Some of the most poetic words ever written about love didn’t come from a wedding or romantic story, they came from a heated church argument.
I have done a lot of weddings in my life, and often I am asked to incorporate the beautiful words of Paul in I Corinthians 13. Love is patient, love is kind, love does not boast…
I know why we want this read at a wedding, but I think we need to read it for where it was written, in a church with people we don’t always like, in moments of intense disagreement.
If you are just reading through I Corinthians, when you get to chapter 13, it can feel like a non-sequitur, as if Paul is just dropping a bit of Hallmark into his argument. But I think Paul is doing something brilliant here. He is writing to a community of faith that is struggling with some members using their spiritual gifts to justify their elitism. He writes a passage that has been dubbed Unity and Diversity in the Body and then immediately goes into his passage on love by saying Now I will show you the most excellent way.
The past few weeks, I have been talking about Scot’s great little book Paul, A Fellowship of Differents and today I would like to hit on one of his major points, a point that I am not really seeing anyone else talk about these days:
We don’t know what love is.
Scot says the main problem Christians have when we talk about love, is that we are using the dictionary’s definition of it. The dictionary defines how words are used in English, not what words meant back in the Bible days. Notice what dictionaries say: Love is an intense feeling of deep affection. Yes, that is what our culture thinks when the word love is used. Love is about emotions and affections. But that dictionary definition, which is 100% shaped by our Western culture, is a pale shadow of what the Bible means by love.
Instead, Scot insists that we must, “Define love in the Bible by watching God love Israel, his Son, and the church – in fact, the whole of creation “
Love is not primarily an emotion, love is a verb. My friend Josh Ross recently pointed out to me that the only book in the New Testament to not use the word love (not even once) is the book of Acts. That bothered me for a while, until it dawned on me, maybe the reason it bothered me is because Acts is too busy doing love, while we are too busy talking about it.
Scot defines love according to the God of the Bible as having 4 elements:
- It’s a covenant together, or a rugged commitment to someone.
- It’s a rugged commitment to be with someone.
- It’s a rugged commitment to be for someone.
- And it’s a rugged commitment with that someone to seek to become Christlike together.
That is the Biblical sketch of what love looks like. And each point is essential. You can’t skip to 4, unless you have spent much time doing the first three. You can’t speak into someone’s life unless you have committed to be with and for them in ways that are tangible.
This is why Paul interrupts his rant on people acting elitist in the church with a very poetic, yet practical definition of love. Because he knew that no one wants to be against love, but he also knew that not many people know what it means.
Think about it. As much as we love Paul’s definition of love here, as breathtaking and poetic as we find it, do we really look like this?
Love is patient? Full stop. I could stop writing here. We are the most hurried, frantic, anxious society in human history.
Love is kind? Not on my Facebook feed it’s not.
Love is not easily offended? But that’s how you win an argument, Paul!
Love isn’t proud, it isn’t self-seeking? I find it telling, that for the first many hundred years of Christianity love was not the chief virtue for the Spiritual Fathers and Mothers, but humility was. Because they knew that the only way to be loving people, was to become the kinds of people who weren’t pre-occupied with themselves.
Suddenly love stops becoming a cover-all talking point and starts getting into something that requires a sacrificial life. Something Christians would call discipleship.
And this is important for us, as Christians, to understand, because, in my experience, we love love…until we are called to love someone we don’t like, someone who is different than us, who doesn’t share our same belief system, or to the same degree, or with the same application. We love love as long as we are talking primarily about emotions, affection, and ideas, and not about real, actual people.
In the words of Scot:
For Paul love is central. It was central because he knew the challenges of the Christian life for those who were now in fellowship with one another in house churches now dotting the Roman Empire. The only way they would make it is if each person learned to love the others. Roman slaves and workshop owners were not used to sitting down at table and praying with Torah-observant Jews, and kosher Jews were not used to reading Scripture with prostitutes or migrant workers – and Paul thought this was the greatest vision of God’s way of living!”
Think about I Corinthians 12-13 again, Paul takes a break from writing about this specific situation to give his people a vision of love and life in the Kingdom of God, a vision that is largely unrealized today, because we forget that love, real Christian love, involves the hard work of becoming loving people.
But it is worth whatever sacrifices we have to make to become those kinds of people. Because the world needs a better definition of love, they need a better example of love.
Because love, true Christian love, never fails.