In the previous post, I asked you to consider why Paul would pause in the middle of a perfectly good Q/A session about spiritual gifts to talk about love.
The answer, I think, is that he knew how the Corinthians might twist his words.
Even though he was careful to stress the importance of unity, Paul knew that their self-centered habits of thought were deeply ingrained and not easily overcome. Thus, he included chapter 13 in 1 Corinthians to send an important message: I’ll answer your question, but here’s what it’s all about. Love is more important than any spiritual gift; if you want to learn what true spirituality is, learn this.
What Paul writes about love wasn’t meant for a Valentines Day card or some kitschy Christian keepsake. It’s not about romance or sentimentality. It’s tough, prophetic stuff for a fractious and fractured church, and by extension, for any relationship between believers.
I’ll spell out some of what I believe Paul to be saying post by post (you can find a much more detailed exposition here). He’s not writing about love in the abstract, but in a way that specifically addresses the un-loving relationships between the Corinthians; if he had been writing to another congregation, he might have described love a little differently. His point is not to “define” love in some general sense, but to show what love would look like in their midst.
He uses a string of verbs to describe what the Corinthians should and shouldn’t do:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor 13:45-8a, NRSV)
Yes, those are all verbs — even the words like “patient” and “kind” that have to be translated as adjectives in English. And for Paul, to begin with patience and kindness is to begin with God.
In the Old Testament tradition, patience and love are often bound together when God’s character is described (e.g., Exod 34:6; Ps 86:15; Joel 2:13). A holy God doesn’t have to put up with fickle, selfish, sinful human beings. But that’s exactly what God does. The word Paul uses for patience could be translated as “long-suffering” (as the King James does) or “slow to anger.” If you like, we might say that God has a “long fuse.”
Good thing for us.
The word translated as “kind” is also rich in meaning. It’s more than mere niceness. In the Psalms, for example, the same word is used (in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament) to describe God as the One who is good, does good, and gives what is good (e.g., Ps 31:19; 65:11; 85:12; 119:68). In turn, God’s people are to reflect that character and do good themselves (e.g., Ps 37:3).
God, in other words, treats us with inexplicable patience and kindness, suffering our sin and doing things for our good.
Here, then, is Paul’s implied question: if this is who God is, then who should his people be?
The truth is that we easily become impatient with the faults of others. We are tempted to retaliate when we feel offended.
But then we must remember how we would be dead in our sin without the grace of God, without God’s patience and kindness.
And we must keep that in mind as we decide what it might mean, here and now, to respond to others with love.