Oft quoted at weddings, preeminent celebrations of romantic love, a poem is read extolling the virtue of love:
Love is patient and kind
Love is not jealous or boastful…
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, love never ends.
What many may not realize is that this is a poem from the pen of the apostle Paul. And while this poem is used to paint a picture of young love at weddings, its intent far transcends the romance of the occasion, and a fairly limited understanding of this virtue.
Romantic love was not in the apostle’s mind when he penned this verse. Instead, tremendous conflict in the fledgling Corinthian church caused Paul great grief. There were dissensions and quarrels over all kinds of issues in this community; quarrels over leadership and allegiance, over moral standards, over marriage and singleness, over theology, and quarrels so extreme that lawsuits were being filed!(1)
Henri Ossawa Tanner, Christ and His Mother Studying the Scriptures, oil on canvas, 1909.
So after reminding the Corinthian followers of Jesus that they represented his body—a body with many members and unique gifts and functions—Paul lifts up love as the height of what it means to be a mature human being:
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. And 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….Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away….but now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love (13:1-3, 8, 13).
Often, as I survey various communities in our world today, I see the same kind of division and derision, as was present in the Corinthian community. More often than not, one encounters a war of information, argumentation based on this book or that claim, this person’s authority or that person’s expertise. Quick to criticize and lambaste, noisy gongs and clanging cymbals abound; but the love that never fails is a rare and fleeting occurrence. How does one make sense of all this, particularly in light of Paul’s proclamation that without love we are nothing?
Perhaps part of the reason why there is so little love is that there is a fear that to love is somehow to compromise. Many feel the strong need to disassociate with the way love is commonly defined; as unthinking acceptance, an anything goes, an “I’m okay you’re okay” easy love as bland and undefined as gelatin. Surely, the Apostle Paul’s understanding goes far beyond this flabby view of love. After all, he spends the majority of his first letter to the Corinthians exhorting their bad behavior by virtue of their lack of love.
Yet, I sometimes worry that a reticence to extend love to others without condition belies a forgetfulness about the conditions of our acceptance by God. Paul writes to the Romans, “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). If God loved us while we were yet sinners, why do we find it so hard to love others?
In a world that largely perceives Christians to be in-fighters, hypocritical, argumentative, and judgmental naysayers, would it not demonstrate maturity to reexamine our fear of what it might look like if we tried to take Paul’s words about love to heart?
Would it or could it look like creating seminaries in the prisons, as has been done at Louisiana’s maximum security prison at Angola? Would it or could it look like working with different Christian fellowships towards a vital social goal despite denominational differences or theological disagreements? Would it or could it look like proactive movement to engage the culture rather than reactive retreat? Would it, or should it look like growing into mature human beings? Paul continues,
When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.
In Jesus, the full stature and maturity of humanity is on display. He taught that love was the summary of all that had gone before, and fulfillment of the entire law and the message of the prophets—love God and love your neighbor as yourself. If the greatest of the virtues is love, as affirmed by Jesus and the apostle Paul, can all who seek to follow envision becoming a community that seeks to make love their chief responsibility and goal?(2) Now abide faith, hope and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the Speaking and Writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) See 1 Corinthians 1:10-14; 3:1-10; 4:14-21; 5:1-13; 6:1-11; 7; 8:1-4 as examples.
(2) Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34.