The most excellent way (part 5): Build people up

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Love…doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant… –1 Corinthians 13:5 (CEB)

Quick: who comes to mind when you hear the word, “windbag”?  (Um, other than me, okay?)

You know the type.  They’re always going on about their accomplishments or accolades, or their latest prized possession.  If you try to tell a story of your own, they’ll impatiently work the conversation back to themselves.  And so on.  These are the folks you avoid at parties.  Nobody likes being around them, because they don’t seem to be interested in anyone but themselves.

And we, of course, are absolutely nothing like them, not the tiniest bit.  Right?

I said, Right?

Paul uses two words here to describe what love isn’t.  The first word is a rare one (it appears only once in all of the New Testament) that refers to an arrogant braggart.  The second is more common: Paul has already used it five times in the letter.  It’s sometimes translated as being “puffed up,” as in 8:1: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (NRSV).  The image is one of a person whose chest is swelled with pride — yes, our friend the windbag.  In Corinth, these were the people who looked to tout their spiritual or intellectual superiority, even above Paul himself.

Why does Paul contrast love with arrogance?  Because the arrogant are constantly looking to build themselves up, while the loving look to build others up.  They excel at extolling their own virtues, but seldom listen to or encourage those around them.

You may know someone like that.  You may have worked for someone like that.

And in some degree, you may be a person like that.

As I am.

A little honest compassion is in order here.  We’re all susceptible to insecurity, to being uncertain about our worth or standing, about how much others admire or accept us.  Sometimes we feel overlooked or insignificant, and are taken by a creeping need to build ourselves up.  The irony is that the so-called braggarts who annoy us by pricking our vulnerabilities may be acting out of their own vulnerability, even if they would never admit it.

Can we love them?  And can we recognize a little of ourselves in them as well?

As we’ve seen earlier, when Paul says that love is patient and kind, he may be reminding us of the quality of God’s love for his children.  Perhaps that’s just the reminder we need: if my ultimate value as a person is grounded in God’s perfect, merciful, and unfailing love, I won’t need to build myself up.

Well, at least not as much.  And in that freedom, I can turn my energy to loving others.