Loving The Unlovely

by Rick Shrader

I suspect that many of us, in our quest after holiness, have imagined that being filled with the love of God would flood our consciousness with a kind of contemplative rapture, or a sense of infinite satisfaction.  That is why many have developed a ‘holiness’ turned inward instead of outward; mystical instead of practical; self-centered rather than God-centered; sentimental rather than evangelistic; and egoistic rather than altruistic.  The love of which John means when he writes, ‘God is love,’ is the most self-forgetting otherism in the universe, and when it is indeed ‘shed’ within us (Rom. 5:5) it lifts us right out of ourselves into a magnanimous solicitude for the well-being of others.

J. Sidlow Baxter1

All of my life I have heard the phrase, “It’s hard to love the unlovely.”  It is not only hard, it is almost impossible, at the least very difficult, to love in the sense of agape love.  What to us is unlovely has nothing to reward our effort and therefore can hardly solicit our love.

In his famous work on love, C.S. Lewis described the four Greek words defining love.2 The first three are human and demand a return on our investment as well as containing “congenital maladies.”  Lewis calls them “need-loves.”  Storge (Rom 1:31, “natural affection”) is parental or family love, driven by the need to belong as well as the need to be loved.  Loving the unlovely fulfills a deep need within us to belong and to nurture.

Eros (Esther 2:17, LXX) is the sensual or “erotic” desire.  It can be expressed properly in marriage, improperly outside of marriage, but is always need-oriented.  Eros is simply the Greek counterpart to the Roman Cupid and was never imagined to be an innocent little imp spreading candy and good-will.  In eros, the giver may devour and abuse the unlovely for its own sake.

Philia is friendship, a give-and-take sort of relationship.  It is the biblical word for “kiss” because it so naturally pictures the necessary partnership.  Friendship does not exist where only one companion makes an effort to give.  Whereas eros is pictured face-to-face, philia is pictured side-by-side, two walking in mutual agreement.  In friendship, the unlovely may not measure up.

Agape is the only “gift-love.”  It is wholly disinterested in itself and desires only the best for the beloved.  But in sinful humans, this selflessness is impossible without a divine transfusion.

Now whether anyone agrees with or likes Lewis’ description of the first three loves, all are agreed as to the divine nature of agape.   Of human loves, the Lord Jesus declared, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).  The Apostle Paul echoed the same by writing, “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die” (Rom 5:7).  There is something to be gained by dying for a friend, a country or a family member.  We gain back the companionship, the freedom or the filial relationship that our soul craves.  But Paul’s amazing point follows, “But God commendeth his love (agape) toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us . . . when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (8,10).  Agape alone can give when there is an impossibility to receive anything in return.

Agape has none of the maladies of the other three loves. It finds its expression (if not its very history3) in the theology of the New Testament.  Kyle Yates wrote, “No stronger cord can ever bind us than the cords of love so clearly seen as we look upon the incarnation, the life, and the death of our Lord and Saviour.”4 Then why are there so many who refuse the agape love of the Savior?  Because the unlovely does not want to be loved with agape love.

As strange as this sounds, it is not only true but perfectly consistent with our theology.  Man is not just a sinner, but a selfish sinner.  The root of his rejection of salvation is his unfailing insistence that there is something worthwhile in him that God won’t condemn.  That is why he gravitates to the three human “need-loves.”  In each of these someone rewards him, or at least responds to him so as to acknowledge his worth.  But agape, by its very nature, says frankly, “you are unlovely and have nothing of worth.  That is why I am your only hope.”  While no other love is capable of such selfless expression, the sinner is offended by its frankness and its declaration of his worthless condition.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “But the love of Christ for the sinner in itself is the condemnation of sin, is his expression of extreme hatred of sin.”5

In a favorite gospel song, the words say, “There is not a brother, sister, friend or mother, loves the way that Jesus can.”  That is exactly right.  However, the following words miss the mark: “Jesus wants to love you, there is none above you, you are precious in his sight.”  That is what a sinner would like to believe; that there is something in him worthy in God’s sight.  If that were true, divine justice would be enough.  The “good news” is that God’s agape love does love the sinner because it needs no reciprocation, it does not merely want to love him as if it needed to be loved in return.

As believers, having received such agape love, we are asked the near impossible task of displaying it in the world around us.  Being Adam’s children, it is not our nature to live selflessly, even as Christians.  The sanctification process going on within us is teaching us to practice the agape, so contrary to our thinking, that we reluctantly received.  It is still very difficult.  So often our expressions of love, our worship experiences, our stand for truth, have selfish strings attached that bring back something congratulatory and satisfying to our ego.

The Apostle Paul said, “above all these things put on charity (agape), which is the bond of perfectness” (Col 3:14), the goal of our sanctification.  L.S. Chafer said, “A human heart cannot produce love, but it can experience it.  To have a heart that feels the compassion of God is to drink of the wine of heaven.”6

1. J. Sidlow Baxter, A New Call To Holiness (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1977) 111.
2. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: HBJ, 1988).
3.  Kittel calls its etymology “uncertain” and its meaning before the NT “weak.” (Theological Dictionary, I, p. 36).
4. Kyle M. Yates, Preaching From The Psalms (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948) 168.
5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost Of Discipleship (New York:  Touchstone Books, 1995) 184.
6. L.S. Chafer, He That Is Spiritual (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972) 48.