Would you ever compare a multilinguist’s ability to speak 7-8 languages to an insufferable din? If you knew a guy who could make a mountain actually get up and move, would you look him in the eye and say, ‘You’re nothing’? What about a philanthropist or a martyr — are they the kind of people you’d call losers? Paul does.
The apostle is on a mission — not to offend, but to show his readers a “still more excellent way”. Throughout the above scenarios that he draws out in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, five words are on repeat: if you don’t have love. Your gifts, your generosity, your very life — Paul declares them all utterly meaningless if you do not have love.
What is Paul on about?
The entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 13 is widely extolled as the “love chapter” — but the more prevalent (unspoken) view is that it is also ‘lofty preaching’… Too high a standard to set for ‘normal people’ like us who are really just trying to get by from one day to the next. After all, who can love this way? Surely, only God?
1 Corinthians 13 is often seen as too high a standard to set for ‘normal people’. After all, who can love this way? Surely, only God?
If life were a movie, love would always look like red roses, sweet nothings and happily-ever-afters. It’s the picture of love we’re most familiar with (thanks, Disney). But real love has more than a dozen different faces, according to Paul (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) — and His Word is full of examples of what that looks like.
The different faces of love
- Love is patient — Even though Moses was the one who’d led them out of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites complained under his leadership unceasingly. Yet, when God’s anger burned against Israel and threatened to wipe them out, Moses “stood in the gap” (Psalm 106:23), interceding for them and asking God to forgive their rebellion (Exodus 32:11,14). Patience means ‘to suffer long’, and Moses displayed loving leadership when he pleaded for the very people who were constantly grumbling against him.
- Love is kind — The thing that astounds us most about the parable of the Good Samaritan lies not so much in the what, but the who. While the injured man’s own compatriots hurriedly passed him by, the Samaritan felt compassion for a man who, were he not lying half-dead by the wayside, would’ve reviled and abhorred him as per the culture of the day. For this man, an ‘enemy’, the Samaritan stopped, and having bandaged him up, took him to where he could recover — all at the Samaritan’s own expense (Luke 10:33-35). Love’s kindness knows no bounds.
- Love is not jealous — The prodigal son’s father was not the only one who thought him dead, and instead received him back alive (Luke 15:24). His older brother did too — but when Big Brother heard that his irresponsible sibling was home, he burned with jealousy that a feast was being thrown in his honour — something he’d never enjoyed (Luke 15:29-30). Although his observations weren’t untrue, one has to admit his response, a stunning departure from his dad’s, was unloving through and through.
- Love does not brag and is not arrogant — Esther did not consider Mordecai and his advice beneath her station, just because she became a queen overnight. When she learnt that her uncle was sitting in ashes and sackcloth, “the queen writhed in great anguish” (Esther 4:4), sending servants to find out the cause of his sorrow. She demonstrated love in respecting his forewarning about the calamity to come, instead of dismissing it as ‘not her problem anymore’. True love does not indulge our egos nor trample over others.
- Love does not act unseemingly — What is unbecoming behaviour? Conduct that comes across as inappropriate or in bad taste. Peninnah shows us how not to act, when Scripture records her mercilessly mocking Hannah for being barren (1 Samuel 1:6, 7). Love would’ve held her tongue.
- Love does not seek its own — Abraham gladly allowed his nephew Lot to choose the best of the land, despite being years older (Genesis 13:9). We need to understand the culture of the day for this one. Those coming from societies where respect for grey hair (or older people) is high will probably grasp this better than those from more ‘egalitarian’ cultures. Abraham could’ve called dibs on the good land, but his ‘right’ was not as important to him as his desire for peace with his nephew. In doing so, the patriarch demonstrated that it is often far more loving to forgo our own benefit for that of the other.
Abraham could’ve called dibs on the good land, but his ‘right’ was not as important to him as his desire for peace with his nephew
- Love is not provoked — Nothing good ever comes from giving into provocation. When provoked, we say things we regret, make unwise decisions, and at the extreme end, allow our anger to break out in irreversible ways — like Cain did, when he rose up against his brother Abel and killed him (Genesis 4:5, 8).
- Love does not take into account a wrong suffered — Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, but when he had them in his power, decades later, he did not hate his brothers back (Genesis 37:4), nor repay their evil in full measure, even though he was perfectly placed to avenge himself (Genesis 50:15-21). By training his eyes on heaven and focusing instead on what he could see was the hand of a sovereign God in every event of his life, Joseph was able to love his brothers in a way that completely destroyed what might have otherwise become an endless cycle of retaliation and hate.
- Love does not rejoice in unrighteousness but rejoices with the truth — Darius was a heathen king, but he wanted no part in the wickedness of his court officials. The language of Daniel 6 is fascinating, as we see the king “deeply distressed”, “exerting himself until sunset to rescue” Daniel, “fasting all night, refusing entertainment”, not sleeping a wink, and rushing to the den at the “break of day” to find out if Daniel was okay. Love does not stand by and do nothing when it sees evil unfold. It is quick to take on the character of God, who is love (1 John 4:8) and who takes “no pleasure in wickedness” (Psalm 5:4).
Love does not stand by and do nothing when it sees evil unfold. It is quick to take on the character of God, who is love
Here’s an interesting aside: Do you know what the final form of hate is? Renowned author Becky Pippert says it’s not anger… It’s indifference. The ‘best’ way that you can hate someone is to shrug them off and be unconcerned about how they live their lives, what happens to them, or where their eternal destinies lie. That’s not ‘live and let live’, as we like to assure ourselves. That’s apathy — which is really just another name for hate.
- Love bears all things — You really have to wonder at David’s love for Absalom. Yes, Absalom was his son, but one who murdered his half-brother (2 Samuel 13:32), led a major revolt against his father (2 Samuel 15:14) and publicly dishonoured him (2 Samuel 16:22) in a bid to take the throne. Despite all this, Absalom’s untimely death plunged David into a deep abyss of sorrow, and Israel’s king lamented over why he hadn’t died instead (2 Samuel 18:33). Whether this was disordered love or not is another study, but without a doubt, only love could’ve helped David still see Absalom as his son, despite all the pain he caused.
- Love believes all things — Ruth is the picture of a loving daughter-in-law when she refuses to leave Naomi, even though her co-sister did. She had no reason to trust that everything would be okay. She’d lost her husband and was now offering to venture into the absolute unknown by continuing with his mother — but love is a great motivator like that. It gives you the strength to take leaps of faith into things you could never have imagined for yourself.
- Love hopes all things — If you break it down, Jochebed’s actions of placing baby Moses in a basket on the river Nile might well defeat all logic. It had as much of a ‘success rate’ as trying to save a baby from a burning building by setting him out on the window ledge. Whatever was she thinking? Probably not as much as she was hoping. Love has a way of giving us hope against hope — and it can lead to some truly incredible outcomes.
- Love endures all things — Beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, persecuted, cold, hungry, thirsty, in constant danger — 2 Corinthians 11:25-28 is a laundry list of everything Paul endured during the course of his ministry. But what he doesn’t add is evident: he’d do it all over again for love of Christ and His church. Love emboldens us to endure.
The promise of true love
If there’s one thing anyone who studies 1 Corinthians 13 will take away, it’s the realisation of how very, very, VERY unloving we are. We say unkind things and we snap so fast. We give up on people who push our buttons and snub the ones beneath our own ‘class’. We step on others to get to the top, while the record of offences we keep of wrongs done to us could fill books. As for whether a colleague is going to heaven or hell, it’s not even a question on our radars — because who’s got the time to think of that when we’re all hustling to put food on the table, keep the house in order and meet our own never-ending needs?
If there’s one thing this passage makes clear, it’s the realisation of how very, very unloving we actually are
The realisation is a crushing one, because we all like to believe we’re ‘essentially’ nice people. We’re not hateful. What a horrible word. And yet… if we used this passage as a checklist, the truth can be pretty hard to handle.
Whether spouse or sibling, friend or stranger, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us in no uncertain terms what the marks of a truly loving person are. Nowhere is the proof of this more manifest than in Christ, who is the perfect embodiment of every face of love in this chapter. It was that love that purchased our salvation for all eternity. And we only need look to Him to see why such love can never fail (1 Corinthians 13:8).