In my last post I began to consider what it means that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1 Corinthians 13:5). In particular, I raised the question of whether or not it’s ever appropriate for a loving Christian to keep track of wrongs done by another person. One could, and I expect some already have, interpret “keeping no record of wrongs” as meaning “never even noting that a wrong has been done” or “not ever remembering past wrongs for any reason.” So if somebody in the church speaks unkindly to you, under this reading it would be loving simply to pretend as if it had never happened. Is this the right interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:5?
When I used to teach biblical exegesis in seminary, I helped students pay close attention to the actual words being used and to the context, both immediate and larger, of those words. In responsible biblical interpretation we aren’t free to guess what the words mean or to interject what we wish they meant. Rather, we try to discover the original meaning through careful investigation. This is what I’ll try to do here with the phrase “keeps no record of wrongs.”
The Greek words literally mean: “[Love] does not reckon the wrong/evil/bad thing [ou logizetai to kakon].” Commentators aren’t exactly sure what this phrase meant in first-century Greek, however. The phrase “to reckon evil(s)” does appear several times in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament. There it means “devise evil against,” as in Zechariah 8:17 (LXX): “And each one of you should not devise the evil thing in your hearts against your neighbor [ten kakian . . . me logizesthe].” If Paul is using language in the sense of the Greek Old Testament, as he often does, then 1 Corinthians 13:5 really means, “[Love] does not devise evil [against another person].”
But Paul often uses the verb logizomai in the sense of “adding to someone’s account,” as in 2 Corinthians 5:19: “[I]n Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting [logizomenos] their trespasses against them.” So his ordinary usage of this verb suggests that 1 Corinthians 13:5 means: “[Love] does not charge wrongdoing to the account of the perpetrator,” or “keeps no record of wrongs.” Yet I wouldn’t want to build a whole theology on such an ambiguous phrase when we can’t be precisely sure of what it means.
As we try to weigh the meaning of 1 Corinthians 13:5 in its historical context, we don’t know exactly what situation Paul was addressing. It may well be that some members of the Corinthian community were “adding up the wrongs” of others, largely to show that they themselves were better Christians than those with long lists of sins. It may be that Paul’s concern was a lack of genuine forgiveness on the part of some Corinthians, and “keeping a record of wrongs” means “not forgiving.” But we can’t be exactly sure of the Corinthian context for Paul’s counsel either. Our search for the right interpretation of “keeping a record of wrongs” must move to the larger biblical context.
As we consider this greater context, we realize that “not keeping a record of wrongs” cannot mean that there is never accountability for wrongdoers, that sinners simply get a pass when they do wrong. Many of Paul’s own letters contain specific charges against his churches concerning things they have done wrong. Moreover, remember God’s response to human sin. In a sense, God certainly keeps a record of wrongs. Through the prophets he chastises Israel time and again for her faithlessness and disobedience, often listing in detail the sins of the people (see, for example, Isaiah 1). We might also recall Jesus’ “woes” upon the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23, where he chronicles their multiple sins. Since God is love, and Jesus is the love of God incarnate, this sort of logging of sins must not be the unloving “keeping a record of wrongs.”
Where does this leave us? God certainly doesn’t ignore wrongdoing. He not only records it, if you will, but he takes it so seriously that he sent his only son to die for our sins. It would have been much less costly if God simply pretended as if our sins didn’t exist. But this would contradict his holiness and righteousness.
Yet God doesn’t record our sins so that there might be a permanent breach in his relationship with us. He pays close attention to our sin; he confronts us with the truth of our sin; he holds us accountable for our actions so that we might receive his forgiveness in Christ, so that we might be cleansed and set free, so that we might sin no more. In the end, God chooses even to forget our sins (Jeremiah 31:34). But this isn’t the same as ignoring them or pretending as if they hadn’t happened in the first place. The divine “forgetting” happens only after God has dealt with sin through the new covenant in the blood of Christ. We experience the benefits of that new covenant only when we acknowledge our sin and put our trust in Christ as our Savior.
Therefore, God does not keep a record of our wrongs in that, after he deals with them through the cross, and after we confess and are forgiven, God chooses to look upon us as if we had not sinned. At first he does keep a record of wrongs, however, calling us to account for what we have done that is contrary to his will. But in the end his mercy triumphs as the record of wrongs is nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:13-15).
Where does this leave us in our effort to imitate God’s love by not keeping a record of wrongs? Well, it does not mean that we should simply pretend as if a wrongdoing hasn’t happened. (Sure, we should ignore trivial, unintended offenses at times, but this isn’t the main point of our text.) When someone has wronged us, there needs to be an accounting for this wrong. The offender needs to acknowledge the offense so that there can be reconciliation. Ignoring or rationalizing or minimizing sin is yet another form of sin, and must be avoided.
But, at the same time, if you have been hurt by someone, you cannot let that hurt erect an impenetrable barrier between you and the person who wronged you. You can’t let your record of the wrongs of another become the basis for fractured relationship or broken Christian community. Like God, you need to be instrumental in a process that leads to genuine repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. If, after the one who has offended you has apologized, you are still hanging on to your record of wrongs, then you have missed the point of God’s love and grace. This, I believe, is what 1 Corinthians 13:5 would regard as unloving behavior.
Now I realize that the kind of process I’ve been describing isn’t an easy one. Believe me, I know this! I’ve been involved in some of the messiest and most confusing efforts to bring reconciliation. Often what makes them so messy and confusing is the failure (or even unwillingness) of involved parties to do what Jesus tells us to do in such a circumstance. In my next post I’m going to deal with this topic. So stay tuned . . . .