A Look at 1 Corinthians 13 and Love as a Way of Life (3)
In vv. 4-7 Paul proceeds to identify no fewer than 15 characteristics of genuine Christian love. He writes:
“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, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7),
(1) Love is patient – Paul doesn’t mean that love waits a long time, as if he has in mind the man or woman who is willing to endure the passing of several years for the love of their life to agree to marriage. The idea is more of endurance in the face of suffering. He has in mind patiently bearing with those who don’t love you and choosing not to retaliate against them. In relation to the exercise of spiritual gifts, perhaps Paul is calling on us to be slow to react in a judgmental way when people use a gift poorly or in an embarrassing way. Be patient with them. Don’t rush to criticize.
(2) Love is kind – You can be patient but mean. You can put up with another’s sin and hate them. But genuine love cultivates feelings or affections of tender-heartedness toward others. With regard to spiritual gifts, you will make far more constructive headway in dealing with those who mess up if you approach them with kindness rather than harshness, with words of affirmation rather than condemnation.
(3) Love does not envy – If someone has received a spiritual gift that you haven’t, and perhaps they’ve been praised for the way it blessed the church community, don’t respond with envy. Genuine love rejoices at the success of others.
(4) Love does not boast – This is the opposite side of envy. When you envy you covet what another has and resent them for it. When you boast you brag that you’ve got what they don’t.
(5) Love is not arrogant or puffed up – After all, as Paul says in 1 Cor. 4:7, “What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?” Paul particularly has in mind those who strut about and are puffed up because they’ve got a spiritual gift that draws more attention and causes a stir and perhaps is more overtly supernatural.
(6) Love is not rude – Perhaps he has in mind those who are pushy and demanding when it comes to using their gift. It’s the sort of person who is inconsiderate of others and thinks only of how his or her gift is going to benefit oneself. I’m thinking in particular of those occasions (hopefully rare!) when a person is so persuaded that God wants them to speak or prophesy or minister in some way that they resist and resent(!) the guidance, wisdom, and counsel of church leaders who believe it isn’t the right time and should be put on hold until a more opportune moment. They “rudely” insist on using their gift then and there and disregard the advice of their leaders.
(7) Love does not insist on its own way – Even when you may legitimately be entitled to something, love defers, love takes the low road, love seeks to be second rather than first, love prompts a person always to be asking, “How might my gift be used to promote others rather than myself? How might my gift be used to affirm and praise and promote someone else rather than me?”
(8) Love is not irritable – Or, as some translations render it, “love is not easily angered.” The idea here is of the person who is extremely touchy or overly sensitive, such that hiding barely beneath the surface is an explosive and defensive anger. It’s almost as if some people are just waiting for the slightest offense, the slightest criticism, so they can explode in angry and irritable self-defense. It doesn’t even matter to such a person if the offense is real or imagined. They are just waiting to take exception to something others say. Genuine Christian love does not do that.
(9) Love is not resentful – I actually prefer the translation, “Love keeps no record of wrongs.” Here Paul is talking about those times when someone really does offend you, when they truly have sinned against you, when their offense is genuine and uncalled for. Love doesn’t keep a record of it so it can be brought up at some future time and thrown back into someone’s face to be used against them. Love doesn’t keep score! Love is quick not only to forgive but to forget. Love does not constantly consult a filing cabinet where a list of the wrong things other people have done is kept up to date and always at hand to be used at a moment’s notice.
(10) Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing – Do you realize that some people like it when others fall? They enjoy it when others mess up or abuse their spiritual gifts. It makes them feel righteous when others aren’t. Some people love gossip. They get a kick out of hearing stories of how others have messed up in the church and then pat themselves on the back for not having committed a similar offense. Love doesn’t do that.
(11) Rather, love rejoices with the truth – A person motivated by genuine love will look for opportunities to affirm those who have done well. Love is always on the lookout for the chance to shine a light on something done right or a truth made known.
(12) Love bears all things (or perhaps, love always endures) – Genuine love has a way of empowering a person to endure even in the worst of circumstances. This is not meant to suggest that we don’t hold people accountable for their sinful and errant behavior. Paul’s point is simply that love guards us against being excessively self-defensive and always looking at things in terms of how it is going to affect us.
(13) Love believes all things (or perhaps, love always trusts) – Again, Paul isn’t telling us to be gullible or naïve. There are some things we must always disbelieve! His point, rather, is that love labors to be generous and accepting rather than cynical and suspicious. Love gives people the benefit of the doubt until all facts are known. Love isn’t undiscerning or indiscriminating. Paul simply wants to say that love holds us back from always assuming the worst about someone or always jumping to the premature conclusion that they are in error or are motivated by selfish concerns.
(14) Love always hopes – Even when you’ve been hurt by repeated personal abuse, love empowers you to hope for the best and to give a person a second chance, perhaps even a third and a fourth. Love looks for the best in people and only concedes the worst when evidence is overwhelming.
(15) Love always perseveres (better than “endures”) – The reason why Christian love perseveres is because the mind and heart shaped by love knows that God causes all things to work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. This especially includes the painful and distressing things that often can lead us to despair and disappointment.
Let’s put together a couple of these characteristics of love and apply them to life in general and not just to spiritual gifts. Let’s combine the first one, “love is patient,” together with the sixth and eighth where Paul says love is not “rude” or “irritable.” Being patient rather than rude and irritable isn’t easy. None of us likes it when our plans are interrupted or delayed. Even the slightest opposition from others makes us irritable. We get frustrated with traffic jams and long lines at the check-out counter at the store. Our natural response is to get impatient and respond rudely to those who’ve been an inconvenience. We are by nature irritable people!
So how do we deal with this sordid and selfish side to our souls? Let’s be honest: we aren’t by nature patient and kind, we are impatient and mean; we aren’t by nature satisfied and humble, we are envious and we boast; we aren’t by nature easy-going and tolerant, we are arrogant and rude; and the list could go on through each of these fifteen characteristics of love, all of which we lack in so many ways.
The only hope for us is that we die to certain expectations in life. If you and I are going to reflect the kind of love that Paul describes, something in us must be crucified. My need for a life largely free of inconvenience and disruptions simply has to die. My demand for everything to operate on my schedule and according to my timing must die. My demand that people satisfy my needs and not irritate me must die.
Such is Christian love.
Not boasting or becoming arrogant, as v. 4 describes, is incredibly hard. We like it when we are praised and promoted and our weaknesses and failures are minimized and our strengths and successes are publicly recognized.
The only way we will gain victory over such sins, the sort that are inconsistent with genuine Christian love, is if the craving in our hearts for recognition and honor and respect dies. And it will only die to the degree that what we seek from other people we find instead in Christ alone. When he becomes enough to our souls, our demand for everything else will diminish.
To be continued . . .