In a day when Christians are sometimes perceived as narrow-minded, mean-spirited and judgmental, it is wise to frequently visit 1 Corinthians 13, commonly referred to as “the love chapter.” Jesus himself said that the first and greatest command is to love God, and the second (which flows from the first) is to love people as we love ourselves. These commands together are a summary of the entire law of God (Matthew 22:37-40). Jesus also said that the way people will be able to identify his followers in the world is by the way that they love (John 13:34-35). These things being true, it is vital to understand the priority of loving well—to know what love is, and what it is not.
Some think love is underrated. According to The Beatles, “All you need is love…love is all you need.” Some, on the other hand, think love is overrated. Tina Turner, for example, sings, “What’s love got to do (got to do) with it? What’s love but a second-hand emotion…(and) a sweet, old-fashioned notion?” Scripture sides with the Beatles on this one. To the God who created us, love is huge. The Christians in first century Corinth had many things going for them…lots of talent, lots of resources, lots of gifts, lots of brilliance and savvy. But they had a big problem with lovelessness, which, according to Scripture, made all the other things they had going for them essentially worthless.
Mistaking competence for ‘success’
When you meet someone, what is usually the first question you ask each other? You know… “So, what do you do?” In today’s culture, a high value is placed on vocation. “What you do” says something about your skills, abilities, and influence. To many, “what you do” determines your value to society. In the Bible, however, very little emphasis is placed upon what one does—especially when it comes to determining his or her intrinsic value. Rather, the focus is always upon the kind of person somebody is. You can be successful academically, vocationally, as a leader, and even at religion, but without love you have nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2-3).
Mistaking morality for ‘success’
The Bible speaks of two kinds of morality. As Nietzsche was fond of noticing, for many people moral behavior is really just a power-play, something people do so they can feel superior to others. The first version of morality is the liberal version—the kind that places great emphasis upon taking care of the poor, the oppressed, those in need, and those who have a hard time staying ahead in life. The second is the conservative version—the kind of that is willing even to die for “truth”—for firm, deeply-held convictions about what is right and what is wrong. Yet without love, even the most moral liberals gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give all I possess to the poor but have not love, I gain nothing”) and conservatives gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2-3, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and it I have a faith that can move mountains…if I surrender my body to the flames but have not love, I gain nothing”).
Exactly what is love?
First, it’s important to understand what love is not. Love is not a to-do-list. Those who read the Bible’s list of love’s attributes (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) very often want to turn the list into several “to-do’s”—to turn the character qualities of love into a moral self-improvement program. We think, “I need to work on being more patient…more kind…more centered on God’s truth…I need to become less critical and more supportive of people…etc.” This approach, though it may sound good at first glance, can actually be lethal. Nobody learns to love by trying harder to love. We simply cannot manufacture character in ourselves, no matter how hard we try. Love is not a to-do-list.
The definition of love
Love is, like the fruit of the Spirit, a condition of the heart that grows and develops in us over time as we encounter Love. Think, for example, of families whose children seem so wonderful and kind. They are the kind of kids you want to have one day, or the kind of kids you wish you had now. You think to yourself, “If only I could be so lucky to have kids like that.” But here’s a shocker to consider…those kids weren’t just born like that! No, we become loving only as we encounter love. In the vast majority of cases (not every single one!) where you see sweet, well-adjusted, other-centered children, at closer glance you discover that such children are merely imitating and living out the kind of sweetness and other-centeredness that they have experienced directly from their own parents over the course of their lives. You become what you encounter.
So where do I go to ‘encounter’ Love?
The Bible gives the answer when it tells us that God is love. It does not say that God is loving, but that God is love. What this means is that you will never become loving if you seek to be loving without going through God, and more specifically through repeated personal encounters with His Son Jesus, who is the embodiment of Love in all its fullness. The Bible says that God is love, and that Jesus is the exact representation of God’s being. So, if you want to encounter love, you must encounter Jesus. And you will only become patient, kind, protective, trusting, hopeful, etc. once you see in Jesus the ultimate expressions of patience, kindness, protection, trust, hope, etc. Biblically, love is a living, active power that comes to you and picks you up and changes you.
This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s monthly Redeemer Report. Used with permission.