“Sure, I love him … but I don’t like him very much.”

You’ve heard it said. You may have said it. But can it be true? Can you really love someone without liking them as well? I question the truthfulness of such statements. We are called to love like Jesus, but do you really think Jesus loves you but doesn’t like you? Of course not—and we can’t truly love someone while giving ourselves a pass on liking them.

A few years ago, a friend of my wife changed her behavior toward her. It was a marked change. Clueless as I often am, even I noticed it. Other friends noticed it, and a mutual friend raised the issue.

“Do you not like Mary?”

“I love Mary!”

No one was convinced. The old adage comes to mind: Actions speak louder than words. But we readily toss around the word “love” because, as Christians, we’re supposed to love others. And to say we don’t love someone is just unspeakable. It is so unChristlike.

But we give ourselves a pass on liking others, and that’s being disingenuous. We’re not being honest with ourselves or with others.

Christians are familiar with the concept of agape love, a Greek word referring to a love that is unconditional and self-giving. Agape love is not dependent on the recipient’s behavior or response to such love. Agape love just loves. Period. It is the ideal word to describe the love God has for us.

There is another Greek word for love: phileo. It’s often used to describe the affection close friends have for one another, and I’ve heard it compared to our English verb of liking someone. That is unfortunate because phileo love is so much richer and deeper than that. Greek scholars and theologians point out that there is little distinction between the two words agape and phileo. In fact, both words are used to describe God’s love to us. For example, when Jesus said, “As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline” (Rev. 3:19), He used phileo, but that doesn’t mean Jesus just likes us. Far from it.

Those who like to make a distinction between agape and phileo point to John 21 where Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love (agape) me more than these?” and Peter replied, “You know that I love (phileo) you” (John 21:15-17). Peter was not saying he only liked Jesus. The point of this conversation was not to make Peter change from liking to loving Jesus; it was to help restore Peter and challenge him to show his love and loyalty to Jesus in his service to others. (Something else to consider: the conversation between Jesus and Peter was in Aramaic, so any supposed distinction between the Greek words is moot.)

Let me return to the idea of loving someone but not liking him. We are to love like Jesus—both agape love and phileo love. Such love is a self-giving love. This love is a key attribute of God, and it is a love that cares and gives sacrificially regardless of the worthiness or response of the recipient. While we identify this love as self-sacrificing, the one loving does not see it as a burden. To love the other person does not feel like a sacrifice because … well, they love that person!

So about that cousin you say you love but don’t necessarily like: if a need arose in her life, you may step in and help. You may even help sacrificially because she’s family. But if you don’t like this relative, your noble sacrifice is likely done begrudgingly. You can toss around the word love all day, but your attitude and inner motivation reveal your true heart.

I know a lot of Christians whom I find hard to like. I refuse to play the semantics game and give myself permission to not like them simply because I say I love them. That’s on me. I cannot genuinely love someone that I have some level of ill feelings toward.

Consider the characteristics of love:

Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not arrogant, is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not irritable, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:4-6).

Those are the characteristics I am to show to all people, not just those I like. I have to work at it. I have to give myself to the lordship of Christ and ask Him to empower me to love as I should. Experience has taught me that, when I do this and genuinely display love to those whom I might find unlikeable, my feelings change.

 Jesus said, “I give you a new command: Love one another. Just as I have loved you, you are also to love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:3-435).

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