Agape is the final discussion of the ‘Love=Love? What Kind of Love?’ series. For the introduction, and the other articles on Philautia, Ludus, Eros, Mania, Storge, and Pragma, see the links here.
Of all the types of love considered in this series, this is probably the one most everyone is familiar with. I can’t drive through my own home town without seeing this word everywhere. “Agape Church”; “Agape Hospice Care”; “Agape Shelter”; etc, though it seems the word is used without attention to or understanding of its full meaning.
Agape is the most critical type of love if we want to ensure a healthy marital relationship. In the rules of marriage created by God, it is the most important. This is the attribute marriage is meant to school us to become, but it’s not easy, and many couples back away from the full realization of that great blessing before they reach it.[i]
The marriage ordained by God requires that we break from the “equity theory” (belief that everything must be balanced and fair) of the secular world, and instead embrace agape – a Christ-like love.[ii]
So what exactly is agape? Does it have a dysfunctional side, and what does that look like? What does it take to develop it, and how does it apply to the LDS marriage bed?
Agape: That other kind of love
John A. Lee explains again:
“The classical Christian type of love, agape (pronounced “ah-GAH-pay”) is altruistic, self-sacrificing love that is directed toward all mankind. It is a self-giving love in which spouses help each other develop their maximum potential without considering their own advantages or costs. Agape is always kind and patient, never jealous or demanding, and does not seek reciprocity.”[iii]
As members of the Church, we have been taught this term by another word - “charity”.
“I consider charity—or “the pure love of Christ”—to be the opposite of criticism and judging. In speaking of charity, I do not at this moment have in mind the relief of the suffering through the giving of our substance. That, of course, is necessary and proper. ... I have in mind the charity that manifests itself when we are tolerant of others and lenient toward their actions, the kind of charity that forgives, the kind of charity that is patient.
I have in mind the charity that impels us to be sympathetic, compassionate, and merciful, not only in times of sickness and affliction and distress but also in times of weakness or error on the part of others.
There is a serious need for the charity that gives attention to those who are unnoticed, hope to those who are discouraged, aid to those who are afflicted. True charity is love in action.
… charity which refuses to find satisfaction in hearing or in repeating the reports of misfortunes that come to others, unless by so doing, the unfortunate one may be benefited.
Charity is having patience with someone who has let us down. It is resisting the impulse to become offended easily. It is accepting weaknesses and shortcomings. It is accepting people as they truly are. It is looking beyond physical appearances to attributes that will not dim through time. “ ~ Thomas S. Monson (2010, 1)[iv]
Agape Gone Bad
Anything good can go to the point of dysfunction, and that includes something as good as agape.
“Lee points out, intense agape can border on masochism: For example, an agapic person might wait indefinitely for a lover to be released from prison, might tolerate an alcoholic or drug-addicted spouse, or might be willing to live with a partner who engages in illegal activities or infidelity.” (Lasswell and Lasswell, 1976)
We all know someone (or perhaps, have been that someone) who gives and gives and gives to the point that we don’t know or feel like we’re allowed to know ourselves anymore. It’s at that point that our own sense of self starts to disappear, and this isn’t a good feeling or a good way to function.
Perhaps we give and give until we are exhausted and sick ourselves, and can’t give anymore. The Lord addressed this syndrome through King Benjamin, and showed this kind of self-giving as dysfunctional and out of order:
“And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength. And again, it is expedient that he should be diligent, that thereby he might win the prize; therefore all things must be done in order.”[v]
The type of masochism Laswell and Laswell and Lee are referring to, such as throwing ourselves under a bus to cover someone else’s bad behavior, is not love. This behavior is not agape. Think of Christ. He suffered and paid the price for our sins, but there are conditions to benefit from the sacrifice He made.[vi] Based upon the models given to us in the scriptures, the Spirit does not and will not abide with those who abuse or take for granted someone’s efforts at agape or charity.[vii]
Agape at its Best
The ideal manifestation of agape is the same kind of love Jesus Christ had for us. It’s a sacrificial love, that does indeed involve giving of ourselves when we have something to give. Agape has many qualities:
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind;
charity envieth not;
charity vaunteth not itself,
is not puffed up,
doth not behave itself unseemly,
seeketh not her own,
is not easily provoked,
thinketh no evil;
rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
beareth all things,
believeth all things,
hopeth all things,
endureth all things.
Charity never faileth….[viii]
After reading this list, it’s not hard to understand why social scientists such as John A. Lee complain of not being able to find examples of agape in the modern world. This kind of love is, in some circles, truly disappearing; for many, there’s no reason to justify seeking it out. It involves a level of vulnerability that’s uncomfortable. Some might even say that such behavior is dangerous, for dishonest and/or abusive people would truly take advantage of a person seeking to incorporate such qualities in their life.
So why would the Lord wish us to espouse agape, if it made us vulnerable and put us in danger? The Lord says that if we don’t have agape, nothing else we do will matter in the long run?[ix]
So What does Agape mean for the LDS Marriage?
The process that creates agape is not an easy process to endure. Each couple’s struggles will be different than any others, but the gospel is perfectly suited for each couple’s progression, if they are committed to working together through the processes.
Agape is a love that encompasses all people, and is especially important to seek for in family relationships. It’s these relationships, and the marriage relationship in particular that creates the friction, stress and strain necessary to develop such a quality as agape.
No other person on earth gets as close to us as our spouse. No other person on earth sees us at our very best, as well as at our absolute worst. It’s in marriage that we are revealed for who we are, where we need repentance and forgiveness the most, and where we can make the most progression toward our eternal goals – to become like Christ.[x]
There is no sense of this when we’re married ‘til death do us part. It’s hard to be committed to something when we can’t see how it benefits us and has an expiration date. Those of our brothers and sisters in the world can’t always see the Lord’s perspective. Those of us in the Church see the Lord’s perspective through the scriptures and through revelation.
When we integrate all the other forms of love, we become independent individuals, able to love ourselves as much as we love others and vice versa, when we develop agape, we become interdependent, able to love others as much as we love ourselves.
Then, once we have achieved completeness through developing the best attributes of all the kinds of love and find balance in incorporating all forms of love, we can help our spouse do the same and show them the way through our example.
Each form of love is possible through Christ and His gifts to us.[xi] May we all seek to give equal weight and consideration to each of these forms of love in our marriages, that our children and others will grow and develop optimally as well.
[i] D&C 121: 34-40
[ii] What does it take to make a relationship work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjmHS9G-mUg&index=23&list=PLM6lLsdYiyVtAtRaII_ngSF1Vt2WDNTTN
[iii] Benokraitis, Nijole V., Marriages and Families, 5th ed. 2005, 150
[iv] Monson, Thomas S., Charity Never Faileth, October, 2010 General Conference, LDS.Org. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2010/10/charity-never-faileth?lang=eng
[v] Mosiah 4:27
[vi] D&C 19
[vii] Matthew 18: 1-6 (Children are the great exemplifiers of agape or charity, so those who take unfair advantage of those who offer charity will eventually face the consequences of their actions.)
[viii] 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
[ix] 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
[x] Oaks, Dallin H. The Challenge to Become, Ensign, Oct 2000; https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2000/10/the-challenge-to-become?lang=eng
[xi] 1 John 4:19