Failure is not an option

Anyone who has ever failed at being a perfectly loving person, raise your hand.

When Paul’s words about love are recited at weddings, they sound romantically poetic.  But once you begin reflecting on them with any degree of self-scrutiny, they can also be intimidating.  Really, who loves like that?  Well, Jesus, of course — but me?  And as Paul reaches his crescendo, declaring not only that love “puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things” but that love “never fails” (1 Cor 13:7-8, CEB), our own failure may be painfully obvious.

Paul is, of course, critical of the way the Corinthians have treated one another, especially when it came to the matter of spiritual gifts.  They apparently suffered from what theologians call an “overrealized eschatology” — believing, in other words, that God’s promises had for the most part already been fulfilled.  Small wonder that people might have been concerned about who had what gift, like children looking at the empty floor beneath the Christmas tree and hoping that there might be one more present hiding in a closet somewhere.

When Paul says that love never fails, our human failures are certainly implied.  But that’s not the point.  He wants believers to take the long view.  In the first three verses of the chapter, he already told them that their most cherished spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues and special knowledge, mean nothing without love.  The same is true of the gift of prophecy, which is the one that Paul himself champions: without love, what good is it?

In verse 8, he returns to that line of thought.  What does it mean for love never to fail (or more literally, to “fall down”)?   Prophecy, tongues, knowledge: eventually, in the future God has planned, these gifts, as useful as they are in the present, will come to an end.  But not love.  How could it?  As John declares, love is of the very nature of God (1 John 4:8,16), and that love is meant to infuse and grow to fullness in our relationships to one another (1 John 4:11-12, 20-21).  That’s a lesson John remembered directly from his Master: “Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other.  This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other” (John 13:34-35, CEB).

The question is not whether we fail at love: we do, and we will.  The question is whether we understand ourselves to be disciples on a journey, people who despite our failures are nonetheless indwelt by the Spirit of Jesus and the God who is Love.  When we love one another, it’s more than just “getting it right for once” (and about time!) — it’s a demonstration of the heart of the gospel, a bit of tomorrow penetrating today.

Paul wants to captivate our imaginations with a vision of the future in which love reigns.  He’s not asking us to read that profound description of love and hang our heads as if to say, “I’m not very good at that.”  He wants us to get excited, to say, “I want some of that,” and to know that we are already divinely empowered to make it happen.