From phileo to agape

“Would you die for your beliefs?”

That might be an odd question to ask here in the U.S., in an age that promotes “tolerance” above all, but it’s a question I’ve asked myself. When I’ve read about martyrs—in the past or present—or about believers being persecuted for their faith, I’ve wondered, “How devoted am I? If I were going through what that believer is, would I be able to stand strong?”

I tend to think of those believers as “better” Christ-followers than I. One day, as I was leafing through a Voice of the Martyrs magazine (, I expressed this thought to my husband, Dave.

“I disagree,” he said. First, he argued, what does it mean to be a “better Christian”?

All the answers that popped into my head, I realized, had to do with ME, with what I do or don’t do. They had nothing to do with Christ’s work in and through me.

Second, Dave exposed the root of my guilt. “You feel like a second-rate Christ follower because you’re not enduring really hard things, but in doing this, aren’t you kind of questioning God? He’s the one Who has placed you exactly where you are. When you feel guilt over not being somewhere else, suffering like someone else, you’re not willing to be the person He created you to be in this time and place.”

His third argument is one I’m not sure I agree with. “I think loving God and loving neighbor is in many ways a harder task here in suburban American than it is in violence- and poverty-riddled cultures,” he said. “With so many distractions and such a great emphasis on comfort, it’s harder to focus on what is really important.”

As I thought about all this, I studied Peter’s declaration that he could die for his beliefs, for Christ. After Jesus told the disciples they would “all fall away on account of me,” Peter said, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”

Jesus disagreed. “Truly I tell you…you will disown me three times.”

Yet Peter was still certain of himself. He protested, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” (This story can be found in both Luke 22 and Matthew 26. The above quotes are from the Matthew passage.)

Here’s what strikes me about the passage: Jesus didn’t ask Peter to make a declaration; He wasn’t impressed when he did make it; and He didn’t seem too fazed by Peter’s denial of Him. I’m not saying Peter’s denial wasn’t a big deal (it certainly was for Peter), but I am saying that Peter’s statement of devotion had a lot more to do with himself than with Christ, and Christ knew that.

As part of my study on this, I also looked at the John 21 passage, in which Christ restores Peter. I found it significant that Christ asked Peter three times if he loved Him—the same number of times Peter denied Him—and that Christ ended with telling Peter that he would actually die for Christ. He would eventually have the level of devotion that Peter had wanted and claimed to have before Christ’s death.

But I was still puzzled.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I listened to a sermon in which the pastor pointed out the difference in the Greek verb forms used in the John 21 passage (in the English they are all translated simply as “love.”) I went home and looked it up in my Amplified Bible and was amazed at how that shed light on my understanding of devotion.

When Jesus first asks Peter, “Do you love me?” He uses the Greek verb “agape” for “love,” which the Amplified translates as “reasoning, intentional, spiritual devotion, as one loves the Father).

Peter answers, “Lord, You know that I love you,” but he uses the Greek verb “phileo,” which the Amplified translates as “deep, instinctive, personal affection, as for a close friend.” Jesus asked using a higher form, but Peter, more knowledgeable of his shortcomings at this point, answered with a lesser form.

Jesus accepts Peter’s answer and gives him a charge: “Feed My lambs.”

Then Jesus asks again, “(D)o you love me?” using the agape form.

Peter answers, again, with the phileo.

And Jesus again charges him: “Shepherd My sheep.”

Then a third time Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” but this time He, too, uses the phileo form of the verb.

Peter is “grieved that He should ask him the third time,” and he says, “Lord, You know everything; You know that I (phileo) You.”

Peter now understands his own limitations. He longs to say that he agape-loves Christ, but he knows he cannot produce that kind of love. So he says only what he knows to be true: he does phileo-love Christ.

And that is enough. Christ tells Peter again, “Feed My sheep,” and then He tells Peter something that sounds very, very strange to our modern, Western-world ears. “You will indeed die for me,” He says to Peter, and John, the writer of this gospel, adds, “He said this to indicate by what kind of death Peter would glorify God. And after this, He said to him, ‘Follow Me!’”

That must have been very, very encouraging to Peter. Jesus is telling him, “Peter, I know that you want your love to pure and beautiful and deep, but in reality your love is small, weak, and limited. That’s okay. I am still entrusting you with a great charge: to feed and care for My people. And as you follow Me in this—aware that you must abide in Me to find what you need—I will work transformation in you so that when you are old, your devotion will be such that you will not only not deny me, you will die for Me—and in so doing you will glorify Me.”

Father, I, too, want to love you with my entire heart, soul, mind, and spirit, and I want to love my neighbor as I love myself. But I am learning that my love, like Peter’s, is weak and frail. I am grateful that You understand and accept my weakness. Please help me to accept it, too, for You tell me that Your grace is enough for all my weaknesses. Help me to follow You in what You have set in front of me and to trust that You will transform me.

Applying George Costanza’s “Opposite technique” to my prayer life

I could say that this picture fits this post because I took a shot of the bottom side of the leaf rather than the  top, but that would be cheesy, right?!

I could say that this picture fits this post because I took a shot of the bottom side of the leaf rather than the top, but that would be cheesy, right?!

Dave and I were Seinfeld junkies in the early years of our marriage. One of our favorite episodes was “The Opposite,” in which Jerry tells perennially down-on-his-luck George that every impulse he has is wrong, and George decides to do the opposite of his impulses. A few minutes later he meets a very attractive woman and tells her, straight up, “My name is George. I’m unemployed, and I live with my parents.” (Usually he said he was an architect [not true].) Amazingly, she agreed to go out with him.

It’s a funny, funny episode (as most of them are), but the reason I bring it up is that I’ve been trying to apply this idea to certain areas of my prayer life lately.

I’ve been practicing “the opposite” technique on my natural impulses of guilt/comparison/criticism.

When I’m reading an article in Voice of the Martyrs (a magazine about the persecuted church) about believers who have lost everything but who are still sharing Jesus’ love with their neighbors, my first impulse is to think, Oh, they’re so much more spiritual than I am. I’m just not strong enough in my faith!

When I hear about people who work for the International Justice Mission, serve in shelters for battered women, deliver Meals on Wheels—you name it—my initial response is, I should be doing more.

When I see a woman who looks like she has it all together, my gut instinct is to compare, and my confidence gets beaten down in the process.

And when I see a woman who’s clearly struggling, deep down in me there’s also a bit of comparison going on—comparison that makes me feel better about myself.

When I’m picking up all the debris my children leave strewn across the floor and every available surface, there’s generally some silent fussing going on. (Sometimes it’s NOT silent!)

I used to read the verse about “praying without ceasing” and think, “How?”

But if I turn all my guilt/comparison/criticism into PRAYER and add to that my daily-sometimes-hourly cries for help, well, then that’s pretty un-ceasing!

So, when I hear the next radio piece about Mary Frances Bowley’s work with survivors of sexual abuse and prostitution, I will not waste my time feeling bad about the work I’m doing or guilty for not doing “more.” Instead I will pray for Mary Frances, for the girls at Wellspring Living’s safe house, for the many staff who work with them, and for those trapped in sex trafficking around the world.

When I am tempted to fuss about the messes my children have made, why not pray for them instead? I may still be frustrated, but I will have lifted my kids up to God as eternal souls.

What a better use of my time and energy!

Now I definitely want to avoid making this rote and mechanical, something I “have” to do, but, honesty, “rote and mechanical” often describes my complaining/comparison/guilt.

It’s simply a default pattern, a harmful one.

I need a new pattern to follow.

From ____________ to prayer.

Thank you, George!

And Jerry, of course!

NOTE: I think this kind of “new” practice/pattern is part of what Scripture refers to as the “renewing of our minds.” Here are a few verses that have to do with our souls and minds becoming “new.” Because these are pretty well-known verses, I looked them up in the Amplified version to make their messages fresh.

Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world (this age), [fashioned after and adapted to its external, superficial customs], but be transformed (changed) by the [entire] renewal of your mind [by its new ideals and its new attitude], so that you may prove [for yourselves] what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God, even the thing which is good and acceptable and perfect [in His sight for you].

Ephesians 4:22-24 Strip yourselves of your former nature [put off and discard your old unrenewed self] which characterized your previous manner of life and becomes corrupt through lusts and desires that spring from delusion; 23 And be constantly renewed in the spirit of your mind [having a fresh mental and spiritual attitude], 24 And put on the new nature (the regenerate self) created in God’s image, [Godlike] in true righteousness and holiness.




points of the compass

This is an image I downloaded from the Voice of the Martyrs website (with their permission). The man on the left is Christian Bounchan Kanthavong, who spent 13 years and eight months in prison in Laos for his faith. On the right is the actor who portrays him in a video made by VOM that tells his story.

Today is the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. If you want to read more about the persecuted church, I suggest the Voice of the Martyrs website ( Along with great resources and a regularly published newsletter,the VOM website allows you to sign up for weekly prayer updates that will help you to pray specifically (I don’t know about you, but my generalized prayers don’t pack a lot of oomph). VOM also has a really cool letter-writing opportunity. If you go to, you can pick an imprisoned fellow believer and choose phrases to create a letter to encourage that person. The site translates the phrases, you print them, and then you can send the letter to the address the site provides.

Another website is, and has an even fuller list of organizations (and their websites) that support the persecuted church.

This morning in church we read Revelations 7:9-11: “…there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 11 All the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell down on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying: “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!” 13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 I answered, “Sir, you know.” And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.15 Therefore, “they are before the throne of God  and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’[anor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’[b] ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’[c]

Earlier this week I ran across a hymn by John Oxenham (1852-1941) that reminded me of the incredible family connection we have with believers in Christ all across the earth. I’m sharing it here:


In Christ there is no east or west,

In Him no south or north;

But one great fellowship of love

Throughout the whole wide earth.

In Him shall true hearts everywhere

Their high communion find;

His service is the golden cord

Close binding all mankind.

Join hands, then brothers of the faith,

Whate’er your race may be.

Who serves my Father as a son

Is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both east and west,

In Him meet south and north;

All Christly souls are one in Him

Throughout the whole wide earth.