1 Corinthians 13:4-8,13
4 Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up;
5 does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil;
6 does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth;
7 bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
8 Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. …
13 And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
I remember when I was a child, there was a one-panel comic in the newspapers called “Love is.” The comic was like “Family Circus” for the “flower children,” an outgrowth of the generation that grew up talking and singing about “peace and love.” Each day there would be these two figures – typically a little boy and girl, nude as if in the Garden of Eden – and they would illustrate some quality or expression of romantic love. The comic strip still exists today, and the ideas are cute and somewhat timeless: Love is being real corny, Love is 24/7, Love is patient. Every day, we get a little reminder of what romantic love is.
Today’s Scripture selection from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is one of the most quoted passages in the whole Bible. Millions of people every year mention those verses or hear them, have them hanging on a wall in their home, or even have a cross or a picture frame in the office with those words on it. And like that little comic, people look at those verses as a guidepost to romantic love. This passage is read nearly every day at weddings all around the world, as if to remind us all about how a husband and wife ought to behave in their romantic love for each other. But there’s a problem with that: Paul isn’t talking about romantic love!
This whole chapter of First Corinthians is talking about love in the context of the exercise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the word Paul uses for “love” is not the “eros” of romantic love but the “agape” of divine love. Yes, by all means, we SHOULD love our spouses and our children with the same love we feel for God and our fellow man, but we should never narrow this passage down to just romantic or familial love.
Note that in defining this “agape” love, Paul speaks a lot about what love is not:
• Love does NOT envy
• Love does NOT parade itself
• Love is NOT puffed up, etc.
Why does Paul do this? Why use negatives to define something so positive? Because Paul is trying to guide his readers away from the kind of love and fellowship they thought they knew. Paul is directing them away from romantic love and toward a mature love for God.
• Love for God does not envy
• Love for God does not parade itself
• Love for God is not puffed up
• Love for God does not behave rudely
• Love for God does not seek its own
• Love for God is not provoked
• Love for God thinks no evil
• Love for God does not rejoice in iniquity
Get the idea? When we exercise the gifts of the Spirit – e.g. prophecy, healing, knowledge, and even faith – then we need to do these things with a quality of love like we have never known before. Where in a romantic relationship, we might be jealous of others who love our spouse, in “agape” we should INVITE others to love God as we do. Where in a romantic relationship, we might get angry at someone for mistreating our spouse or react badly to criticism of our relationship, in “agape” we rejoice in truth and should always keep our eyes upon our beloved God, knowing that He is the righteous judge, that He alone bestows vengeance and recompense for wrongs against Him.
Furthermore, Paul is telling us this: Love for God never fails. “Agape” love endures while all other forms of love will fail! “Agape” love is the one thing that we have now that will still be around even at the end of time. When Christ returns and Satan is cast down once and for all, when the New Jerusalem descends upon the New Earth, then our faith and our hope in Christ will become reality and will no longer be needed. But LOVE – that boundless and powerful “agape” love between God and man – will endure forever. THAT love is the conduit for God’s power in our lives. Where hope is the anchor that keeps us firmly fixed upon God, love is the chain between God and us. Where prophecy tells us a little about God, we know with complete certainty that God is love. Where healings hint at God’s power, love reveals God to us His full majesty and grace. Where faith is the substance of things hoped for, love is the present manifestation of that for which we hope. Where in my lifetime I may express God’s love in my humble way for a few individuals, God expresses His love for us in sending His only Son to die for all of us so that we might live.
So before we get too caught up in using Scripture to define love in our relationships with friends and family, let us remember that our first love is God. Our love for God needs to be all these things Paul writes for us and much more. Our love for God needs to be so strong that it “suffers long” and will endure through all things, never failing, just as nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Loving Father, I thank You for the love you have shown and shared with all of us. You alone can love us so powerfully and so purely. I pray, Lord God, that I might reflect that love, that the quality of my love for You would be as humble, gracious, holy, and unending as Your love for me. Amen.