The Bond of a Lifetime
For many, the question of love begins with thoughts of romance. What is the nature of attraction, of desire, of “falling in love,” and of the enduring bond that can last a lifetime? An article by Katherine Wu, published in the Science in the News journal through Harvard University, offers the science behind romantic love.
Physical desire courses through our bodies via testosterone and estrogen, attraction includes the “feel good” hormone dopamine, the rush of norepinephrine, and the mood-enhancer serotonin. Attachment occurs each time vasopressin increases and the “love hormone” oxytocin – associated with sex, childbirth, and breast-feeding – surges through our minds in connection with our beloved.
But perhaps we sense there is more. Is there a spiritual component that overlies the physical?
Where Does Love Begin?
How do we comprehend whether we experience love? Researchers turn to the attachment of infants to their primary caregivers for insight. Holly Garcia, writing for “Parents,” outlines the way building secure attachment with a baby provides the groundwork for love to develop and mature.
Strong secure attachment provides infants and children with a sense of security and significance. Attuned, perceptive, responsive, and predictable care assures infants and children their world is safe, they matter to those around them, they are loved.
The human brain is designed to develop with the help of at least one other human brain, to “mirror” what the other is feeling—most notably, love. This resonates for Bible readers, for God pronounced in Genesis 2 that it is not good for a human being to be alone.
The writer of 1 John took the development of love from the physical to the transcendent with the phrase, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). God has from the first provided humankind with secure attachment, as the writer explained, “We ourselves love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Though the word “love” is never used, the description of God’s care for the first human being in Genesis 2 and for the creation of another to provide family and companionship for them both, harmonizes well with what we have learned about the nature of love.
אהבה | ahava , חֶסֶד | hesed
The Bible addresses the topic of love between God and humanity, as well as people with each other. Like English, the Hebrew language has one word for love, אהבה | ahava. However, God characterizes God’s own love with the word חֶסֶד | hesed (Exodus 34:6-7), for which there is no clear English translation. Often, we will see hesed translated as “lovingkindness,” but this word also encompasses goodness, faithfulness, mercy, devotion, favor, and loyalty.
Of the 250 times that hesed appears in the Hebrew scriptures, perhaps the most famous incidence is in Psalm 23, beginning “The Lord is my shepherd.”
you anoint my head with oil;Psalm 23:5-6 (NRSV, emphasis added)
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and hesed shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
The Greek scriptures have eight words to work with in describing love.
Greek Words for Love
Agape is an unconditional love, the kind of love God loves with, and is defined by God’s nature and being. This is an altruistic love that emanates from the heart as genuine feeling and is moved into action through boundless kindness, infinite compassion, generosity, mercy, and limitless grace.
Eros is sexual passion, the romance that has inspired countless, and timeless, stories, operas, plays, songs, poems, and art. The Bible’s Song of Songs is an ode, at one level, to the joys of this kind of love.
Ludus is a playful love, having a crush, a youthful affection as ephemeral and pleasant as a summer breeze. This word might also describe the flirtation in the Song of Songs.
Mania is about obsessive love, what devolves into stalking, codependency, jealousy, even violence. It is what the procurator Festus accused the apostle Paul of, that his love for Jesus and his passion for the gospel was a mania.
While he was making this defense, Festus exclaimed, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!”Acts 26:24 (NRSV)
Philautia finds its root in Philia and is the self-care all healthy people understand must come before we have something to give to others. We might consider this kind of love embedded in the second greatest commandment, to love others as we love ourselves.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”Matthew 22:36-40 (NRSV, emphasis added)
Philia is the word the Judeans used in describing Jesus’ love for Lazarus,
Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”John 11:35 (NRSV, emphasis added)
and Peter used in his love for Jesus.
Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”John 21:15 (NRSV, emphasis added)
This is the deep affection of friendship, the bond between equals.
Pragma is the strength of enduring love, a faithfulness and commitment that can only be known in the living of it, for it is expressed in the longstanding loyalty it speaks of. This is a love that has come to maturity, that has learned to make compromises, sacrifices, to be patient, tolerant, and accepting. It is what Jesus intended to be understood when He said whatever was asked in this way, and in His character, would be done.
“Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”Matthew 18:19 (NRSV)
Storge is the bond of empathy with another person and is often used to describe the love parents have for their children. This is a protective kind of love, what knits people together as family. It is the lack of this form of love, “heartlessness,” that Paul described at the beginning of his letter to the Roman church (Romans 1:31) and of those who would live during the days shortly before God’s judgment (2 Timothy 3:3).
God is Love
All forms of love come to us through the goodness of God, as James wrote in his letter,
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”James 1:17 (NRSV)
and as Jesus indicated in His beatitudes,
“I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
“so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
“For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the gentiles do the same?
“Be perfect [whole as in shalom], therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”Matthew 5:44-48 (NRSV, emphasis and brackets added)
 Katherine Wu, “Love, Actually: The science behind lust, attraction, and companionship,” SITN, Science in the News, Harvard University, The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, February 14, 2017. Accessed April 18, 2022, https://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2017/love-actually-science-behind-lust-attraction-companionship/.
 Holly Garcia, “How Your Baby Learns to Love,” Parents, December 26, 2022. Accessed April 11, 2022, https://www.parents.com/baby/development/social/how-your-baby-learns-to-love/.
 For a deeper study of human brain development, see the works of Dan Siegel, MD, such as Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, (New York: Bantom Books, 2010).