Room for Love
The most familiar words in all the letters to the Corinthians lie in 1 Corinthians 13. In an effort to remind ourselves of the impact of these truths, consider these verses and themes Paul writes about to the church in Corinth.
Love can be such a sloppy, sentimental word these days. Fortunately, in verses 4-7, Paul solves the problem by describing love in a very practical way, focusing on the behavioral descriptors rather than emotional. He tells us what love looks like.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endure all things.
Years ago, I was given a wonderful illustration of this passage while visiting a British public school’s religion class. The headmaster shared how he had been taught 1 Corinthians 13 by comparing love to the perfect description of a gentleman. Now, a gentleman is not just a man. He is a well-bred, well-mannered man. The headmaster said, “Just replace the word love with a gentleman.” So, looking at verse 4, I begin to understand what he meant. A gentleman is patient and kind. A gentleman doesn’t envy or boast; a gentleman is not arrogant or rude. By verse 13, you realize the lesson is over: so now faith, hope, and a gentleman abide; but the greatest of these of a gentleman.
To know why Paul writes as he does, we must go back to Corith and look at the Corinthians for whom the letter is written. The descriptors of love Paul includes is simply a list of the characteristics they lack.
Love is patient with people; puts up with hurts without retaliating. Patience is a quality you needed to survive in Corinth.
Love is kind. Love does not envy. It isn’t jealous of others’ success or gifts. Paul had to write and say, “But there is jealousy amongst you, which is why there are factions and groupings amongst you.”
Love doesn’t boast. Paul reproved the Corinthians for boasting among themselves. They were divided and full of themselves versus unified as the body of Christ and full of Him.
Love is not arrogant; however, the Corinthians were. Five times Paul warned them they were puffed up. They had an exaggerated self-perception. They overrated themselves and it let to attention-seeking behavior. Knowledge puffs up. But love, he writes to them, builds up.
Love is not rude. The Corinthians were in danger of this. He already had to write and warn them not to lead a woman on and arouse her affections and then refuse to marry, which would have been improper behavior under some false idea of love.
Love doesn’t insist on its own way. Yet, the Corinthians did just that. Their one way was really all that mattered to them. That is not love. Love is prepared to give up for the sake of others, even what we think we are entitled to.
Love is not irritable, not touchy. You know those people with the smooth smile on the surface but they’re like a volcano waiting to erupt underneath? It is almost impossible to relate to them, because you are walking on eggshells all the time. This is not a picture of Biblical love.
Love keeps no record of wrongs. Yet, don’t we all do this in one way or another? I say I forgive you one day but the next day I’m reminding you about what I forgave you for. We carry our personal score cards of injuries received, and it creeps into our language in words like always and never. You always do that. You never do this.
Love doesn’t rejoice at wrongdoing; yet, our culture often does, doesn’t it? Often the media rejoices in finding some new wrongdoing to put in front of us, and we rejoice at reading it. Do you enjoy the endless discussions of what is wrong with people, or church, or institutions? Love doesn’t rejoice in wrongdoing; it rejoices with the truth because love is moral.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. This part of the chapter reminds me of a couple I knew well. Terry was an alcoholic and many times I had taken empty bottles of alcohol off him. I got a phone call late one night from his wife. He had been drinking again and I went to see them. When everyone had calmed down and she walked me to the door, I could see the tears in her eyes and the sense of frustration in her face as she said to me, “Hugh, I can’t trust him. I feel awful about it.” I said to her, “You can’t trust him at the moment, it is not loving to trust him.”
You’ve been let down by someone and the skeptics say, “Well you won’t make that mistake again, will you?” or, “Never trust a man. Never trust a woman.” But love does. We need to understand that in the Greek and Roman world of the day and the prevailing culture, love was not a public virtue. Philanthropy, yes; but not love.
Paul encourages the Corinthians to love always, in spite of past hurts; to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things. One thing I’ve observed is God doesn’t use the most gifted people, but He uses the people who love other people without putting up walls.
When we say, “I love you,” we often mean, “I find you lovely.” Well, God loves the unlovable. Spiritual gifts from tongues to healing can be, and have been, duplicated by pagans. This quality of love cannot be replicated. It is what makes God’s church. It gives the glimpse of His character and His glory. Paul’s last arrow flies in the final paragraph as he writes in verses 8-13 that loves is as diamonds are, forever. But, gifts are not.
Destined to Love
Tom Wright, a New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop from England, spoke on these verses, “The point of this paragraph is the Church must be working in the present on things that will last into God’s future.” Faith, hope, and love will do this. Prophecy, tongues, and knowledge, so high prized in Corinth, will not. They’re merely signposts to the future. When you arrive, you no longer need signposts. Love, however, it not just a signpost. It is a foretaste of the ultimate reality. Love is not merely the Christian duty. It is the Christian destiny.
Paul is looking to Christ’s return and he is saying to these triumphant Corinthians the best is yet to come. He urged them to live for the coming of that day. So now faith, hope, and love abide. Having exposed the limitations of prophecy, tongues, and knowledge, Paul turns to what is left on the table – faith, hope, and love. Each of them links us to the eternal kingdom in a way no other gifts are able to.
Our Ultimate Ministry
It’s not the nature of the God who redeemed us to provide this new creation world for us. We’ve found our value not in our gifts, not in our position, status, or service, but in this love. In all the plans, achievements, challenges, and opportunities, have you got love sorted? Or is your ministry still too important to you to have time for love? Have all the knocks and bruises of ministry left your protective wall too high to love? Are you so full of the now you’ve lost sight of the goal?