In a Bible study once my former pastor’s son brought out an interesting word exercise: read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 twice: once replacing the word Love with your name, and again with God’s. Let’s do that. This will take a few days.
In the months since that Bible study I’ve written extensively about Love, about fellowship, about communion, about commission. 1 Corinthians 13 is, in my opinion, Paul’s single greatest descriptive work, and despite the thousands of words I’ve thrown into shedding light on the subject of Love, I will never write anything so beautiful, so profound, as this chapter.
The entire epistle of 1 Corinthians is an exhortation to the church at Corinth to correct their conduct. By chapter 13 he’s spent 12 chapters describing the unity of the church, the proper behavior of the body of Christ, and a variety of lessons on walking a better path. Chapter 11 deals with the lack of brotherhood in the church. Chapter 12 deals with the errancy of seeing heirarchy in spiritual gifts. Thus he leads into chapter 13 with intention to clarify where he’s been coming from in all these lessons, that he isn’t being harsh or impatient, by explaining a word he’d used several times in the previous dozen chapters: άγάπη, agape, Love.
Now you’ve read where I’ve dug into Love in its various biblical and wordly terms, including agape, before, so let me resurrect one of my past definitions so I can expand on it:
Agape speaks of a willful Love, the kind that is not emotional, but which is chosen. This is often interpreted as being the selfless Love God has for us and, while true, it undercuts the idea. This is also the Love that is displayed when you change your spouse’s bedpan or hold your autistic child through an episode: it is a Love that is not about emotion, but about willful dedication. It is the Love you’re talking about in your vows when you say “for worse”, “in sickness”, and “for poorer”. It is a Love borne of the spiritual, a choice decided in the realm of the connected Love of all things. It is God’s Love, but He made us in His image — He gave us the ability to Love this way that we might understand some fraction of how He Loves us.
Agape is an unconditional Love borne of a devotion that proves there are no conditions to it. That is why the King James renders the word as “charity” instead: it was a term of servanthood, of dedication. “Charity” is not wrong, it’s just… imprecise. Agape is a decision, but it isn’t a duty. In its throes you will do things you’d never want to do, never choose to do, but they aren’t a task, they aren’t a burden, they are a solemn kind of joy, a reminder that you are blessed to have such a chance to serve this person. It is a Love you didn’t think yourself capable of giving, and when received it is a powerfully dumbfounding sense of submission from the giver.
The Story of Us
1 Corinthians 13 details many of these aspects of agape, but verses 4 through 7 are the heart of it we connect to best, the part that hits us right in the feels, like watching a puppy welcome his soldier dad home from war. These verses get all the attention, all the bumper stickers, all the wall art (I used the NLT for lyrical effect):
“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. Love does not demand its own way. Love is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. Love does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.“
Can you think of more powerful words to describe the totality of Love? I think not. The assignment I discussed is born of just that popularity, but it turns out to be more than a gimmick; it’s a quite powerful tool. So here it is in the first-person:
“I am patient and kind. I am not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. I do not demand my own way. I am not irritable, and I keep no record of being wronged. I do not rejoice about injustice but rejoice whenever the truth wins out. I never give up, never lose faith, am always hopeful, and endure through every circumstance.“
Maybe half of that is true half the time. I’ve got a lot left to work on if I’m to be a picture of Christ’s Love, to be sure. Not a day goes by that I don’t at least try to grow in these areas, and not a day goes by I don’t fall short in most of these areas. Maybe you feel the same about yourself. But to focus on how far we miss that mark by is a mistake, and a critical one. To feel condemnation or shame or anger over your ability or inability to Love is a death-worshipping habit, a habit of keeping our eyes on the worst possible case.
Hold on My Heart
To seek to measure inadequacy is to meditate on failure and darkness and, to be sure, it is our earliest habit. It is our habit, but it isn’t necessary; it’s just what we’ve been trained to do by our tainted, satan-led flesh.
There is another way to measure ourselves, and it is by how much closer we are to this picture of Love. In the days when we feel we aren’t moving closer, when we doubt our salvation or our humanity, we should remind ourselves how much closer we are than when we started.
We should read this version of verses 4 through 7 to ourselves every single day as a truth, as a prayer, as an exhortation, as a bolstering of our dedication to ourselves, to each other, and to God. I cannot prove this, but I feel certain Paul meant for us to do this exercise in just this way for just that reason.
I’ve written before about his penchant for embedding multiple layers of meaning into text, and this is no different. The letter to the Corinthians, as I said, is a correction, an admonishing instruction meant to heal some deep divisions in the church by legalistic men who wanted to glorify themselves over God, but Paul knows you can’t catch many flies with vinegar. So here he gives men the picture of Love, and he’s exhorting them to be as Love, so of course he means you to read it with your name in it!
But 1 John 4:8 tells us that God is Love, God is agape, so surely Paul foresaw and intended the second part of this exercise, too: use God’s name in place of Love. Because if God is Love then all aspects of Love are aspects of God. Oooh, how this part gets me worked up:
“God is patient and kind. God is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. God does not demand His own way. He is not irritable, and He keeps no record of being wronged. He does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. God never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.“
I argue that we only believe most of these in a very surface, shallow way, and others — many — we don’t believe at all. For the next couple weeks I am going to go through these 15 qualities point by point. Each day will build a case, and I hope you will stick with me. Some will be word study, some will be psychotherapy, some will be flat-out heresy. But I want to drive home not a point about God, but a point about you. Because you are also Love, and I Love you. I want us all free of the habits of death, and this is the only way I know to serve that call from our Father…