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Day 2: Phenomenal Love

For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline. 2 Timothy 1:7

We all know that the word “love” covers a wide range of feelings and actions. Greek has four different words to explain it. Hebrew has three words. But the number of different words isn’t the most important factor in understanding the word “love” used in the scripture above, written by Paul. To really grasp Paul’s proclamation of God’s gift, we have to get into the Hebrew mind. And that requires suspending some long-held beliefs about the world as we know it.

The big difference between Greek and Hebrew is the way the languages view reality. Greek views reality as organized bits. It is the language of analysis, breaking down each new element into smaller and smaller pieces. When you enter the Greek mindset, you see the world as a sum of parts. In order to understand something, you have to dig down through the surface appearance and discover all the underlying the parts. So, “love” in Greek is broken into its separate pieces: love for brothers and friends, love for family and children, love for things and love for God.

But Hebrew doesn’t see things this way. Hebrew is a phenomenal language. It describes the world the way it appears and experienced by the observer. As a result, love is about emotions, choices, consequences and activities. One concept, even in three words, contains the whole range of human observations about love. For the Hebrew, love is not a series of discrete elements, but rather the whole spectrum of spontaneous feelings, choices and actions no matter how it shows up in humanity. Now you have just a hint about why the Old Testament draws continuous analogies between sex and worship. Both are part of the continuum of the Hebrew concept of “love.”

OK, so why does this matter? Well, Paul is a Hebrew. When he chooses the Greek word agape, he isn’t thinking about the exclusive category of religious love usually ascribed to agape. In fact, the New Testament authors actually used agape in novel ways, not relying on the classical Greek definition. In order to understand Paul, we have to think like a Hebrew. That means Paul is pointing his readers to the entire scope of the spirit of love: from the spontaneous feelings of passion, to the impulse for self-giving; From the desire for pleasure, to the nobility of obedience. Wherever human emotion or action touches the heart of the personal God, you and I experience love. It can just as easily be found in an embrace with my spouse, as it can be found in fighting injustice among the poor. Old Testament love is jealous, but self-denying. It is exclusive, but embraces everyone. It is volitional, but intensely emotional. It is sacrificial, but self-interested.

The Hebrew word, ahav, is a phenomenal word (pun intended). If you want to find the spirit of love, don’t rush to the psychoanalyst. Don’t bother digging into your inner thoughts. Just observe humanity touched by God. You’ll see everything you need to know about ahav. That’s the point, isn’t it? When I see it, then I know what to do. That’s why I look at Jesus when I want to see phenomenal love.


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