If you’ve attended a Christian wedding, there’s a good chance that you have heard all or parts of 1st Corinthians 13. These few and powerful verses on love are sandwiched between sections dealing with church discipline and spiritual gifts. It’s almost like Paul was calling his reader back to love’s centrality as they gather in worship.
Paul opens this section with five “If I” statements. “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1–3, NASB95)
If I do these seeming pinnacles of Christian faith, but don’t have love, then those wonderful acts are useless and worthless. If I speak with tongues as on the first days of the church in Acts 2 – without love my utterances are as repulsive as an out of tune guitar. If I have the prophetic gift, able to hear the voice of the Spirit revealing knowledge and wisdom beyond my understanding but don’t have love then I am nothing. My words are just dust in the wind. The same is true if I have all faith and can actually move mountains with just a word. But, without love, I am no one of importance.
But Paul doesn’t just focus on the mystical and miraculous. He also references those two most Christian of sacrifices and the stuff of saints – giving our possessions and our lives for others. If I sell everything to feed the poor, and if I give my life as a martyr for Christ but don’t have love, there is no heavenly profit or reward gained. Without love, sacrifice is a worthless exercise.
We can do everything right, even reach the pinnacles of Christian faith and sacrifice, only to discover that in God’s estimation our acts are the useless ashes of wood, hay, and stubble – all because we did not have love.
That phrasing “do not have love” is different than our normal usage of love. We more commonly say, “I love” or “I don’t love,” which leans more on the emotional feeling of love. But Paul is phrasing love as a tangible possession, something to grasp unto like a cherished jewel. Feelings are fleeting and often out of our control. I can’t choose to love rhubarb pie, you either love it, or you don’t (I don’t). But Paul’s “do not have love” phrasing indicates a choice. This kind of love can be chosen, obtained, and possessed.
Perhaps love isn’t purchased or discovered as much as grown. Love’s ability to grow is something we do recognize at times. In a real sense, the fourteen attributes of love that Paul lists in verses four to eight are like plant-able and harvestable seeds. We choose to plant love’s attribute of patience, for example, even though it is painful to do. But, if we’re honest, giving patience to someone who doesn’t deserve it engenders and encourages love.
It is in that vein of sowing and reaping that we’ll explore in the next few months these fourteen attributes of love. Along the way, we’ll not only look at what love doesn’t do (i.e., love is not rude) but what love does instead. My encouragement is to sow love and the seeds of these attributes even if you only have one kernel to plant. Put these things in action, choose them, posses them. Let love grow in your life.
As we launch this series I do want to note this one important thing. Even though we most often hear 1 Corinthians 13 at weddings it is not only about the love between husband and wife. Sure, these verses apply in that relationship. But the real intent is Christlike love between followers of Jesus and towards everyone we encounter in life.