Like many people, I have a healthy fear of heights. Or perhaps more accurately, I have a healthy fear of falling from a height. I can manage it when I find myself in high places, like hiking a narrow mountain trail. And of course, I’m careful. But that occasional glance over the edge still sets my stomach churning.
I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that some of the folks in ancient Corinth had the same experience. The city of Corinth was on the water, which made it an important center of commerce and trade. But it was also bordered by mountains. People entering the city by land, including the apostle Paul, had to navigate dangerous passes with the ever-present danger of falling.
That may be the imagery behind Paul’s climactic statement in his description of love: love “never fails” (1 Cor 13:8, CEB). As biblical scholar Kenneth Bailey notes, the word Paul uses actually means “to fall down” — hence, he prefers the translation, “Love never falls.”
As Bailey notes, Paul introduced his ode to love by telling the Corinthians that he was going to show them “an even better” (12:31, CEB) or “more excellent way” (NRSV). Again, literally, the language suggests a “higher” way, like a steep pass over the mountains. Thus, by putting the Corinthians’ arguments about spiritual gifts in the context of love, Paul was showing them “the high road.”
A road from which one might fall.
You know the feeling. You listen to a sermon on the Christian life. It inspires you. It lifts you up and gives you a vision of something higher and loftier.
But somewhere in your mind also lurk the doubts. Can I do this? Is it even realistic to think so?
Feelings of shame are never far away. Even if we’re convinced that we need to change our ways (and that’s never to be taken for granted), we may be dogged with a looming sense of failure. The sad fact is that our attempts at love routinely fall from the heights to which we aspire.
Hmm. Maybe Paul should have said, “Love never falls to its death.” At least that would give us some wiggle room.
As we saw in an earlier post, Paul begins his famous description of love with the words “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Cor 13:4). Here, I believe he is referring first to the love of God, and to our love only by extension.
If that’s true, then the same may be true at the end of his description. Whose love never fails? Whose love never falls from the heights?
Not yours or mine, certainly. Only God’s.
Paul is no pie-eyed optimist. He is brutally realistic about sin and suffering. He knows the misery that human beings — including the Corinthians, including us — are capable of inflicting on each other.
A love between human beings that never, ever fails? Fat chance.
But what we need is a vision that will sustain us through the failures. Paul tries to lift them out of their wrangling over spiritual gifts to see the truest, best, and highest expression of spirituality: a love that is eternal, because God is eternal.
That love never fails. That love never tumbles from the heights. That love embraces us in all our successes and failures, freeing us from shame and giving us the courage to endure.
Love. Never. Fails.
That’s our wiggle room. Praise be to God.