Love is a force, no doubt about that. It has a powerful capacity to impact lives in deep and meaningful and unexpected ways. But love isn’t the only power leveraged by folks to create change. Anger, manipulation, bribery, extortion, and dehumanizing division are also agents of change. Perhaps that’s why Paul warned, “love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly” (I Corinthians 13:4b-5a, NASB)In other words, “Love doesn’t force itself on others” (MSG).
There are three behaviors Paul identifies as “not love.” Those are bragging, arrogance, and acting unbecomingly. Let’s examine those a bit closer.
Bragging may be defined as self-important declarations. “Listen to me, I’m the only one that knows what to do next!” With an implied, “and you don’t.” Sometimes that is the truth, we very well may know the answer. It’s really a question of attitude. Is a teacher bragging as they instruct children how to work an algebra problem? Probably not. The difference is one of relative value and importance. “I’m more valuable and important because I know the answer and you don’t,” bragging says.
Arrogance is related to bragging but with a slight difference. The braggart may very well be right, they may have the right answer. The arrogant on the other hand may not know any more than anyone else. Arrogance is puffed up, larger than reality, and often pushy. There are several examples in the animal kingdom of various ones making themselves look bigger for defensive or competitive means. The pufferfish, grizzly bears, and the frilled lizard are a few that come to mind. “I’m bigger, better and more powerful so stay out of my way,” the arrogant says.
The last one is a bit of a puzzler since the NASB uses the archaic word “unbecoming.” There was a time when folks would comment that a suit or dress was “becoming” on someone. Now, we simply say that “it looks good on you.” The word being translated means “to act in defiance of social and moral standards.” Playing the rebel is unbecoming and is not love. But neither does love operate in total conformity. Acting unbecomingly is disrespecting the cultural, social, and moral norms of others.
So, what then does love look like? Paul gave us the negative, what is the positive side of the ledger? I suggest that love is humble instead of proud, accepting instead of arrogant, and respectful instead of unbecoming. Love is willing to lower itself to boost others up. It doesn’t push others down but lifts others up. Love accepts that others may have something important to add to the conversation. It listens instead of pushing forward with an agenda. Love adapts to the social and moral norms of the moment without losing the foundation of Christ. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 that he, in essence, tries to “fit in” to win more over to Christ. Or to put it another way – “When in Rome do as the Romans do.”
Let’s take a practical example. There was a time when missionaries were not only expected to preach the gospel but also spread the values of the sending culture. Their heart may have been in the right place but not fully in a place of love since the message was tainted with pride, arrogance, and was unbecoming as defined above. The problem is that we often do the same thing to the micro-cultures around us. The neighborhoods, workplaces, and associations of the like-minded we encounter daily. Many may be as foreign to us as it was for those long-ago missionaries traveling to far off country. Love doesn’t require that “we go native” but that we are humble, accepting, and respectful of others.
I know the above may rankle some folks a bit. The many “but what about this” moments are fairly evident. Yes, there are times when we do have the right answer. There are times when it may be necessary to rise up to be heard. The social and moral norms of others may be harmful. Allow me to answer the “buts” with a “but.” But love doesn’t push others down. It sacrifices itself to lift others up.
Love is powerful, yet love doesn’t force itself on others. It doesn’t need to.