Friday, April 3, 2009

The Arrogance of Agape Love

I don’t care if you love me if you still think I’m a chump.

I became a Christian as a freshman in college. And I’ll tell you, my major issue was feeling like I was a “chump” in the eyes of so many other people and, I feared, in the eyes of God. When I first got a sniff of the idea that there is a God and that he values me and loves me—that was an amazing feeling. It was completely foreign to me and tantalizingly transformational. I became “addicted to love”—agape love, that is.

Agape love was a term I learned fairly quickly in the Christian community. Agape is one of the Greek words for love, and it is the word Jesus used when he told us to “love one another” in John 15:12. We distinguish it from phileo (brotherly) love and most certainly from eros (erotic) love. So, even though Robert Palmer sang about being addicted to eros in the mid 80’s, we Christians would love to talk about the “holier” form of love: agape.

Agape love was good stuff. After all, it was unselfish love. It was love offered unconditionally. It was love that was offered with no strings attached. I can’t tell you how many sermons I have heard where we talk about how eros is “I love you if…”, phileo is “I love you because…”, and agape is “I love you regardless…”

Agape love was presented as the purest form of love because it was completely unselfish and unconditional. I didn’t love you in order to get anything from you (or in response to getting anything from you) and I didn’t love you because you somehow deserved my love. Agape love, the highest form of love, is what would motivate us to feed the hungry, preach the gospel to the poor, clothe the naked, encourage the depressed and otherwise love the unlovely.

So how could agape love be arrogant? After all, it is not self-seeking but unconditional. Who could be opposed to agape love?

Here is one of those ruts we often fall into as Christians. For example, the Bible teaches us to be humble, right? Yes. And it also teaches us not to be arrogant or prideful, right? That is correct. So what happens when I see you being arrogant and I am being humble? What if I see everyone else being arrogant, save myself? Will I stand up and announce to the group, “All of you are so arrogant! No one is as humble as me! Can’t you see how humble I am? I know I am so much better than all of you because I am so much more humble!” Wait, wait, wait… that doesn’t sound like humility at all! It might have honestly started out that way, but we just became rather prideful about how humble we are being.

This is what happens to so many of us Christians. We know the right way to be, and after we change to become that, we then become arrogant about the fact. Just like Al Pacino’s character in The Devil’s Advocate (Satan)—in the end he was able to get Keanu Reeve’s character to stumble for being prideful about doing the right thing. He says, “Vanity—it’s my favorite sin.”

This same dynamic occurs when we try to elevate agape love over other forms of love, implying that phileo and eros are somehow unholy. The truth is that Jesus also talked about phileo love and not in a negative sense. It is good and right for us to have phileo love towards others, as well as agape. And if eros is erotic love, what is unholy about sharing erotic love with my wife? In one way, eros becomes even more special as I share that only with her and agape I can share with anyone and everyone.

I do believe that agape love is special. There is, in fact, nothing more Christ-like than to offer unselfish love to another human being. Jesus’ greatest command was to love God and to love our neighbor. So how can agape love be arrogant?

Well, the arrogance isn’t in the agape love; it is in the people who think they are offering it. We define agape love as loving people regardless. Regardless of what? Regardless of the fact that they are undeserving, uneducated, unkempt, unbathed, unrepentant, under privileged, or downright unholy. We think (and sometimes say), “Even though you are a dirty rotten scoundrel, I give you this sandwich in Jesus’ name.” Then we congratulate ourselves in our hearts for being so godly in displaying agape love. Certainly that guy was undeserving. But we gave him that sandwich anyway!

Let me ask you—if you were the recipient of that sandwich, how would you feel? (That might just depend on how hungry you are.)

Many non-Christians resent the charity of Christians for two reasons. One is that it often has strings attached: “Can I give you this _____ in hopes that you will come to my church?” The second is the perceived message Christians are sending: “This ______ is given to you to let you know how much better I am than you by giving this to you.” Now it is not wrong to want people to come to church, but non-Christians often see that as an ulterior motive--that you don't really love them; you just want to grow your club.

When I was a new Christian I heard the slogan, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

I was really excited by that truth. The idea is that if I try to tell someone about Jesus—just give them a message but not really love them—then they will likely reject the message. But if I can show them that I really care about them, then they might be interested in the message I have to share. This is an important truth. And real agape love is in the realm of “really caring” about someone.

If we come to someone with the attitude that we think very lowly of them, then it taints everything we do to/for them—even the “love” we offer them. We don’t have any respect for them, but we do something nice for them. Can we say, then, that we “really care” for them?

“I don’t care if you love me if you still think I’m a chump. It would mean a lot more to me if you showed me some respect. It would mean a lot more to me if you valued who I am. What good is your 'love' for me if you have such a low opinion of me? How much is your 'love' going to affect me if you just don’t think I’m anything special? I would rather you ask me for something because you thought I had something to offer than to offer me something that you think I lack. I don’t care if you love me if you still think I’m a chump. You can keep your sandwich.”

The most powerful thing we can do to another person is think about them one way or another. If I think someone is an idiot, that person will soon get the sense of it if they spend enough time around me. If I am impressed with someone they will soon be able to tell. My disdain for others will drive people away. The admiration I show will draw them in.

So what happens when we show unconditional agape love to someone we disdain? (Even though I disdain you, I still love you.) Which will influence them more—the “love” we show them by whatever nice thing we are doing for them, or the disdain we feel toward them? If there is enough exposure, the disdain will overtake the “love.” They will not be impressed by the nice thing we have done if they learn of the low opinion we have of them. Our actions will not be seen as love, but as pity. And that is what a lot of the agape love we practice is—pity. Implicit is the message, “I’m more impressed with myself for doing this for you in spite of the idiot you are.”

No one gives to beggars because they think they will get anything in return. Even so, the offerings made to beggars are often not motivated by such unselfish love but by a desire for the beggar to quickly go away. So even though we have given “unselfishly” in that we don’t expect to be given anything in return, our “love” is not so impressive when the last thing we would want is a relationship with the recipient.

True agape love requires that we change how we think about those we offer it to. We might love people in spite of them not loving us, or in spite of their sin or other ugliness, but we must still learn to value them. If there is no value in our opinion of them then it negates whatever nice thing we might do for them.

Look what Paul said in Philippians 2:3:

“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

Our agape love may be unconditional, but is it to the point that we consider others better than ourselves? Would we dare do that to a beggar? Would we dare consider a “wannabe” better than ourselves? Could we possibly extend such respect to someone who has repeatedly made bad choices in their lives and have suffered the consequences and consider them better than us? Or does knowing that it just isn’t true keep us from thinking of them in such a high manner? If so, therein lies our problem.

I don’t care if you love me if you still think I’m a chump.


  1. In the past month or so, I have quoted this really wise yet mysterious sage who said: "How we view people is half of how we love them."

    Who said that? Was it Benny Hinn? No, was Koffijah! Such good stuff K!

    (Note to Self: Cancel order for "I give you this sandwich in Jesus’ name" disposal lunch sacks with C3 logo.)

  2. Benny Hinn??? C'mon!

    I don't know anything about mysterious sage. Perhaps mysterious parsley, rosemary or tyme.

  3. God has been working with me lately on building more and/or improving existing relationships. It is very interesting that I ended up at your blog reading this post today. It has given me great more insight and conviction about my attitude, actions, and thoughts toward others. Thanks for your words...very inspiring.

  4. I think we'd all be eating a lot more sandwiches together if they were really filled with true agape love.

    (Thanks Koffija - I am now super hungry.) Good stuff!

  5. Emily ( said:

    Amen! What a good explanation of true agape love and a reminder of what humility really is. Thanks for posting!

    (Sorry for accidentally deleting your post)

  6. @Tina and Emily--Welcome to the Koffi House! Thank you for coming by and leaving your comments. Please take some time to read through some of my other posts. I am glad you enjoyed my thoughts here. Thanks.

    @Annie K--I wonder if you could build a machine that compressed Agape love into a condiment that you could put into a squeeze bottle. Then you could just smother those "love sandwiches" with it and it would save us a lot of time when we handed them out because then we wouldn't have to get to know anyone! :-)