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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.