‘Love God’ … ‘love your neighbour’ … ‘We’re in love’ … ‘let’s make love’ … ‘I love my children …’ ‘I Iove my job …’ ‘I love being out in the fresh air…’ ‘I love chocolate’ …
There seem to be so many meanings to the word ‘love’. Sometimes it is even used in a negative sense. To say someone has a ‘love child’ tends to imply a dark history of adultery or illicit sex. In some parts of the world there are establishments called ‘love hotels’ where you can book a room by the hour for a ‘quickie’. It has even been known for posts containing the word ‘love’ to be removed from social media because some censoring algorithm has assumed they are indecent.
Clever theologians claim that there are different kinds of love. The love of God, or the kind of love Christians should have (agapē in Greek), is quite different, they say, from ordinary human friendship (philia), and even more different from romantic or sexual love (eros). This distinction owes a lot to the Greek philosophical idea that the more ordinary or physical a thing is the less ‘worthy’ it is, the further it is from the spiritual, or from God. The Hebrew way of thinking we find in the Bible doesn’t bear this out. To that way of thinking, a human being is not a pure soul trapped in an earthly body, but a thinking, feeling, breathing body with passions that can be good or bad.
When the prophet Jeremiah says (in the words of the King James Bible, Jer 4:19) ‘My bowels! my bowels!’, he is not complaining of the result of a rather too spicy meal. He is expressing his ‘anguish’ (as modern versions more politely put it) as he foresees terrible times coming for the nation. He goes on to say ‘my heart maketh a noise in me’. Strong emotions, whether of fear, love or human sympathy, are felt in the body. Rational biologists can say what they like about emotions being a function of the brain and the heart being just a muscle to pump the blood around, but we know from experience that fear sets the heart racing, that a shock can bring on a heart attack, and that the unexpected sight of a loved one can make your heart miss a beat. Further on in the same book (31:20) Jeremiah talks even of God’s bowels. He hears God expressing his deep love for the wayward Ephraim (another name for the nation of Israel): ‘my bowels are troubled for him; I will surely have mercy upon him, saith the LORD’.
The apostle Paul expresses his love for his friends at Philippi by saying, ‘I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ’, and goes on to appeal to them to be of one mind ‘if there be … any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies’ (Phil 1:8; 2:1). In his mind there is clearly no separation between spiritual life and the feelings of the body.
We find the expression ‘heart and reins’ in a number of places in the Bible, as in the saying in the Psalms (Ps 7:9 etc.) ‘the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins’. We usually miss the significance of this by not realising that ‘reins’ is an old English word for ‘kidneys’. People in biblical times thought of the heart as the seat of the intellect and the kidneys as the seat of the emotions. We often feel an emotion ‘in the pit of the stomach’, and sometimes nervousness or strong emotion can give us a need to pass water.
So love, whether we think of the love of God or of human love, is bodily. Sex is spiritual. Being attracted to another person in a way that makes us want to get close, to be united with them, is as spiritual as prayer. Like prayer, it can be superficial or short-lived, and it can be hypocritical and mixed up with all sorts of selfish motives. Loving sex that honours the partner and their needs as much as one’s own is part of the love of God, but even the most superficial sexual attraction that lasts only a moment is a brief taste of that love.