A few days ago I attended the annual meeting of the International Society for the Psychological and Social Treatment of Psychosis. The conference gathered over a thousand people from around the world, mostly psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers but also the afflicted and members of their families. It is a group dedicated to helping those with the most intense forms of mental distress.

I attended a daylong workshop on recovery from severe mental illness led by a faculty member and director of community programs at the Yale University Medical School. The title of his workshop was “What Has Love Got To Do With It?” At the beginning of his talk, he said that he could not talk about recovery without talking about love, and he could not talk about love without consulting the great spiritual traditions of the world. He wanted to give anyone who would be offended by spiritual talk a chance to leave the room. He promised not to be offended.

Nobody left. He then gave several words for love drawn from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Greek Philosophy. One of the words he listed was agape, which he defined as a kind of love that parents give children or, as the psychologist Carl Rogers put it: “unqualified, positive regard.” The presenter said that though he was not religious and was just learning about these concepts, he thought that agape was also an important word for Christians.

And it is an important word for Christians. Agape is the primary Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to the love of God made known to us in Jesus Christ. It is the love we have received from God and which we are called to share with each other. In St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:38), Paul says nothing will be able to separate us from the agape of God in Christ Jesus, the Lord of us all.

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I wanted to offer a very short, one sentence definition of Christian agape to this caring man who was trying to enlarge our vocabulary of love. On the train back from the conference, I turned over different possibilities in my mind, thinking particularly about how to convey this idea of Christian love to a secular audience entirely innocent of the story of the Bible. I have come down to this. Agape is a man laying down his life for his enemies.

In Romans 5:7-8, St. Paul says that, very rarely, someone will die for the sake of a good person, but Christ gave his life for us while we were still sinners. To be a sinner is to be the enemy of God and the worst kind of enemy, a betrayer, a friend who has turned against his comrade. God walks with Adam and Eve in the garden and speaks with them face to face. The first sin was an offense against this love and friendship, and every sin since has the same character. Sin constitutes us as the enemies of God, as betrayers of God’s love and friendship.

The Son of Man is greeted with shouts of Hosanna and the waving palms of victory. “We are your friends,” the crowd says. We have been waiting for you. We are with you. We are for you. Soon, the very same people are crying, “Crucify Him!”

On the night in which Jesus was betrayed, the betrayal came by a kiss from his friend. In Psalm 55:12, the psalmist say, “If it were an enemy that betrayed me, I could have borne it,” but it was my friend, who now shows his true colors. It is for his enemies that the Son of Man who is also the Son of God lays down his life on the cross. He pours himself out in love toward the Father for our sake, and he pours himself out in love toward us for the Father’s sake. He gives his life that his enemies might live. Again, St. Paul in Romans 5:10, “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.”

Knowing ourselves loved with such a love, loved while we were still enemies, loved when we found ourselves still betraying the love of God, we want to return this love by loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and by loving our neighbors as our self, including those who do not deserve it, who will not or cannot return it, who are our enemies.

By receiving and giving this kind of love, agape love, we are restored to sanity and recover the dignity of our human nature.

The featured image is “Winter’s Deep Depressions” (2014) by Flickr user jimmy brown. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

The Very Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding, dean of the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, is entering his fourth decade as a priest of the Episcopal Church.

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