The Nature of Christian Love – Reflections on 1 Corinthians 13
[At the college of Bishops retreat in March, our chaplain led us into reflection on 1 Corinthians 13. Following that, each of us committed to reflecting further and sharing our reflections with each other as we thought about the issues before the church now. Here are my reflections]
There is an obvious progression of thought in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14, ‘concerning spiritual gifts’ (12:1). Chapter 12 is about the gifts themselves; chapter 13 begins with a description of the gifts without love, then reveals the nature of true Christian love; and finally chapter 14 shows how the Spirit’s gifts are exercised with love in the church.
Verse 11 is the key that unlocks chapter 12, ‘All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.’ Not everyone has the same gifts or responsibilities in the body of Christ, just as the parts of the human body each have unique roles. Gifts in Christ’s body are Spirit-given. They only have value when used, according to the will of God, to build up the body, hence verses 27-31. Christians should ‘desire’ only to play that part in the body that God wills and equips them to play.
The one gift that gives value to all others and to the body – the ‘more excellent way’ (12:31) – is Christ-like love. If exercised without Christ-like love, all other gifts lose their value completely. While human love will never be perfect, love motivated by the Holy Spirit teaches us to set aside desires motivated by the human spirit.
One way I find helpful to reflect on 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 is to put an ‘even when’ phrase after each of the seven positive and seven negative descriptions of love.
Genuine ‘love is patient’ (long-suffering) even when patience is tried to the limit. Love continues to be ‘kind’ even when kindness is not shown or returned.
Love ‘doesn’t envy’ or desire what God gives to others but learns to rejoice with them, even when we wish we had what they have. Love ‘doesn’t boast’ about our gifts or assert our rightful place in the body, even when we feel we have good reason to do so.
Love ‘isn’t arrogant (puffed up)’ with thoughts of our own importance or superior gifts, even when praised by others. It ‘isn’t rude’; it offers others respect, thoughtfulness, and honour, even when we feel the same has not been shown to us. It ‘isn’t easily angered (provoked)’ even when our desires or expectations are not met.
Love ‘keeps no record of wrongs,’ even when those wrongs seem many or great. Love ‘doesn’t delight in evil but rejoices in the truth;’ it doesn’t compromise, deny, bend, or stand in opposition to the truth, even when the truth is hard to hear or understand.
True Christian love ‘bears (suffers) all things’ humbly and quietly for the sake of others, even when we feel we have suffered too long or too much. It ‘believes (trusts) all things;’ it trusts in the goodness and sovereign will of God and speaks well of others, even when we feel there is just cause to doubt God’s will or be suspicious of their motives. It ‘hopes all things,’ resting in God’s all-conquering grace and provision, even when our human hopes are not realized. It ‘endures all things (perseveres),’ – does not give up on, or right others off, even in the face of disappointment, discouragement, or hurt.
Finally, ‘love never ends’; it remains eternally alongside – but always greater than – the gifts of faith and hope, even when our gifts, knowledge and foresight are temporal and incomplete. Love rests in and is motivated by the gracious eternal truth that we are fully known by God.
Just as the words, ‘And I will show you a still more excellent way’ (12:31b) knit chapter 12 to chapter 13, so the words, ‘Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts’ knit together Chapters 13 and 14. 1 Corinthians 14 shows us how ‘love comes to life’ when God’s people gather for worship.
Christ-like love shows in the loving, orderly exercise of the spiritual gifts for ‘building up the church’ (14:1-25) and in orderly worship practices, showing reverence for God’s will as revealed in his Word and godly respect for one another (14:26-40).
Pastor Lester Priebbenow
District Bishop, Victoria and Tasmania