Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
1 Corinthians 13:4-8
A few years ago I was asked to read the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth at my son’s wedding. In the weeks before the ceremony, as I prepared a brief introduction to the reading, I reflected on its meaning in the light of the revelation of Father’s love.
This familiar passage, with its eloquent description of love, is an understandably popular reading at weddings. When I read it or hear it read it arouses a longing in me to love and be loved in the way Paul describes. But there is a problem. If we see it primarily as a pattern to be followed, Paul’s picture of love seems beautiful, but idealistic. How are we to respond to the standard he appears to be setting for us? We may dismiss it as unrealistic – unattainable in this life. We may strive to live up to it, only to fall into cynicism or despair when we fail. Or we may deceive ourselves that we have succeeded, and be tempted to preen ourselves with pride.
Paul introduces his words about love by saying ‘I will show you a still more excellent way’ (1 Corinthians 12:31), but when we look carefully at what follows we see that he does not in fact lay down a set of rules. Rather, he speaks about his own experience:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Paul states three times that his life has no significance or value if he ‘has not love’. It is clear that for him ‘having love’ is what gives life meaning. Nothing else is of value without love. It is, in Jesus’ words, the ‘pearl of greatest price’.
But what does he mean by ‘having love’? (In case you’re wondering, this is a literal translation of Paul’s words in Greek.) It seems to me that ‘having love’ can be understood in two ways. For years I had only thought of it as ‘having love for others’. But now I’ve come to think that when Paul speaks of ‘having love’, he is also referring to the love he receives from Father God. This is the love he (and we) cannot live without. Knowing this love gives his life meaning and value. Without it all his gifting and faith and devotion are worthless. (This reminds me of his words in Philippians 3:7-8: ‘Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’)
After this repeated declaration of the surpassing importance of ‘having love’, Paul goes on in verses 4-7 to describe this love, and it is surely clear that he is writing primarily not about the way we are to love one another, but about the way God loves us. He is describing the ‘unfailing love’ of the ‘Father of compassion and God of all comfort’ (2 Corinthians 1:3), who is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin’ (Exodus 34:6-7). It is the love which Jesus displayed in his life and death as he ‘loved us to the end’ (John 13:1). It is the love of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, sent by the Father and the Son, through whom‘God’s love is poured into our hearts’ (Romans 5:5).
Of course Paul longs to have a love for others which reflects the love he receives from God; of course he longs for the Christians in Corinth to show that sort of love to one another. But he knows that we can never have love for others unless we first have God’s love in our hearts, and when he ends this section of the letter by urging his readers to ‘pursue love’, he is encouraging them to enter a deeper experience of God’s love for them, which is the only way in which they will have the spiritual resources to love others as they are loved. In the words of John Arnott, of ‘Catch the Fire’, he was inviting them to ‘walk in God’s love, and give it away’.
Paradoxically, the best way of ‘pursuing’ God’s love is to stand still, for his love is already pursuing us! ‘Surely,’ sang David, ‘your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life’ (Psalm 23:6). (The Hebrew word translated as ‘follow’ in this verse is translated as ‘pursue’ in more than 70 other Old Testament passages!)
When Saul (not yet Paul) was pursuing Jesus’ first followers, Jesus the Good Shepherd was pursuing him. He had to stop him in his tracks (Acts 9:3) in order to reveal his love to him. In stillness and brokenness and humility he became open to the flow of God’s love into his heart. From that moment Father’s love – revealed in King Jesus and poured into his heart by the Holy Spirit – was the motivating and compelling power in his life.
Back in Psalm 23, it’s no surprise that David, describing the blessings he receives from his Shepherd Lord, puts stillness and rest at the top of the list: ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul’ (vv.2-3). It is in stillness that we discover just how much we are loved.
Father, like Paul, we want to ‘have love’. We want to know and experience your love for us, and to learn to love like you. Open our hearts to a fresh revelation of your steadfast love for us, and by your Spirit guide and empower us as we learn to love as we are loved. In the name of Jesus, who loved us and gave himself for us.