“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
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. Love never fails (1 Cor 13:1-8a).
A jacuzzi or a sword?
I wonder how many times you’ve heard the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians at a wedding? Familiar words of Scripture tend to comfort and massage us after many years of hearing them, like the warm water jets of a Jacuzzi! But this chapter of the Bible is a two-edged sword if ever there was one. It was never intended as a vague, sweet lullaby on the virtues of love, but as a stinging rebuke to the Corinthian Christians, who were full of spiritual pride and arrogance, but short on love. In the previous chapters, Paul says he has no praise for them at all, “for your meetings do more harm than good” (1 Cor 11:17; 22). Some Christians who thought they were more spiritual and useful than others, misused their spiritual gifts as symbols of power, causing rifts and rivalries (1 Cor 12). Chapter 11 and 12 are like an evidence room full of unloving behaviours. Instead of building bridges between other believers, they were driving wedges. It was a great discredit to the gospel.
Are we bridge builders or wedge drivers in our own church, Bible study and family? Can we replace the word “love” in these verses with our own name?
The only way we can answer these questions is to get past vague generalities and assess ourselves against the Bible’s detailed rubric of what love is…and what it is not. There are at least fifteen things about what love does and does not do in this passage. Let’s look at this familiar chapter with fresh eyes and ask the Lord to hold up a mirror to our own hearts.
Love is longsuffering
The very first thing Paul says about love is that it is patient and kind. We often think of patience as the pause button that stops us flying off the handle. Or we may imagine kindness as a soft emotion that translates into endless tolerance and no judgment. But in this passage, it means ‘longsuffering’, the same word to describe the persevering, unfailing love of God in Christ, which leads sinners to repentance (Rom 2:4; 1 Tim 1:16).
It was the patient, kind love of God which culminated in His Son dying on the cross as our Saviour.
For Paul, we never graduate from treating people with kindness and patience. If we want to be more than just a big noise, everything we do should build up the body of Christ, not tear it apart (1 Cor 14:26). The starting point is to know that we are sinners saved by God’s grace. Spiritual pride is incongruous with our “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). Just as the Lord has been longsuffering with us in our rebellion and compulsive sins against Him, God’s will is that his people reflect his compassionate heart in our dealings with one another (Col 3:12-13; Eph 4:2; 1 Thess 5:14). Love is not an elective, but part of the main curriculum of Christian living!
Kind, patient love is not an enabling, permissive love, which overlooks abuse, sin or falsehood, and resembles a doormat. Nor is it a fickle emotion that depends on the other person’s response. Kindness and patience are evidence that God’s Spirit is alive and active in our lives (Gal 5:22). Kind, patient love is determined to act in a certain way, often in spite of our instincts or feelings. It is an intentional decision to give and take less offense: To always protect, always trust, always hope, always persevere. Love never fails (1 Cor 13:7).
It is seen in the redeeming love of Hosea for Gomer. It is the picture of Jesus setting his face towards Jerusalem, sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane and willingly dying in our place to make us right with God. There is nothing weak or mushy about love that is patient and kind.
Love is not proud
The enemy of love is not hate. It’s pride.
Pride causes us to be puffed up and wise in our own eyes—a sin so instinctive and lethal that the Bible talks of it often (Rom 12:3,16; Prov 26:12; Prov 3:7; Isa 5:21). Love and haughtiness are incompatible.
“Pride slowly, subtly, and quite surely endears us to ourselves. Often, the longer those close to us know us, the less remarkable or impressive we seem. Ironically, the opposite often arises in our own eyes…Pride selfishly sets itself—its wisdom, its gifts, its experience, its potential—above everyone else…
One act of war against pride is to marvel at the army of grace at our side, all the other grace-filled, grace-empowered members of the body of Christ…True humility does not quietly despise graces that are not its own, but loves them just as much, and even more…God makes us humbly, even uncomfortably dependent on one another. And as we mature in humility, we not only acknowledge that dependence, but relish God’s wisdom in weaving us together by grace…Whatever the infinite mind and imagination of heaven has shown you, remember how painfully little you still know….
When we refuse to be wise in our own eyes, celebrating the grace we see in others, admitting how little we still know, and boasting all the more in our weaknesses, God gets his glory— and we see someone far more satisfying than what we loved in the mirror.”
So what happens when we declare war on our pride? Wonderful things! Humility opens the door to love. When love is invited in and allowed to flourish, we are not jealous of other Christians’ ministries or gifts. We don’t need to boast or become defensive of our own. We are not arrogant about what we know or who we are. We are not rude, even if we disagree. We don’t insist on getting our own way or enforcing our rights. We are not irritable or easily provoked. We don’t nurse grievances or feed the bitter root of resentment, but learn instead to speak frankly and generously, giving people the benefit of the doubt. We don’t coddle habits like slander or gossip, but enjoy honest, face-to-face conversations with one another. Our dealings with other Christians are laced with grace, even when we feel aggrieved. Love’s goal is to build up and be helpful to the body of Christ, not to divide or weaken it. These are the implications of love described in 1 Cor 13:4-7.
Where the rubber hits the road
Of course, you’re probably shaking your head and secretly mumbling, “What planet is she on? No group of people behaves like this all the time, not even Christians. Always this…Never that….Paul’s expecting utopia on earth and it’s never going to happen! Surely our job is to guard the truth and get the gospel out? Christians must learn not to be such fragile snowflakes!”
The problem is that the New Testament gives us no loophole to escape the clearly revealed will of God in 1 Cor 13! Love is foundational, and without it our goals and gifts are null and void (1 Cor 13:1; 14:26). In fact, love is our greatest asset in discipleship and evangelism.
Love between Christians is both the litmus test and visible proof to the watching world that the gospel is true (John 13:35; 1 John 4:10, 11, 12). Love is so vastly different from the rude, brash and boastful world in which we live. A marriage, a family, a church or a life group marked by this kind of love is an astonishing and winsome sight to behold. On the other extreme, as a child I was part of a church that split apart, and in my twenties I was a lawyer in bitter divorces and lawsuits between Christians. It was a shock to witness worse cruelty, rudeness and narcissism than I’d ever seen even in non-Christian circles. There is no greater disgrace to the gospel than professing Christians who refuse to crucify pride and are forever finding loopholes to dodge the clear mandate of love which is given to each and every one of God’s children.
Our patient love for each other communicates how our Father loves and redeems sinners. The way we build bridges through confessing our sin and forgiving one another demonstrates how Christ reconciles broken people to himself and to each other. Our kindness and gentleness is living proof that the Spirit transforms selfish sinners into the image of Christ. When we encourage one another, we are proclaiming that Jesus is indeed the Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace! Our theology is believable when we love one another.
If love is a bridge and pride is a wedge, which one are we building in our short time on earth?
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).
Lord, I realise that I don’t even begin to resemble the picture of love painted in this passage. Please forgive me for the impatient and unkind ways I’ve treated people this week. Hold up a mirror to my life and show me where love is absent and pride is dancing on the stage. Infuse me with your strong, determined, relentless love. Fill me with reminders of your great grace in dying on the cross for me while I was still your enemy. Only a picture of your face will free me from my self-seeking pride. I look so forward to seeing you face-to-face when I will experience pure and perfect love for all eternity. Only your love will keep me loving others in the meantime. In Jesus’s name, Amen.