I am trying very hard not to mention that meaningless Beatles song, but its music has so firmly made its way into our culture, that one can hardly talk about the subject of love without thinking of it. In their defense, I will say that I like quite a lot of the music of the Beatles, but I would not go to them for spiritual or theological advice.
Love is One of the Things We Need
The song, in some ways, even sounds like some of our modern worship songs that we sing in many of our churches, because it takes one phrase and repeats it over and over and over… “Love is all you need!”
Well, love is not all that we need. What we do need is to put this into perspective a little. The Apostle Paul said in this chapter of Corinthians that love is the greatest of the trio of faith, hope and love, but he does not say that love is the only thing that we need. It seems that we still need a good bit of faith, and of hope as well.
Another thing about it is that when we think of the subject of love, each of us probably has different and diverse ideas and feelings that are associated with it. I am afraid that not even the dictionary helps us out a great deal here. The dictionary that is by my chair where I sit and study defines love as primarily “A deep affection and warm feeling for another.” That is the first definition. The second involves romance and sex. There are a few other definitions as well, but none of them hit the mark.
Love is a Ting
The truth is however, this word is extremely difficult to define. Just a few days ago my uncle told me a story that I have heard him tell before, but it is propitious that he just mentioned it again. My uncle is in his nineties, and the story involves a lady who was old even when he was young. She had been an immigrant from Sweden, and spoke English with a heavy Swedish accent.
In a Bible Study one day, the pastor of their church asked the people this question. “What is love?”
Everyone sat silent for a few moments, and finally this lady spoke up, “Vell you know, love is a ting, and vi all like it.”
Well, love is a ting. But what can we learn about this ting? The love that Paul describes in this chapter of 1 Corinthians is a type of love that my dictionary does not know about. But even Paul does not actually define love. Rather, he first tells us how important love is.
Speaking With a Voice Like a Clanging Cymbal
Paul was writing to a church that was filled with many prideful people. Their pride stemmed from the fact that they thought themselves very spiritually superior to all others. Speaking in tongues was a big thing to the people of this church. They prided themselves in their ability to articulate words that could only be understood if someone interpreted them, which seemed not to always have been the case.
But the actual understanding of the words that were said seemed not to be the important thing to these people. Just the fact that they could speak in an unknown tongue was what was important. They thought that by doing so, it demonstrated their own superior spirituality.
“You are just a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” Paul told them. As annoying and tiresome as this grating sound may seem to you (it does, at least, to me), Paul may have meant it in even a deeper sense. These sounds were often associated in those days with worship in pagan temples. Paul likened their speaking in tongues to that.
In so many words, he was telling them, “You may think you are speaking the language of angels, but far from it – your words sound like you are worshiping something other than God.”
They may not have thought of themselves as have been worshiping a pagan god, but instead they were putting themselves up for admiration by others. They were saying, in a sense, “Look at me! See how spiritual I am!”
The same held true for claims of having “the gift of prophecy,” and with “knowing all mysteries and having all knowledge.” It even held true in someone who claimed to have faith sufficient even to remove mountains. These things are all good, in and of themselves, but if they are exercised without the single essential element of love, they are, in the word that Paul used, “nothing.”
Altruism for My Own Sake
“But what if I live a completely altruistic life?” you may ask. “What if I give away everything that I have so that I can feed the poor? This is something that would seem selfless. After all, it is something that I would do purely for the benefit of others.”
Even this, according to Paul, if love is not part of this ingredient, there is no benefit to it.
I must admit, I am not sure why Paul is so immovable on this point. One would think that this act, even if it is done with less than entirely proper motives, would be of benefit to those who were getting fed.
Nevertheless, it is true that much of the charity work that we see today is not so altruistic as the donors would like us to believe. Quite often, tax benefits, public relations, or political influence weighs quite heavily into the gifts that they give. It might otherwise be the building of a foundation that is named in honor of the philanthropist that can play quite heavily into the decision to give one’s money away, or some other less than admirable motivation.
And “giving one’s body to be burned?” Certainly, if one is called to give his life for those he loves, it can be honorable deed. Jesus Christ himself showed us that. However, if done in the absence of love, it is simply another way of glorifying one’s own existence.
In fact, all of these virtues that Paul mentioned, on their own merit, are good things. Good, that is, if they are combined with the essential element of love.
Descriptions of What Love Is, and Is Not
In the next few verses, Paul comes as close to defining love as he gets. It is actually more of a description than it is a definition. The descriptions are in the form of both positive and negative examples.
“Love is patient, love is kind,” he begins. We can see how these two characteristics would be part of love, but what about the next item mentioned: Love is not jealous?
Did not God even call himself “a jealous God?” In the giving of the ten commandments, when he warned to people against making idols in order to worship them, he told them, “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I the Lord your God, am a jealous God”(Exodus 20:5). In fact, so often does God tell his people that he is a jealous God, we would need to spend a good bit of time paging through the Old Testament to cite all of the times.
God is jealous for his people in this regard in order to protect them from defiling themselves in false worship. His jealousy is for the protection of his people. This is the proper purpose of jealousy.
When Paul writes to us in 1 Corinthians that love is not jealous, he does not mean for instance that a husband, if he really loves his wife, should not feel jealous if another man is trying to entice her. This is exactly when he should be jealous. He needs to protect his wife from becoming defiled.
Rather, when Paul says that love is not jealous, he means it in regards to another person who is being recognized or promoted of given credit for something, instead of oneself. An example of this is in Acts 7, where we read that Joseph’s brothers became jealous of Joseph because of their father’s apparent favor for him.
This is not the jealousy that grows from love, but rather from envy. If we love another person, we will be happy for him when he or she is recognized and congratulated for something, or even when they are favored.
In this same manner, love does not brag and is not arrogant. Boasting and arrogance stems from the desire to exalt and build up one’s own reputation in the eyes of others. Love instead is glad when someone else’s reputation is made stronger.
Rudeness or irritableness have no place with love, nor does selfishness. When one constantly seeks their own way, and when one is continually resentful over some wrong done to him, it shows that they are not walking in love. Nor does there come satisfaction in seeing someone else do wrong, as if that would make me feel better about myself. What does give satisfaction is seeing that the other person is also living a life of truth.
In short, one could say that for one who is walking in love, the focus of attention is on the other person, rather than on oneself. That is why Paul says that this person “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.” What each one of these phrases is really saying is that one who loves always hopes for and believes the best of the other person. The one who loves always will give the other person the benefit of the doubt. However, even when it is found that there is guilt, the person who loves will bear all things with the guilty one.
Love can never fail.
The gifts of prophecy and of tongues, two abilities with which Paul opened this chapter, will eventually cease to have a role in our lives. Prophecy will not be needed in the eternal state, since we will see God face to face. There will be no tongue that will not be known, since all the redeemed ones will themselves speak with every tongue of man and of angels. Likewise, in the eternal state, there will be no person who will possess superior knowledge of unknown mysteries, for everything will be revealed to us.
Looking Out the Shower Door
There is a reason that we have such a difficult time defining love. We have only an incomplete picture of it. We know what love is to some extent by our own experience, and we know a bit more about it from what we are taught in scripture. Nevertheless, the truth is, there is very much that we do not know.
Paul says that although we think we know so much about love, we really are only like children in this matter. Some time ago, I listened to a young boy of about eight years old explaining to me about the process of hauling logs out of the woods. His dad was a trucker, and this boy had ridden with him on various occasions, watching his dad shift gears and listening to his dad explain how to drive the truck. The boy had stood and watched as his dad loaded the big logs onto the bed of the truck using the large, hydraulic loader mounted on the back. In giving me his explanation, the boy even told me how to fix one of the hydraulic lines, should it break.
To be truthful, for a child of eight years old, the boy really did know quite a lot about the subject. From his explanation, I learned some things about it that I had not known before. However, as much as the boy did know, he was still far short of all that he would need to know to actually drive the truck. Never mind that his feet would not yet reach the pedals! In his mind, he was ready to get behind the wheel. But in truth, there was much that he would still need to learn.
Loading up a truckload of big logs and then maneuvering the load through narrow and hilly woods roads snaking through the trees is a relatively simple matter when compared to more weighty matters of eternity, but sometimes we speak like eight year-old boys when speaking of these things. We see the knowledge that we possess about such matters as love sufficient enough so as to be able to give us full understanding.
Paul says to this, “When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.”
What we know is incomplete. Even that which has been told to us in scripture is partial. We would do well to realize that we are not ready to get behind the steering wheel of this matter of love. Paul tells us that what we can now see is as if we were looking in a “mirror dimly.” That analogy was a good one for his own days, since the mirrors were usually ones made of a polished piece of brass where one’s reflection was not clear. It is different in our own day, of course. We instead might say it is like looking through a steamed-up shower door. We can peer out of the shower door and see the forms of the other articles in the room, but nothing is clear.
So it is when we peer into eternity. We may be able to understand some things, but we would be mistaken to think that we possess anything like a full revelation.
“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.”