Beliefnet
Mark D. Roberts

 

What Love is All About:
Realism Beyond Romance

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.

 

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Note: This series was originally part of a longer series: God’s Guidance for Christians in Conflict.

What Love is All About: Realism Beyond Romance 

I’ll confess to being a softy when it comes to romantic things. I’m not
necessarily good at thinking them up and doing them, mind you, but I’m
an appreciative observer. I’m a sucker for a romantic film, even a
corny and predictable one. I like violins crooning the background and
happy endings.

But, I must confess that I get nervous about too
much romance in weddings, of all places. And since I go to lots of
weddings, usually with the best seat in the house, I get nervous a lot.
Why? Because I’ve seen too many wonderfully romantic weddings end in
heartache. A couple of years ago, I participated in one of the most
beautiful and elegant weddings I’d ever seen. It was absolutely
wonderful, except for the tiny little problem that the couple I married
divorced in less than a year. That’s a big oops, and a very sad one.

Charles-Diana-kiss-5.jpgI
also get nervous over too much romance, maybe it’s better to say
idealism, when it comes to the church. I often hear people talk about
some new church they’ve found – including a church where I was the
pastor – in utterly glowing terms: loving fellowship, inspired worship,
fantastic preaching, etc. etc. Though I’m glad they’ve found such a
congregation, I worry that too much idealism can lead to all sorts of
disappointment and hurt. No matter how wonderful a church may be, it’s
still full of real people who, though forgiven, aren’t perfect. And in
sucah a fellowship conflict is inevitable. (Photo: One of the most
romantic moments from arguably the most romantic wedding of the last
fifty years, between Prince Charles and Lady Di. Such romance didn’t
guarantee a happy marriage, did it?)

Years ago when I was an
associate pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, I was
coaching a team of leaders that was experiencing lots of disagreement.
One of the women on the team became exasperated and blurted out:
“What’s wrong with this group? I thought we were supposed to be a
family!” My response was: “Yes. That’s exactly the problem. How many
families do you know that don’t sometimes have major conflicts?” This
woman was confronting the reality of the church and the unreality of
her idealistic expectations. Soon she was going to have to make a
choice about whether or not to stay involved in a genuine but messy and
sometimes conflicted fellowship, or to leave and look for greener
pastures where her idealistic dreams would be nurtured, at least until
she really got involved with those people.

One of the things I
love about the Bible is its realism about all sorts of things. Read the
Bible and you get a clear picture of what life is really like. When
people talk about experiencing church just like in New Testament times,
I laugh to myself and wonder if they’ve ever read the New Testament.
Make your way through this text and you’ll find that almost every book
bears witness to the reality of conflict in the church.

But the
New Testament is also realistic about what it takes to overcome
conflict. There are lots of specific instructions, some of which I’ve
already surveyed in this series. But there are also the overarching
principles that will help us find our way through the confusing maze of
church conflict. The most important of these principles is love.

As you may know, there is one chapter in the Bible known as “The Love Chapter,” and for good reason. 1 Corinthians 13 uses agape,
one of several Greek words for “love,” nine times. That’s as much as in
all four gospels combined. Only one other chapter in the whole Bible, 1
John 4, uses the word “love” more frequently. So if you want to know
something about love, you’d do well to consult 1 Corinthians 13.

I
have often read this chapter in weddings. In terms of frequency, I
think it comes in second for all biblical texts (next to Colossians
3:12-17). For a while it was out of style to use this text. But now 1
Corinthians 13 has made a comeback. That’s just fine with me, though I
often wonder if couples getting married have really paid much attention
to what the text actually says. Sure, it talks a lot about love. But
the picture of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is decidedly non-romantic. In
fact, you could almost say it’s anti-romantic. It talks about love in
realistic, down-to-earth terms. 1 Corinthians 13 says nothing about
love being wonderful, happy, or heavenly. There are no inspiring
violins playing in the background of 1 Corinthians 13. If you pay
attention to what this chapter reveals, you’ll realize that love is
hard work, and much of it doesn’t sound like much fun. Maybe that’s why
I like reading 1 Corinthians 13 in weddings. It cuts through the
overly-romanticized, feeling-centered notions of love with the
double-edged sword of God’s realistic Word. It talks about what love is
really all about, warts and all.

Of course Paul did not write 1
Corinthians 13 for weddings. It was written because the Corinthian
church was in the middle of a big brouhaha over many things. It was
written specifically for Christians in conflict, the overarching theme
of this blog series. So, in my next post in this series, I’ll begin to
examine how 1 Corinthians 13 helps us to deal with conflict among
believers in Jesus.

 

Click here for an updated and reformatted version of this series.

 

What Love Is All About: Part 2

The specific problem to which 1 Corinthians 13 was addressed concerned
the behavior of some Corinthian Christians in the common gatherings and
the attitudes attached to that behavior. In a nutshell, some of the
Corinthians got very excited about their spiritual abilities,
especially the ability to speak in ecstatic, unknown languages – what
we call speaking in tongues. Not only did these folks think they were
spiritual giants because they could speak in tongues, but also they
looked down upon those who didn’t join them in their spiritual
exhibitionism. Some of the tongues-speakers, it seems, may even have
questioned whether the non-tongues-speakers were worth having around.
This sunk in, and some of the non-tongues-speakers began to doubt their
value to the community.

As Paul tried to clean up this mess in
Corinth, he began by helping the Corinthians understand the ministry of
the Spirit and the role of what he called “gifts” from the Spirit.
These are given, Paul taught, not for the sake of the individual, but
for the benefit of the community. A person who exercised some spiritual
gift in the assembly, whether prophesying, healing, or speaking in
tongues, did so only by the power of the Spirit and only for the common
good. Spiritual gifts were not, therefore, a way of showing off one’s
spiritual prowess.

After laying out some basics on the Spirit,
Paul proceeded to talk about the church as a human body. His main point
with this image was to help the Corinthians understand that every
single member had value to the church, just as every body part is
necessary if the human body is to be healthy and whole. As Paul was
wrapping up his discussion of the church as the body of Christ, he
began to segue to some specific instructions on the use of spiritual
gifts in the assembly. But then, almost as if he were interrupting
himself, he wrote, “First, however, let me tell you about something
else that is better than any of them [the spiritual gifts]” (1 Cor
12:31). With this preface he began to compose the passage we call 1
Corinthians 13. Here is the passage in a fairly recent and readable
translation:

If I could speak in any language in heaven
or on earth but didn’t love others, I would only be making meaningless
noise like a loud gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I had the gift of
prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the future and knew
everything about everything, but didn’t love others, what good would I
be? And if I had the gift of faith so that I could speak to a mountain
and make it move, without love I would be no good to anybody.  If I
gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could
boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would be of no value
whatsoever. 

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 when it has been wronged.  It
is never glad about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins
out.  Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and
endures through every circumstance.

Love will last forever,
but prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge
will all disappear.  Now we know only a little, and even the gift of
prophecy reveals little!  But when the end comes, these special gifts
will all disappear.

It’s like this: When I was a child, I
spoke and thought and reasoned as a child does. But when I grew up, I
put away childish things.  Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor
mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that
I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything
completely, just as God knows me now.

There are three things that will endure–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13, NLT)

I’ll get into the meat of this passage tomorrow. Today, in closing, I want to note its striking introduction.

The
first verse is clearly aimed at the Corinthian tongues-speakers. If you
speak in tongues, even a heavenly language (which may have been how the
Corinthians talked about what they were doing), but don’t have love,
then you’re just making a lot of meaningless racket. Of course this is
ironic because the Corinthian tongues-speakers were quite aware that
their “angelic speech” was unintelligible to others.

After
taking a whack at the Corinthian trouble makers, Paul moves on to say,
“If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I knew all the mysteries of the
future and knew everything about everything, but didn’t love others,
what good would I be? [literally, “I am nothing”]” (v. 2). Some of the
Corinthians were overly excited about knowledge, so Paul still has them
in his aim. But when we get to chapter 14 we’ll discover that Paul is
going to be a strong advocate of prophecy. So in verse 2 he’s not only
targeting the Corinthians. He’s got himself and his own values in view.

As
the introduction to chapter 13 continues, Paul continues to target, not
so much the Corinthians and their priorities as himself and his values.
Even exemplary faith – such as Paul had – and costly self-sacrifice –
such as Paul had displayed in his life – were worthless apart from love.

I
deeply admire Paul’s ability here, under the influence of the Spirit,
to see his own virtues and values as meaningless without love. It would
have been easy for him to accuse the Corinthians of failing to love
while implying that he was somehow above the fray. But, in point of
fact, Paul says: “Look, even the things I value the most, even the good
gifts of God, even the attributes I exemplify, like faith and
commitment, even these are nothing without love.”

Paul’s example
challenges me to consider what I might value so highly as to act as if
it matters more than love. I’m afraid the list is quite long, so I’ll
only mention a couple of my imbalances.

I’m really big on being
right. I value tight arguments, especially when I make them. Also,
because I care a whole lot about being right, I hate being wrong. So,
for me, the paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13 might read: “If I am always
right about everything, if my ideas are the best and my arguments
always prevail, and yet I don’t have love, then all of my rightness
would be for naught.” (Photo: Emerson Hall of Harvard University, where
I studied philosophy as an undergraduate, and where making good
arguments was, arguably, the greatest good.)

emerson-harvard-5.jpgIn
a related vein, I also care deeply about theological truth. I do my
best to search the Scriptures for God’s truth and to present it
accurately. I can look a long way down my nose at people who make silly
theological errors, or, worse yet, who don’t seem to care as much as I
do about theology. Now I don’t think it’s wrong to care about
theological truth. On the contrary, it matters hugely. But, like Paul,
I need to see even theological truth in light of love. So perhaps 1
Corinthians 13 in the “Mark Roberts Version” should read: “If I know
the meaning of the Bible. If I study hard, working from the Greek and
the Hebrew, and if I actually get the correct meaning, but don’t have
love, then I’m not worth one red cent.”

Perhaps you might relate
this text to yourself. What are the things you prize today more than
love? How would you live differently this very day if everything you
did and said was saturated with love? How would love add meaning and
value to your life today?

Tomorrow I’ll continue this discussion, looking especially at some of the essential characteristics of love.

What Love is All About: 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Yesterday I began my investigation of love in 1 Corinthians 13. Today I continue by focusing especially on verses 4-7:

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 when it has been wronged. It is never glad about injustice
but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never
loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
(NLT) 

Before I get into the details, a couple of preliminary comments are in order.

First,
this passage has obviously been shaped to fit the crisis in Corinth. It
has a corrective tone. I rather doubt that if Paul had been given the
assignment to write a chapter on love without reference to a given
church, he would have come up with eight “love is not” statements among
the fifteen qualities of love. It’s pretty clear that Paul wants to
point out to the Corinthians where their own behavior is not loving.
One might capture Paul’s intent with this paraphrase:

Love
is patient and kind, unlike you Corinthians in the way you treat each
other. Love is not jealous, as you folks are. Love is not boastful,
like you are. And so forth and so on. 

Second, in a
broader perspective, this description of love is, as I have mentioned
before, extraordinarily realistic about human nature. Consider the
subtext of these affirmations:

Love is patient.  

Patience
is necessary in human relationships because people will be slow,
agonizingly slow. They’ll get on your nerves. They’ll keep making the
same mistakes over and over. Therefore love has to be patient.

Love is not jealous.

Ah,
but fallen human nature is so very jealous. We see somebody else get
affirmation and we feel slighted. If someone else is blessed, we wish
we were too. Sometimes we can even hate people who have what we want to
have ourselves. Therefore love must not be jealous.

Love does not demand its own way.

But
we do, all the time, especially when we’re in a fight with other
Christians. We want to win; we want them to lose. We plot and plan to
guarantee our success. Often we get so caught up in winning that we
lose perspective. Sometimes we even lose sight of the truth. Love, true
love, is a corrective to all of this because it seeks what is best for
the other, not for ourselves.

Love keeps no record of when it has been wronged.

What,
no record? Forgive and forget? You’ve got to be kidding. The record of
offenses helps us to win the battle. And it keeps us from being hurt
again by others.

I could keep on going, but I think
you get the point. Paul’s discussion of love doesn’t whitewash human
nature. On the contrary, it assumes that people will be irksome,
self-interested, and vengeful. True love cuts across the grain of human
nature, calling us to what often seems both unnatural and even silly.

Third,
this passage, by reflecting the character of Christ, calls us to
genuine and costly Christ-likeness. Throughout my life I’ve heard
preachers say that the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is
really a description of Christ himself. Take away “love” and plug in
“Christ” and you’ll see what they mean: “Christ is patient and kind.
Christ is not jealous. . . .” Some have proposed that Paul composed
this passage by thinking about Jesus himself, and that may well be
true, though we can’t prove it. But the point of this passage is not
primarily to praise the character of Christ. Rather, it’s calling us to
be like Christ by imitating his love. Thus this text is similar in form
to Philippians 2, which calls us to imitate the mind of Christ as it is
revealed in his humble incarnation and sacrificial death on the cross.

Of
course it’s one thing to talk about loving like Jesus and quite another
thing to actually love like Jesus. I’ll pick up this theme tomorrow.

Loving Like Jesus . . . Easier Said Than Done

 

1
Corinthians 13 calls us to love like Jesus. Though he is not
specifically mentioned in verses 4-7, Jesus is surely the model behind
Paul’s exhortation. The love of Jesus is epitomized, most of all, in
the cross, in his sacrificial death for our sake. We’re to love based
on this model. 

Of course that’s much easier said than done. If
we’re honest, we who try to follow Jesus’ example of love often come up
short. In fact, sometimes we don’t even want to try and love like
Jesus. Have you ever wished you didn’t have to be like Jesus? I have,
many times over. I don’t like turning the other cheek and, frankly, I’m
not very good at it. I don’t like having to forgive people over and
over again. And that’s just the beginning. We can all talk about
imitating Jesus, but really doing it, especially in the midst of
conflict, is just plain tough.

I remember so well an instance in
my ministry when I was working with a group in conflict. The arguments
were fierce and tempers flared. People were showing selfish attitudes
that seemed so unlike what we’re called to in Scripture. Finally I said
to the group, “Friends, I’m hearing what you want to do in this
situation, but my question is: What do you think Jesus would do here?”
One woman blurted out in anger, “I don’t care what Jesus would do. I AM
NOT JESUS!”

Part of me wanted to respond: “Well, that’s
obvious.” But, by God’s grace, I did not pour even more fuel on the
fire of her selfish anger. In fact, I did admire her ironic honesty,
I’ve got to say. But it almost seemed to me as if she was saying that
since she wasn’t Jesus she didn’t have to act as he would act. That’s
just not adequate for a Christian. A better statement would be: “It’s
really hard to be like Jesus because I am not Jesus. But I know I’m
called to be like him, as tough as it can be. So, Lord, help me! HELP
ME BE LIKE JESUS!”

I’ll bet I’ve prayed this prayer at least 200
times in my life, in situations where my patience has run out, where I
haven’t wanted to be kind, where I have had a long record of wrongs,
and where I’ve cared most of all about my own way. Sometimes, I’m sad
to admit, I’ve done what comes naturally and acted in selfishness. But
there have been times when I’ve sensed the Lord helping me to be like
him. He’s given me patience I just don’t have. He’s helped me to
subordinate my agenda to his. He’s allowed me to hear my opponent, not
just as someone to be defeated in debate, but as a human being with
needs, fears, hurts, and tender desires.

If you’re in the
middle of conflict with other Christians right now, I can almost
guarantee that you don’t want to be like Jesus. Admittedly, his way
isn’t easy. But it’s the way of love, the way of peace, and the way of
God.

If you have the courage to try it, take 1 Corinthians
13:4-7 and use it to measure your own attitudes and behaviors,
especially in reference to those with whom you are in conflict. Have
you been patient, really? Have you been kind, truly? How has your
kindness been expressed to those with whom you differ? Have you been
demanding your own way? Are you keeping a record of wrongs? Are you
willing to endure no matter what may come your way? Think about it.
Pray about it.

Tomorrow I’ll continue my investigation of 1 Corinthians 13 and its implications for conflict among Christians.

Love for the Long Haul

 

I
mentioned earlier in this series that I get nervous sometimes over the
hyper-romanticism of weddings. All too often that which begins in
dreamy splendor ends in the all-too-real sadness of disappointment or
divorce. Romantic love is just fine, but it won’t last for the long
haul. 

1 Corinthians 13 envisions another kind of love, a love
that lasts, well, forever. Here’s what we read in the latter part of
the chapter:

Love will last forever, but prophecy and
speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will all disappear.
Now we know only a little, and even the gift of prophecy reveals
little! But when the end comes, these special gifts will all disappear. 

It’s
like this: When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a
child does. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see
things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything
with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete,
but then I will know everything completely, just as God knows me now.

There are three things that will endure–faith, hope, and love–and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:8-13, NLT)

As
we’ve seen before, Paul writes with the Corinthian conflicts in mind.
Their prized possessions – speaking in tongues and special knowledge –
don’t hold a candle to love, which alone lasts forever. But, once
again, Paul also includes the spiritual gift he values most, prophecy,
among those things that will pass away. So, though nailing the
Corinthians for their unloving priorities, Paul makes sure to keep his
own preferences in mind.

To understand this passage correctly,
we must note Paul’s eschatological perspective. Eschatology, the
understanding of the end of history, called the eschaton in
Greek, shapes Paul’s theology throughout his writings. It’s
particularly obvious in 1 Corinthians 13. Here Paul envisions life in
this world as a rather childlike reality. Though we see spiritual
things, we do so imperfectly. But the time will come when we will know
everything completely, just as God knows us now. (The NLT renders the
thought accurately here, but misses the marvelous imagery of seeing God
face to face. What an extraordinary hope we have of knowing the Lord so
intimately and fully!)

In light of the eschaton, love
gains value while the worth of other good gifts diminishes. Prophecy
won’t be needed then because it will be completely fulfilled. Special
knowledge won’t count for much when we know God perfectly. Speaking in
tongues will pass away as well. Even faith and hope pale in comparison
with love when seen in eschatological perspective. After all, faith
will be rather easy when we see God face to face. And hope, well, that
won’t even be necessary because our hopes will have been realized. But
love will last forever. (Photo: A red rose is a powerful symbol of
love, but it does not last.)

red-rose-5.jpgI
would suggest that you and I need to learn to see life in terms of
eternity. We need to equip ourselves for the long haul. When this
happens, we’ll see just how much love is really worth. It’s worth more
than prophecy, tongues, knowledge, faith, and hope.

Remember
that the love Paul speaks of isn’t the touchy-feely kind. It isn’t
about having warm fuzzies. Rather, love is costly, sacrificial care for
others. It’s being patient, kind, etc. etc.

When we’re in the
middle of conflict with other Christians, it’s terribly easy to value
many things more than love, things such as: vindication, winning the
argument, putting others in their place, proving how right we are, and
so forth. Love gets lost in the flurry of argument and anger. We can
actually think that temporal things have eternal value, while devaluing
that which truly lasts forever, namely love.

In my next post in this series, I’ll share an example from my own life of taking the long view of reality helped me to love.

The Long View of Love

 

Many
years ago I found myself in a conflict with a fellow leader in my
church. Though I tried everything I could think of to bring
reconciliation, I failed. As he was leaving our church, he made sure
that many people knew of my shortcomings, or what he perceived to be my
shortcomings, at any rate. Some of what he said was probably correct;
much of it was unfair. In response to his attacks on me and my
character, I wanted desperately to bring this man down, to tell the
congregation – no, the whole world – what a nasty person he had been to
me. In those days the biblical call to love didn’t seem like a guide
for better living. It felt instead like a huge anchor hung around my
neck to keep me from sailing where I wanted to head. 

More out of
a sense of duty to God than anything else, I resolved to love this man
to the limits of my ability, and beyond, I prayed, by God’s own
strength. So I made sure that my public communications about this man
were always positive. I said things about him that were true and kept
the negative to myself (and a couple of trusted friends). It was really
hard to do this!

I wish I could tell you that my efforts
brought reconciliation with this brother. They did not. And I wish I
could tell you that everybody in the church realized what a godly saint
I was being in contrast to the other man. They didn’t, and some left
the church over this incident. If I look at this event only from a
short-term perspective, love seemed to lose the day. It seemed naïve
and self-defeating to love, perhaps even injurious to the church I was
seeking to pastor. But if I look at what happened in light of eternity,
I believe that the choice to love was the right one. If nothing else,
God was honored by my modest efforts to follow Jesus. Moreover, the
painful choice to love helped me grow in my own faith and discipleship.
I became more like Christ in some small way, not only in that moment,
but also in my eternal soul. Moreover, those in my church who knew the
truth, and that included many of my key leaders, saw in my example
something that encouraged and instructed them.

Lest I appear
to be bragging, let me say that I have often failed to follow Jesus in
the way of love. I could collect a lineup of people who would bear
witness to my ample failures. And I surely failed in many ways during
the season of testing I’m describing now. But God’s grace is able to
touch even a person like me. If he can help me to love when I really
don’t want to, when my fallen nature says “Get even,” when my pride
says, “Bring him down,” then God can help you as well.

So
often we Christians have narrow, short-term vision. We look at today as
if it’s everything. Yet if we step back and get some perspective, if we
look at our lives from God’s point of view, if we think about the fact
that God holds all of history in his capable hands, then we’ll be able
to live according to eternal priorities. And from this angle, the
greatest thing of all is love. (Photo: My grandparents and me about 25
years ago. They were married well over fifty years, with a long-term,
committed love.)

Ama-Pop-MRD-5.jpgOne
of my favorite things to do as a pastor is to help couples celebrate
their fiftieth wedding anniversaries. There’s something tender about
recognizing love that has lasted over the long haul. Often these events
are quite romantic as well, and romance of this sort doesn’t worry me
in the least. In fact I think it’s great, well, most of the time,
anyway. A few years ago I was talking to the wife of the couple whose
anniversary we were celebrating. “I’ll bet ‘Jim’ loves you more now
than he did fifty years ago,” I said. The woman’s answer just about
knocked me over, “Well, he certainly seemed to feel that way last night
in bed!” Yeow, I thought, that’s just great, and I’m really happy for
you. But that was too much information! Nevertheless, I know that this
marriage was sustained by much more than moments of passionate fervor.
It lasted because of the sacrificial commitment of both the husband and
the wife. Their love, a 1 Corinthians 13 kind of love, had been good
for the long haul.

May God help us to give real love its
rightful place in our lives. May we learn now to love now in a way that
will last forever.

Love is Fine, But What About?

 

I’ve received lots of comments and emails in response to this series on
Christians in conflict. Many have left me with mixed feelings. I’ve
heard from people who have found my discussion to be very helpful to
them, a fact that would ordinarily make me glad. But the reason that my
ideas have been germane is that so many Christians are caught up in
conflict with other believers. This is very sad. One man put it well.
He said, “Thanks for your series on conflict. It’s right on target . .
. unfortunately.” 

I’ve
also received many questions, great questions, about how what I’ve been
writing about can be worked out in practice. One of these questions has
focused on a particular problem: “What do I do when someone has truly
wronged me? 1 Corinthians 13 calls for patience, not keeping a record
of wrongs, and so forth. So am I supposed to forget about what someone
has done and pretend like it hasn’t happened? This seems wrong. What
should I do in this situation?” This is a crucial concern, and one I
plan to take up shortly.

It’s easy for me to envision many
misuses of 1 Corinthians 13. Suppose, for example, a person has treated
another person unjustly. When the victim presents the offense, I can
imagine the perpetrator saying, “Ah, there you go again, keeping a
record of wrongs.” The NIV translation of 1 Corinthians 13:5 reads,
“[Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.” So, one who confronts another with his
or her sin might be accused of “keeping a record of wrongs,” that is,
being unloving.

Although I haven’t had this exact experience,
I have heard a similar accusation from an employee whom I was
supervising. This employee was not fulfilling his job description in a
number of crucial areas. When I brought these to his attention, he
accused me of being unforgiving and not offering grace. In his view,
since I was a Christian, I should have been willing to forgive all of
his failures, which seemed to imply that I should accept his job
performance no matter how poor it might have been. Yet, for many
reasons, I disagreed with him. As his supervisor, in a situation where
he was not performing his job adequately, I was expected to do
something that seemed a lot like keeping a record of wrongs. How could
I justify this in light of 1 Corinthians 13? Was I being unloving in
fulfilling my duties as a supervisor?

This is just one of
thousands of challenges to the ethic of love. There’s no way I can
begin to address even a tiny percentage of these real-life situations.
But, I will consider the case I have just brought forward and the issue
of keeping a record of wrongs. This example might help us as we try to
live out the call to love in the complicated situations of our lives. 

Love and Keeping a Record of Wrongs

 

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 . . . .