Orthodoxy Today
Smart Parenting XX. The Theology and Practice of Love Made Simple

So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him (1 John 4: 16).

I presume that the passage "God is love," is known by each and all who call themselves Christian and, of course, this especially includes Christian parents. The question then becomes not the definition of God, but making sure that the meaning of St. John's words are understood and able to be practiced, by the parents themselves Morelli. 2010b), of course, but also in a manner that their children can comprehend and carry out as well.The single English word ‘love’ usually has three distinct meanings that can be better understood in the Greek words: philia, eros and agape.

Philia is a favorable feeling or liking of someone or something, exemplified in ‘philanthropy.’ Eros is an intense sexual desire for someone, and agape is self-emptying, selfless concern for someone. The secular world, and even committed adult Christians, often confuse the three meanings. Thus, children and adolescents will certainly have difficulty in making the distinction. The focus of the world is on eros, the lustful erotic. Sex is used for, and by, power and self-gain.

The epitome of agape is summarized in the Anaphora Prayer in the Liturgy of St. Basil: that God ordered all things for us; fashioned us from dust in His image; put us in Paradise; promising us life eternal; and after the transgression of our ancestral parents, did diverse things: He sent Prophets, Saints, Angels, most of all His Son, Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ who, emptying Himself in form of a servant; [making] us a royal priesthood, a holy nation; giving us His very Body and Blood and undergoing the passion, crucifixion and death on the cross - triumphing over sin and death by His Resurrection.

The basic understanding of Love as agape is that it is an attitude, a heartfelt intention and a set of actions that are aimed at the good and welfare of the other. Love means having truly beneficent care for the welfare of others in thought word and deed. St. Maximus the Confessor tells us: "The Divine erotic force also produces ecstasy, compelling those who love to belong not to themselves but to those whom they love . . . .through their care . . . " (Philokalia II). By calling love a "Divine erotic force" St. Maximus is not referring to the lust-filled love associated with the world, but the passion, zeal and fervor we are capable of, similar to the courageous manner in which St. John the Baptist called for repentance. Morelli, 2010). As St. Matthew (3:1-5) recounts:

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, "The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." Now John wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then went out to him Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan...

Love as Agape is Concrete

St. Isaac of Syria (Wensinck, 1923) makes very concrete both the actions of love and who we should love by caring for them

…Our Lord shared His table with publicans and harlots without making any distinction between those who were worthy and those who were not, seeking to spur them on thereby into the fear of God and to bring them, through communion in the fear of God and to bring them, through communion in bodily things, into spiritual communion. Therefore deem all people worthy of bounty and honour, be they Jews or miscreants or murderers.

The Greatest Good and Welfare

St. Isaac tells us what this is: "spiritual communion with Him.” The Eastern Church Fathers have called this theosis. St. Gregory of Palamas informs us that it is the Will of the Father that "creation will be deified." (Philokalia IV). In this regard we understand the priestly prayer of Christ when, at the institution of the Eucharist at His Last Supper, He prayed for His Apostles: "that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which thou hast given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one . . . .” (Jn 17: 21-22) The words heard at every Anaphora of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom confirm this liturgically by recounting the purpose and principal events of Christ's mission on earth:

Take eat this is my Body….Drink ye all of this; this is my Blood. . . .shed for. . . . the remission of sins. . . .Having in remembrance . . .this saving commandment. . .the Cross, the Grave, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into heaven, the Session at the right hand and the second and glorious Advent…

As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians (2:20): "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. . . ." St. Maximus the Confessor also understands that the abundance and fullness of love is the conveying of His Divinity to us. In his Epistle To Thalassius St. Maximus (Meyendorf. 1974) writes: "Divine grace alone possesses of itself the faculty of communicating deification to beings in a manor analogous to them; then nature shines forth with a supernatural light and is transported above its own limits by a superabundance of glory."

God's Love of Us Individualized

Let us recall the words of Christ to His Apostles: "Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (Jn 14: 1-3).

We should keep in mind the words of St. Isaac the Syrian (Alfeyev, 2000): "Everyone has a single place in [God's] purpose in the ranking of love, corresponding to the form He beheld in them before He created them … that is, at the time before the eternal purpose for the delineation of the world was put into effect….He has a single ranking and impassible love towards everyone…"

The Good and Welfare is for all People Unconditionally

Our love for others has to emulate the unconditional love God has for us. Once again, as St. Isaac the Syrian (Alfeyev, 2000) informs us, "Knowing them and all their conduct [all mankind], the flow of His [God's] grace did not dry up from them: not even after they started living amid many evil deeds did He withhold His care for them, even for a moment."

Application to Family Life

One way to begin a life of love is to serve others. Serving those who are in real need of help is a way of loving them (Morelli, 2009); it is an act of love. Did not Jesus tell us: "But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves (Lk 22: 26)."


A life of serving can start with family members serving, that is to say, helping one another. What a child sees a parent doing or saying is critical in their own learning and performance. When a discrepancy exists between what a parent says and does and what they tell their children to say and do, the parental instruction immediately looses credibility. Children are outstanding hypocrisy detectors. Ideally service can be modeled by parents and can be part of the family ethos right from the beginning of family life. For very young children age appropriate tasks can be assigned. An average toddler or preschooler, for example, can be asked to fetch an item that will be used in making a dinner. They may also be given instructions and help in setting the dinner table. Helping to unpack and put away groceries is also a task they would have the developmental motor and cognitive skill to accomplish.

It can be noted that a temptation especially for very busy working parents is that it is so much easier to "do it the adult way" and get it over with than to take the time to instruct the child that involves their own level of understanding and skill. Rogoff (1990) described a process called guided participation whereby parents influence young children’s behavior by collaboration based on shared understanding of a routine process. Rogoff gives a personal example involving her 3 1/2 year old daughter:

I was getting ready to leave my house, and I noticed that a run had started in the foot of my stocking. My daughter volunteered to help sew the run, but I was in a hurry and tried to hurry to avoid her involvement by explaining that I did not want the needle to jab my foot. I began to sew, but could hardly see where I was sewing because my daughter's head was in the way, peering at the sewing. Soon she suggested that I could put the needle in the stocking and she would pull it through, thus avoiding sticking my foot. I agreed, and we followed this division of labor for a number of stitches.

Children, as they progress into later stages of early childhood, about 6-7 years of age can be given 'helping' tasks that are more self-regulated and require less parental instruction.

Middle Childhood

The period of middle childhood will allow the child to display increasingly independent acts of behavior. Barker and Wright (1951) suggest that one way to determine the lifestyle of children in middle childhood is to observe the activities and locations in which children spend their time. They found that there was a significant increase of time spent away from adult supervision. Parents and parish youth leaders can prompt their children of middle childhood to be engaged in behaviors that are service-oriented and motivated by love and caring. Such service can never be forced, but such behavior is more likely to occur when accompanied by parents and peers. For example, helping younger brothers and sisters with simple tasks such as cutting food and pouring drinks, aiding and helping classmates with school projects, reading a story with younger siblings, encouraging involvement with parish service activities could be among recommended tasks. Children of this age can also be introduced into basic Scouting programs. Campfire Girls accepts girls starting at age 6, the entry age for boy's Cub Scouts is 7 years of age. Programs such as these have a significant service component, and many can be hosted or sponsored by churches.


Adolescents can move on to a higher degree of service-love, to involvement in such service in more of a communal manner involving peers, as well as to a fuller understanding of the spiritual implications of their actions. Adolescents are capable of choosing friends and engaging in activities with those who share their attitudes, beliefs, interests and values. Psychological researchers, Youniss & Smollar, 1985, suggest one reason for this is that friends are likely to be supportive and understanding. Not incidentally, this is one reason why participation by adolescents in Orthodox Youth groups, such as SOYO (Antiochian Archdiocese) and GOYO (Greek Archdiocese) is so important. Very often, Orthodox Youth groups are involved in social service projects. One caveat. Such projects must conform to the Mind of Christ and the Church. Some modern Christian communities have developed a 'social-Christianity,' wherein social service is an end in itself. This is contrary to the ethos of the Eastern Church tradition. The Eastern Tradition considers mankind as a composite of body, mind and spirit. A person's total needs are to be addressed as much as possible. Ultimately, any act of service-love must be enlivened by Christ. Consider Christ's admonition to Martha when He came to the home of Martha and Mary:

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her." (Lk 10:38-42)

St. Luke (9:1-2,6) also records the action of Jesus when sending his Apostles to serve others:

And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal. And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.

Ministry and service of any kind cannot be separated from the essential core meaning of Christ's teaching that all is love. "If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me does not keep my words. . . ." St. John (14:23-24). Christ's teaching on love is beautifully elaborated by St. Paul:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once regarded Christ from a human point of view, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor 5:16-21)

Practically speaking, this means the Spiritual Acts of Mercy must at the very least always accompany the Corporal Acts of Mercy in any true service of love.**i** This is to say that, love in the form of 'Divine Agape' must imbue the Acts of Mercy.

By the teen years cognitive functioning has developed in adolescents to the extent that they can understand the relationship of parts to a whole. (Morelli, 2011; Piaget, 1972). Thus, they will be able to understand a single act of caring service that they may perform for someone in need as being oriented to a generalized concern for the good and welfare of others and also as a reflection of God's love for us. Such concern can now become the core of their psychological and spiritual value system. This development also involves the ability to understand love as an abstract principle interiorizing Christ's love in us. Adolescents, especially guided by those who are truly spiritually oriented themselves – and thus true spiritual teachers - parents, clergy, church school teachers and youth leaders, are likely to be able to discriminate effectively between the "letter of the law," which Christ eschewed, and the "spirit of the law" which Christ consistently taught during His public life. (Morelli, 2011).

Adolescents can now be encouraged to join in love-action that embraces all mankind. An appreciation of the plight of peoples geographically separated from us can be grasped. A sense that all mankind are sons of God, made in His image and called to be like Him, and that a wound to one is a wound to all. For example, the recent devastating 9.0 earthquake in Japan is a disaster not only to those directly impacted, but to all because, as St. Paul (Eph 2) informs us:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end.

St. Peter of Damaskos expands and explains further St. Paul's words:

To bear with one's neighbor; not to distress him when he wrongs us but to help him to be at peace when he is troubled. . . sharing his burden and praying for him, full of longings that he may be saved and may enjoy every other blessing of body and soul — this is true forbearance; and it purifies the soul and leads it towards God. ….to endure injustice with joy, patiently to do good to one’s enemies, to lay down one’s life for one’s neighbour, and so on, are gifts from God, bestowed on those who are resolved to receive them from Him through their solicitude in cultivating and protecting what has been entrusted to them. (Philokalia III).

The Domestic Church puts Love into Practice as a Family

Previously in this essay I referred to the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. i The "Little Church in the Home" can think of creative ways of performing such works as a family. A special family prayer group for a special intention can be formed. Going over how the spiritual works of mercy can be applied can be encouraged and discussed during Family Time, for example, how to instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful or forgive injuries. (Morelli, 2007,2008, 2009b)

Likewise, family-group-service can be advocated. I once had a family in counseling that spent their holydays and holidays doing volunteer service in a local hospital, preparing and serving dinner for the patients. Throughout North America the Focus North America program ii is an excellent way for families to love and serve others as a group.

As Our Lord told us:

I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' (Mt 25:40)


Alfeyev, Bishop Hilarion. (2000). The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications.

Meyendorff, J. (1974). St. Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Morelli, G. (2007, August 28). Smart Parenting VI: Talking to Your Children About Sex. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles7/MorelliSmartParentingVI.php.

Morelli, G. (2008c, September 19), Smart Marriage XIV: Talking to Your Children About Same Sex “Marriage.” www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart-Parenting-XIV-Talking-To-Children-About-Same-Sex-Marriage.php.

Morelli, G. (2009a, February 08). Good Marriage XV. Ensnared By Mindless Helping. www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/good-marriage-xv-ensnared-by-mindless-helping.

Morelli, G. (2009b, August 15). A spiritual child is a happy child. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-smart-parenting-xviii-a-spiritual-child-as-a-happy-child

Morelli, G. (2010, April 30) Toward Healing Church Schism: Overview and Psycho-theological Reflection. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/toward-healing-church-schism-overview-and-psycho-theological-reflection

Morelli, G. (2010b, November 25). The Ethos of Orthodox Catechesis: The Mind of the Orthodox Church. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/view/morelli-the-ethos-of-orthodox-catechesis

Morelli, G. (2011 February 01). Pastoral Pointer: It's the Spirit Behind the Letter. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/pastoral-pointer-its-the-spirit-behind-the-letter

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume II: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume III: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, P. & Ware, K. (Eds). (1979). The Philokalia, Volume IV: The Complete Text; Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain & St. Makarios of Corinth. London: Faber and Faber.

Piaget, J. (1972). Intellectual evolution from adolescence to adulthood. Human Development., 15, 1-15.

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Youniss, J., & Smollar, J. (1985). Adolescent relations with mothers, fathers, and friends. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Wensinck, A. J. (ed., trans.) (1923). Mystic Treatises by Isaac of Nineveh. Amsterdam, Holland: Koninklijke Akademie Van Wetenschappen.



The Chief Spiritual Works of Mercy

  • To admonish sinners
  • To instruct the ignorant
  • To counsel the doubtful
  • To comfort the sorrowful
  • To suffer wrongs patiently
  • To forgive injuries
  • To pray for the living and the dead.

The Chief Corporal Works of Mercy

  • To feed the hungry
  • To give drink to the thirsty.
  • To clothe the naked.
  • To ransom the captives
  • To shelter the homeless.
  • To visit the sick.
  • To bury the dead.

(From A Pocket Prayer Book for Orthodox Christians (Antiochian Archdiocese, popularly known as "The Little Red Prayerbook")

ii http://www.focusnorthamer...

God calls us to share in His love, a love which expresses itself in acts of compassion for all who are broken-hearted and in need. In doing this, we become God’s own hands. Such practical service changes lives and transforms our world, one person at a time.

Participation in God’s compassion is more than a human rights issue. In taking up this task we work out our own salvation and affirm the “very good” that God has already spoken over each human being.

This awareness resulted in the founding in 2009 of a new Orthodox organization intended to help parishes better express Christ’s love for the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick and imprisoned. Called FOCUS (Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve), we link like-minded Christians who are working out their salvation by sharing with others, just as Christ shared of Himself without holding back “for the life of the world,” becoming poor to make the poor rich. [from the FOCUS web page]

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: May 1, 2011

Copyright © 2001-2021 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. Follow copyright link for details.
Text size: A  A  A