The film, “Love Actually” got it wrong. If you want to see love, don’t go to Heathrow Airport, head to Piccadilly Circus. There in the middle of the bright lights, confused tourists and big buses is the statue of Eros. Except it isn’t. The statue is actually of Anteros, the brother of Eros. Eros is the Greek god of love and sex. Anteros is the Greek god of selfless love. The statue of Anteros was paid for by the people of London to remember the life of the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, who died in 1885.
Shaftesbury was responsible for outlawing children working in factories. He also stopped children working in mines and up chimneys. He drove through legislation to improve the conditions of the mentally ill. He was responsible for the first schools for the poorest children. Shaftesbury Avenue is named after him, because it was there that he flattened the slums to build better homes for those most in need.
Where did Shaftesbury’s passion for the poor come from? Christ. Where did his Christian faith come from? Not his family. For a large part of his life, his father refused to speak to him, because Shaftesbury’s care for the farmers on his estate, meant that the family’s income dropped through the floor. He spent money on the poor instead of squeezing them to pay him more. Shaftesbury’s Christian faith came from the nameless nanny who sat the toddler on her knee and spoke to him of Jesus. Do you see why Shaftesbury is rightly remembered with a statue of Anteros, not Eros? Shaftesbury was an embodiment of selfless love. He didn’t worship the god of selfless love, he worshipped the God who IS selfless love.
“God is love” (1 John 4:8)
God’s love is always selfless, because he doesn’t need to receive love. He didn’t create us because he needed us to love him. He created us because he chose to love us. Why did Shaftesbury show love to children, to the mentally ill and to poor farmers? Was it because he longed for their love? Was it because they would one day pay him back? No. He loved the weak, the forgotten, the oppressed and the hopeless because God had shown him that love first.
“This is love: not that that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent us his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)
Amazing love. Authentic love. Divine love. This is the love Christians celebrate every day, not just on Valentine’s Day.
The difference between Eros and Anteros, the difference between erotic love and selfless love, is striking. Erotic love is beautiful and God-given. But erotic love must be ruled by selfless love. Erotic love on its own will tend to be short-lived and selfish, seeing the partner as someone to satisfy and serve me. Truly beautiful erotic love is mastered by God’s grace to look to the needs of the partner first, encouraging them with God’s truth and seeking to serve rather than to be served.
An older man in our congregation has just buried his wife. For the last five years she suffered with dementia. By the end she could not feed herself, stand or speak. She could only sit. Every single day, without exception, her husband sat next to her for every moment that her nursing home allowed. Presumably, their relationship was once fired by erotic love. His devotion to her has been fuelled by selfless love. He has shown true Christian love. That is a work of the Spirit in his life. That is a love worth celebrating on Valentine’s Day.
The encouragement of Christian love is that it is available and freely given to all, not just those who are married or those who have a girlfriend or boyfriend or those who are fancied by another. The ultimate love that truly satisfies is available to all through Jesus Christ. He loved us not because we are lovable, but because he is love. By his Spirit he is transforming our love, teaching us to love others as he has loved us. That love will continue into the New Creation, where every day will be a celebration of love. Until then, the selfless love of God for us, his people, is worth celebrating every day.
A longer version of this article appeared in Premier Youth & Children’s Work magazine, Feb 2020.