The writers of the New Testament had a number of Greek words they could have used for love:
- eros – this mainly refers to sexual love but it can also refer to a spiritual longing for what is beyond our human senses
- philia – there’s a warmth to this word which primarily refers to love between friends
- storge and philadelphia – love within a family
- philanthropia – love for humanity
- agape – a general term for love which however lacks the warmth of philia or the intensity of eros, this word refers mainly to the will rather than to the emotions, to behaviour rather than feelings.
Agape is almost always the word used; an alternative is philia but that word appears only when an alternative is needed so that agape isn’t repeated.
C.S. Lewis wrote a book about four of these different words, The Four Loves, coming to the conclusion that agape, self-sacrificial love, is the most important. But he recognises that in human beings it only emerges when our natural loves have been disciplined to make way for God’s love to flow through us.