The most famous literary description of love is surely 1 Corinthians 13. It has been read aloud at countless weddings, and yet, it was not written for a wedding. It was written for a church. Actually, it was written for a struggling and divided church in Corinth. This was a church that was splintered by factions, by immature Christians flaunting their supposed superiority, and by a whole host of interpersonal tensions and issues. This was the church into which Paul unleashed “the love chapter!”
The chapter sits at the heart of a section addressing the right use of spiritual gifts in the church. It begins by underlining the necessity of love (v 1-3) and ends with the never-ending reality of love (v 8-13). And at the heart of the chapter, in verses 4-7, we find a familiar and poetic depiction of the nature of love. In just four verses, Paul offers fifteen descriptions of love.
Their world, like ours, was a confusing melee of ideas when it came to love. There was romance, passion (appropriately marital and many harmful alternatives), family, and friendship. I don’t know whether they used “love” to speak of food and sport, quite like we do in English, but let’s not imagine their culture was any less confused than ours. In the face of that confusion, Paul offered a confrontation with God’s kind of love.
What do we do with a list like this? Our tendency is to see it as a behavioural checklist and to consider it as a suggestion for greater effort on our part. The problem is, not only do we all fall short of God’s perfect love, but we are unable to self-generate genuine godly love. We can only love, John tells us, because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). So, while it may look like a list of descriptions, actually, Paul wrote it as a list of verbs. This is love dressed up and going to work!
So, as we consider this love in action, we should let it confront our own areas of lack, but also point us to the only one who perfectly lived out God’s love in this world. Let this list point you to Jesus, and then let his love flow more freely in your local church setting. As we look to Christ’s love, it will stir Christlike love in us. And when the body of Christ starts to look like Christ, we can pray for the church to have an impact like Christ!
1. Paul begins with a basic foundation: Love gives. He begins his list with two positive statements: love is patient and love is kind (v 4a). Patience here speaks of having a long-fuse with other people, giving them space and time, instead of flaring up at the first opportunity. Patience is partnered with kindness, which gives of our own usefulness for the higher good of the other. A loving church is a place where grace infiltrates every relationship. Grace for the weaknesses of others, and grace that gives of ourselves to build them up. Love gives.
2. Paul zeroes in on the Corinthian core issue: Love is not selfish. His list shifts into a sequence of nine points, most of which are negative. The central thought in this list of nine points is like a summary of the whole section: love is not self-seeking (v 5b). Ever since the Garden of Eden, we humans have been largely unaware of how self-oriented our hearts now are, by nature. Our selfishness is built-in from birth, but it is only because our nature is fallen. It seems so normal to seek our own good, but God’s design is love that is not self-seeking. (Look at the Trinity for the greatest example of this: how consistently does the Father lovingly honour the Son, and vice versa? Our God is a God who lovingly and selflessly lifts up the other, and the good news is that can even include us!)
Before and after that central thought, Paul offers two sets of four descriptions of love. When there are differences between us, love does not self-elevate (v 4b-5a). It does not envy what others have, longing for self to be satisfied by that salary, that house, that spouse, etc. Neither does love boast, trying to make the other person long for my ability, possessions, or strengths. Love is not arrogant, puffing up self to push others down. And love does not disregard accepted standards of behaviour to elevate self and so disregard and dishonour others. Some versions have “love is not rude” at this point. That might bring to mind inappropriate vocabulary or noises at the dining table. But Paul’s word goes beyond the odd little social faux pas. It is the same word used for unnatural sexual relations in Romans 1. It is that casting off of restraint and acceptable norms, because, well, because I want to . . . so I should. Actually, love wouldn’t.
And when there are problems between us, love does not self-protect (v 5c-6). Love is not easily angered, that is, it is not irritable and touchy. If we take any of Paul’s negatives and pursue the opposite, we will discover a painful loneliness. Now, there is a place in the Bible for legitimate provocation. Jesus was provoked by death at Lazarus’ tomb, and Paul was provoked in spirit by the idols of Athens. Luther was provoked by a false view of God and so launched the Reformation, and Wilberforce was so provoked he sought to end the slave trade. Maybe today many of us have grown too nice before the provocations of society, but perhaps still too easily angered at little personal slights in church life. Love is not easily angered in church fellowship. When people say and do wrong things, love lets the grievances go instead of inscribing them in our internal memory ledger of grudges against others. And when those people that grate on us turn out to be sinners in some way or other, love does not rejoice in their sin. Rather, it rejoices in what is true – God’s love for them, their position in God’s family, their gifting, and their key role in our lives.
3. Paul points them beyond any notion of personal ability because true love relies on God (v 7). Undoubtedly, Paul is offering a literary flourish to complete the list. The last four descriptions add the word “always” or “all things.” It feels good to the ear, but if you consider it carefully, it feels impossible to the heart. How can I always protect? The idea is to cover, like the seal on a ship that keeps all water out. One commentator describes the idea of “throwing a blanket of silence over the failings of others.” Obviously, there are legal and moral exceptions to this. But as a general rule, when I am annoyed, provoked, antagonized, and bothered, love will keep that sin hidden from others who do not need to know about it. Paul points upwards to God – love always trusts and always hopes. That is not easy. And back to the struggles here below again, it always perseveres. That kind of persistent endurance of inter-church tensions can easily take us beyond ourselves.
Paul’s great list is a bit like the Law of Sinai. A wonderful revelation of what is right and good, but beyond our ability to keep. And so, let 1 Corinthians 13 not only confront your struggle to love like Jesus. Let it also point you to Jesus. We can only love at all because God has first loved us. May our hearts be so captivated by his love that our churches increasingly look like the body of Christ! We can only live this life in the flesh by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.
4 Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others,
it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
1 Corinthians 13:4–7 (NIV)
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