrifice.
There are also instances where this is taken to a whole new level. Like when a big brother confesses to a crime he didn’t commit so his little brother won’t have a record. Or when a black man donates one of his kidneys to a dying white supremacist. Or when a soldier dives on a hand grenade so his whole unit doesn’t die. Or when a King pays the penalty of sin by being tortured and killed, though He never sinned Himself. This is true sacrificial love, where there are permanent, detrimental and sometimes fatal results by benefiting someone else, but you do it anyway, because you care more about their well-being than your comfort. That is the essence of Agape, and all other love types are merely tributaries flowing into it.
I remember as a kid I would visit my dad (my parents divorced when I was around 4), and oftentimes he would have just made a steak dinner. He is a carnivore through and through, steak being his favorite food on earth. It would be complete with two baked potatoes smothered in butter, salt, pepper, and sour cream. The vegetable would usually be cabbage – not the flimsy, wilty kind, but the nice and firm leaves, seasoned with hot pepper. He’d then have an enormous cup of Kool-Aid®, with Kool-Aid® ice cubes. That’s right; he would pour cherry-flavored Kool-Aid® in the ice trays so that when he put them in his drink and they began to melt, they would not dilute the drink like regular cubes. Genius!! This was just one of his many meals. Another favorite were his tacos. Oh my Lord in heaven! You haven’t had tacos until you’ve had them from Sir Charles Ketchum. Sure, he’d have the regular kind, but then he’d make tostadas (or whatever he called them), which were flat circles. He’d put them in the oven for a ski-taste (that’s Texan for ‘a short while’; he’s from San Antonio), then take them out when they were nice and warm. He’d then put a layer of refried beans over their surfaces, then a layer of shredded cheese. He would top that with seasoned beef, then throw on the pre-chopped lettuce, onions, and tomatoes. So, what’s the big deal, right? It doesn’t sound like he did anything significantly different. Well, I don’t know if he did or didn’t; all I know is I’m here still talking about them 40 years later.
He and mom had an amicable divorce, so he actually only lived about 1 mile away. I could go see him anytime. So when I’d pop in to see my pop, sometimes he will have made these elaborate dinners. After he put all this together, he would see me and say, “JUNEBUG!! How you doin’, man?! Here you go.”
“Hi, Dad! What’s this?”
“It’s dinner. You hungry?”
“Yeah, a little. But, you didn’t know I was coming.”
“So how did you know to make me a plate?”
“So this is yours?”
“No, it was mine. Now it’s yours.”
“But what will you eat?”
“I’ll make more.”
“You’re going to make all this all over again?”
“No, I can’t have you do that.”
“I want to, and it’s my choice. You’re my son. What’s mine is yours. Period.”
You know, he still does this to this day? He informed me he had a procedure he had to have done, so I took off work to drive down to Maryland and spend the day with him. There was an Eagles game the night before, so I decided to drive down the night before, watch the game with him, then hang the next day. That night, he said, “JUNEBUG!! You hungry? I have steak.”
“Very funny. I also have some brisket. This is some good brisket, too. I can make you up a nice plate.”
“Okay, thank you, Pop. Have you eaten?”
“Nah, can’t. I have to fast for this procedure.”
“So you’re starving?”
“And you’re going to cook me a steak dinner?”
“Pop, I can’t have you do that. I’ll just go across the street and grab something.”
“No no, it’s no problem. Really. You’re my son.”
My mom was a big muckety muck at the Federal Reserve Bank. She headed up Human Resources (then called ‘Personnel’). When they offered her the job, she said, “I just want you to know I have a son. He is involved in sports, band, plays, and other activities. Sometimes I will leave early to attend things. If that will be a problem, let me know, and I will have to respectfully decline.” They admired her forthrightness in putting her family first, and she excelled in her position. So much so that a few years later, she was offered a promotion. Even better, the job was in California, where she is from. She had been trying to get back there for years. She finally had the opportunity to return, with a greater position in the company, more money, and no snow. One problem: me. We lived in a small town in the suburbs. It was one of those towns that was filled with kids, and we all went to the same schools. You went from nursery school to high school with the same kids, and you lived within a 2-mile radius of all of them. They and their families were absolutely like family. No one really locked their doors, and if you knocked and they saw it was you, they’d say, “What are you doing? Just come in!”
When the promotion came, I was 16. I had spent almost my whole life with the people in this town, and to leave them – especially 2 years from graduating – would crush me. It would also crush me to ask my mom to turn down her dream job on my account. As was customary in big decisions, she asked for my input. I told her how I felt, and she said she’d take it into consideration. Knowing her, I’m pretty sure she decided right then. She turned down the job, and never let me feel guilty about it for one millisecond. She said it was her decision, and it was final.
I am blessed to have two parents who didn’t blink when it came to making decisions for my benefit, and I found out at 18 there is a Savior named Jesus the Christ who did the same. I now have the privilege of loving family, friends, and strangers – so basically everyone – with the same love I have been given; and thanks to the road map of 1 Corinthians 13, I have a clear journey. We all do.
Thanks for reading. I love you (for real)!
Julian Ketchum is a resident of Norristown, PA, originally from the Baltimore area. He is a member and former elder of Hope Community Church in King of Prussia, and serves primarily on the Worship Team as a drummer, pianist, and vocalist. He has been married to his lovely wife, Katina, for 21 years, and they have 3 children – a daughter aged 16, and two sons, 14 and 12.