Love…isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints…
–1 Corinthians 13:5 (CEB)
It doesn’t take much effort to imagine how Paul’s words would apply to our own relationships. We’ll get to that in the next post.
But it’s important to remember that Paul isn’t chastising an errant congregation by laying down the law: Hey, you stubborn, clueless people — you’d better not do these things if you know what’s good for you! Instead, he wants them to be inspired to rise above their petty and self-centered concerns. He wants them to fall in love with love.
And what better way to do that than to remind them of the love of a gracious and merciful God toward us?
Everything Paul teaches the Corinthians about love, of course, is meant to be applied to the relationships between them. But we can be certain that Paul wouldn’t say anything on the subject without thinking first of the demonstration of God’s love in Jesus Christ. As suggested in an earlier post, his opening characterization of love as patient and kind is probably a direct echo of the character of God, as if to say: God is this way with us; shouldn’t we be this way with each other? Similarly, when he teaches that love isn’t irritable and doesn’t keep a resentful record of complaints, I believe he’s drawing from the same well of imagination.
Take the word “irritable.” A more literal translation would be “provoked” or “stirred up.” Paul himself was stirred up by the rampant idolatry in Athens (Acts 17:16): here, the CEB, NRSV, and NIV all have the word “distressed,” without any reference to anger (though see The Message).
In the context of 1 Corinthians 13, however, Paul surely means that love isn’t provoked to anger. And I cannot read that without hearing the echo once again of God’s patient, long-suffering love, of the holy God who should be provoked to anger by our sin and yet restrains his wrath.
The point is reinforced by Paul’s statement that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (NIV), or more literally, “doesn’t reckon the evil.” The King James translated this as “thinketh no evil,” and that certainly makes sense: the loving person doesn’t think evil thoughts. Yet the verb has the sense of reckoning or calculation; hence, a loving person doesn’t keep a running tally of offenses.
And look how Paul uses the verb elsewhere. It is God who reckons as righteous all those who have the faith of Abraham (Rom 4:3-11). It is God who, in Christ, reconciled the world to himself, “by not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Cor 5:19, CEB).
I don’t know for a fact that Paul had all of this clearly in mind when he wrote about love to the Corinthians. But unlike the people of Corinth, we are blessed to have entire Bibles to fire our imaginations, to help us appreciate what it means for God to love. How can we remain irritable, when we remember the long-suffering love of God? How can we resentfully nurse the memory of past grievances when we know that not even God counts our sins against us — indeed, doesn’t even remember them (Heb 8:12, 10:17; Isa 43:25)?
If we are to love truly, we must begin with a grateful remembrance of the undeserved love that God has already shown toward us. That should give us the perspective we need.