C.S. Lewis and the Four Loves

Reading Time: 6 mins

Love is pointing to Jesus who said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Long before Chris Kattan and Will Ferrel bobbed their heads to the beat of Haddaway on Saturday Night Live’s Night at the Roxbury, generations of people have asked and answered that famous question, “What is love?”

Depending on the day, you might answer that question with trumpets, guitars, and the catchy melody of the Beatles as you hum along, “All you need is love.” Still, on other days you might find yourself air-guitaring those crunchy riffs from J. Geils Band, crying out, “Love stinks.”

Musicians are not the only ones to have asked and answered the question, “What is love?” Thankfully, so have many writers, among them, C.S. Lewis in his famous book, The Four Loves. The Four Loves is C.S. Lewis’s marvelous theological, devotional work, answering this famous question, what is love? Reading The Four Loves is like walking on the sloping floor of a zero-entry swimming pool. The further you walk through the pages of this little book, the deeper you dive into God’s gift of love, which ultimately, is revealed in Christ crucified. 

God’s gift of love is so large, the Greek language takes more than one word to unwrap these gifts. Using his knowledge of classical Greek, Lewis writes his book using the four Greek words for love: Storge, Philia, Eros, and Agape, or as he translates them, Affection, Friendship, Romantic Love, and Charity. For Lewis, love is more than a feeling; love is the person and work of Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended, and reigning. All God pleasing loves flow in and out of the heart of God’s love, which Lewis calls “Gift-love.” Lewis writes, “In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give.” (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves, p. 126).

Love is more than a feeling; love is the person and work of Jesus Christ incarnate, crucified, risen, ascended, and reigning.

Lewis’s own historical context during the writing of The Four Loves gives us a window into his world. On April 23, 1956, C.S. Lewis married Helen Joy Davidman Gresham, an American woman he had come to know in recent years, and with whom he had exchanged correspondence. Lewis biographer, Alister McGrath, points out that Lewis’s initial marriage to Hellen Joy Davidman Gresham “was, in Lewis’s view, purely a marriage of convenience, designed to allow Mrs. Gresham and her two sons to remain in Oxford when their permission to reside in Great Britain expired on 31 May 1956.”  (Alister McGrath, Eccentric Genius. Reluctant Prophet. C.S. Lewis: A Life,  p. 320).

What began as a marriage of convenience, however, deepend as their relationship endured battles with cancer, as they engaged in countless conversations on theology and literature, and eventually, as their convenient marriage blossomed into love. 

On March 21, 1957, C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman were married in a ceremony in Churchill Hospital by Rev. Peter Bide, not out of pragmatics, but passion for one another. In the face of death, they clung to God’s gift of love that was given in Christ and shared with one another. Just a few months after The Four Loves was published, Joy died on July 13, 1960. Understandably, Lewis was devastated and heart-broken. Out of the depths of his grief, Lewis found comfort in writing, and eventually conceded in publishing A Grief Observed. It is no accident that Lewis wrote The Four Loves when he did, after he met Joy, and before she died. It’s hard to imagine Lewis writing this book without Joy in his life; it’s also hard to imagine Lewis writing this book after Joy’s death. 

C.S. Lewis dedicated The Four Loves to his friend Chad Walsh, an American poet, pastor, teacher, and theologian. Walsh was one of the people who were instrumental in bringing together Lewis and his wife, Joy Davidman. As you read The Four Loves it’s easy to see where Joy influenced the great literary don with her own love, wit, and wisdom. 

Like the chambers of the human heart, Lewis’ history and context are a part of The Four Loves. And yet, the beating heart of this book is the content itself.

Lewis begins his introduction with John’s famous words: “God is love.” If we understand those words, all other talk of love will make sense. No matter what type of the four loves, all good and God-pleasing love flows from and back to the love of God in Christ Jesus. Below is a brief summary of how Lewis described each of the four loves.

Storge, or Affection

First, observes, Lewis, there is storge, or affection, or nurturing love. A mother and her child. A doe rabbit with her bunnies. C.S. Lewis called this love “all in a squawking, nuzzling heap together, purrings, lickings, baby-talk, milk, warmth, the smell of young life” (The Four Loves, p. 55). This kind of love is instinct. And yet it is humble. It is what Lewis calls, “Need-love.” It is love that is needed and gives what is needed. 

Affection, alone, however, is not enough. If we live by affection alone, writes Lewis, “Affection will go bad on us” (The Four Loves, p. 55). In other words, left to our own devices, and our own affections, we will curve inward on ourselves in storge, and God’s gift of affection will become bent and selfish. And yet, affection at its best is given to serve and to love the neighbor. “Affection at its best practices a courtesy which is incomparably more subtle, sensitive, and deep than the public kind.” (The Four Loves, p. 43). Storge is the kind of love which seeks to give no preference to yourself.

Philia or Friendship

Next to agape, Lewis writes the most on Philia, or friendship. While the modern world, by Lewis’s estimation, seemed to hold little value in friendship, Lewis follows the ancients in pointing to friendship as the happiest and most fully human of loves. Philia is love that is found in friendship, not social media’s so-called friends, but in a deep, abiding friendship, as in Philadelphia, or brotherly love. A great Biblical example of this is David and Jonathan in the Old Testament.

Lewis writes of friendship that “Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever talk about friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” (The Four Loves, p. 61).

Philia is that friendship-love where you share with someone you trust implicitly. A friend who has your back no matter what. The “been through thick and thin kind of friendship.” This kind of “friendship is born at the moment when one man says to another, ‘What, You too? I thought no one but myself…” (The Four Loves, p. 89-90).

We share in Lewis’s lament. Today a good friend can be hard to find. Thankfully, Lewis gives us many good examples of Philia in his own friendships with J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, the other Inklings, and many others. 

For Lewis, friendship-love was demonstrated in humility towards one another, in compassion, in interests shared, and in a magnetic sort of way, drawing out each other’s good qualities. “It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others…by Friendship, God opens our eyes to them” (The Four Loves, p. 89-90).

Eros, or Romantic Love

Next, comes Eros, or romantic love. It is passionate, head over heels falling in love. It’s intimate, and romantic, but not exclusive to physical romance. It is the love described in the Song of Solomon. Lewis has this to say about eros; “Sexual desire, without Eros, wants it, the thing in itself; Eros wants the Beloved” (The Four Loves, p. 94). Eros, says Lewis, is about the Beloved. Properly shown, this aspect of love looks with eyes fixed on the beloved. Think of Adam when he first beholds Eve. “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23).

Like affection and friendship, eros too can descend into chaos and sin taking the form of lust and sexual immorality. And yet, Lewis reminds readers that eros is also a gift from God, when shown in its proper context of God’s gift of marriage between a man and a woman. Lewis also draws out of eros the reality of the Christian Church as the bride of Christ, who loved the church, and gave himself for it (Eph. 5:25).

Agape, or Charity

Lastly, Lewis writes about agape, or as he translates it charity. Agape is sacrificial love. Laying down one’s life for another love. Unconditional love. Love to the loveless and unlovable. Divine love. Quoting John again, Lewis identifies God as agape: 

“The Father gives all He is and has to the Son. The Son gives Himself back to the Father, and gives Himself to the world, and for the world to the Father, and thus gives the world (in Himself) back to the Father too” (The Four Loves, p. 1-2). 

When we think of agape, 1 Corinthians 13 comes to mind. The famous love chapter. Next time you read that chapter, insert Christ wherever St. Paul writes the word love, then you will see what agape-love is all about. Lewis describes God’s love in beauty, comfort, and assurance. 

“God…creates the universe…already seeing the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is hoisted up time after time, for breath’s sake. If we may dare the biological image, God is a ‘host’ who deliberately creates his own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and take advantage of him. Herein is love” (The Four Loves, p. 127).

What is love? Love is praying: “Lord, make me a better father, mother, spouse, son, or daughter; make me a faithful servant in all my vocations.” Love is praying for your enemies. Love is looking not to your own good, but the good of your neighbor. Love is asking your brother or sister in Christ how they’re doing and taking the time to listen. Love is comforting someone who’s grieving with good news of Jesus who bore our griefs and carried our sorrows. Love is pointing to Jesus who said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

What is love? 

“In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).

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