A Look at 1 Corinthians 13 and Love as a Way of Life (1)
Everyone, including non-Christians, appear to love 1 Corinthians 13. If you don’t believe me, think back on the many wedding ceremonies you’ve attended where non-Christians were getting married. I’d venture to say that at least in half of them 1 Corinthians 13, the so-called “love” chapter in the Bible, is including in the ceremony. And if it’s a Christian wedding, you can almost always count on it being read or recited or in some way incorporated into the message.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. The principles of love described in this chapter are applicable in a variety of situations, not least of which is the relationship between a husband and a wife.
But 1 Corinthians 13 is not directly or primarily about marriage. It is about the manner in which we are to exercise our spiritual gifts in the building up of the body of Christ. It’s no coincidence or accident that this chapter intervenes between chapters 12 and 14. It isn’t as if Paul broke off his train of thought regarding spiritual gifts and on a fleeting whim decided to get romantic on us and talk about love.
Paul’s point in this chapter is really quite simple and straightforward. The church at Corinth had drawn all sorts of false conclusions about spiritual gifts. Some believed that certain spiritual gifts were a sign of maturity. Others thought themselves superior to their fellow believers because they operated in the more overtly miraculous gifts. Some even argued that if you had this or that particular gift, it meant that God loved you more than others. And then of course there was the tendency in Corinth to ignore the needs of other Christians and to exploit one’s spiritual gift to gain power or prestige or influence.
Paul’s response is quick and to the point. He says in no uncertain terms: If love for other Christians does not control and shape how you employ your spiritual gift, your gift is worse than worthless, it is dangerous. Spiritual gifts are a wonderful blessing from God, but compared to the transcendent value of love they are but a temporary and incomplete dimension of Christian life.
Before I go any further I suppose I should give you a definition of Christian love. One of the things 1 Corinthians 13 does is to forever put to rest the idea that love is always and only a decision or an action and does not involve affections or feelings.
Paul says love does not envy and is not irritable and that it rejoices in truth and hopes. These are all affections or feelings. If you feel envy and ungodly irritation, for example, you are not loving. So, clearly Paul wants us to understand that while love is surely more than feelings, it is not less than feelings. Both affections and actions (or decisions) are necessary.
There are at least two reasons why people have been heard to say that love is a choice and not a feeling (for this I’m dependent on John Piper’s insights).
First, they want to emphasize that having warm, fuzzy feelings for someone can never replace or compensate for the lack of action. John says in his first epistle, chapter 3, verse 18, “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.” So, clearly a genuine love for someone involves concrete actions on their behalf.
Second, people emphasize love as action because often times we lack the affections of joy and delight and we need to make the effort to love anyway. In other words, can we love someone in the absence of good feelings? Yes, but my point is that this is less than ideal. It is love, but not complete or perfect love. As you love someone concretely by seeking their best interests, pray that God would cultivate an affection for them in your heart. Pray that the Spirit would awaken the desire to cherish them.
Thus to say to someone, “I truly love you, but I feel nothing in my heart for you,” sounds empty. To say, “I genuinely love you, but nothing about you awakens joy or delight in my affections” is less than the biblical portrayal of true love.
So here is my definition of love:
Love is a deep affection for, a delight in, and a commitment to act for the welfare of another without regard for their loveliness that often comes at great sacrifice to oneself. Or again, love is the overflow of our delight in God that joyfully cherishes and seeks the best interests of another regardless of the cost to oneself.
Let’s also be certain that as we explore this remarkable chapter in the NT we keep fixed in our minds the context in which it appears and the purpose for which Paul wrote it.
Paul makes it clear that “love” is not simply one more among the many spiritual gifts that are distributed to the body of Christ. Rather, “love” is a way of life, a virtue that is to characterize the desire for and exercise of all spiritual gifts. This “love” transcends every spiritual gift individually and all of them taken together. It is more important and more valuable and more beneficial to the body of Christ than the collective power of tongues and prophecy and healing and miracles.
But don’t draw the wrong conclusion from this. In saying that love is better than spiritual gifts, he does not mean that spiritual gifts are bad. His purpose in this chapter is not to devalue spiritual gifts. He simply means that in the scramble for gifts and the tendency that some of them have to produce pride and arrogance, love must be seen as preeminent.
So, spiritual gifts are good and important and, in my opinion, indispensable to the church, but only if exercised in love. In the absence of love they are utterly worthless.
Let me put it in slightly different terms. Paul is saying as clearly as he can that character always trumps gifting. The virtues of the Spirit, or the fruit of the Spirit, are always to be valued above his gifts. One of the most dangerous and destructive things that can happen in the life of a local church is when people prize a person’s gifting above their character. They witness a miracle or are impressed by someone’s eloquence or are stunned by the accuracy of a prophetic word, and then conclude that such a person is in a special class of Christians who must be granted special exemptions and special privileges. “We can’t hold them accountable to the basic principles of discipleship and the responsibilities that the rest of us embrace. After all, they are so obviously anointed by the Spirit that we dare not touch them or call them to account or expect them to live as the rest of us ordinary believers do.” That is a recipe for disaster and must be resisted at every turn.
That said, in the next post we’ll turn our attention to what Paul has to say about love as a way of life.