If you go to many weddings you have probably heard 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 read at least at half of those weddings. It’s a good text to read at a wedding. 1 Corinthians 13 is the finest description of love that exists. If every couple made this description of love the kind of love that they strove to have toward each other, marriages would be stronger and filled with a greater sense of fulfillment and happiness.
Having said this, it is important for us to see that this passage is not directed toward marriage (though the application is appropriate). It is directed to our relationships with each other in the body of Christ. Paul has been talking about spiritual gifts or the role that we each play in the work of God. Paul is not finished with his discussion of the topic. In truth, chapter 13 is part of that discussion. In 12:31 Paul tells us that he is going to show us a more excellent way. In 1 Corinthians 13 he shows us that what is most important is not the label or the gift that you are given by God, what matters most is the spirit in which you exercise that gift.
We are going to take several weeks to look at this passage. Today we will look at the importance of love and two general principles of love. Next we will look at what Love is NOT. We will follow this by looking at what love IS. We are going to take this time on this relatively short passage because of the importance that the Bible gives to love.
WHY WE MUST LEARN TO LOVE
Notice how Paul begins in chapter 13,
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Paul took some of the spiritual gifts he had just been talking about and says they are all useless without love.
- Without love, speaking well or speaking in tongues is just making noise. You are merely entertaining yourself.
- You can have great insights and passion but if you lack love it is just information that has no positive practical effect.
- Without love, great faith is nothing. Faith can become self-absorbed. Faith can become merely a tool to get what you want. It can even become our idol (we start to have faith in faith).
- Without love, being generous and even giving your life as a martyr, is empty. Japanese Kamikaze pilots and Islamist terrorists give themselves as martyrs. They do it because they hope (foolishly) to gain honor among men and before God. There is no love in these acts. Sometimes we give, not because we care about others, but because we care about people believing that we care about others!
Perhaps you have heard the story of the congregation who called a Pastor. The people complained because every week he told people they were sinners and if they did not repent they would end up in Hell. The Pastor didn’t last long. A new Pastor came and the people loved him. When asked what the new Pastor preached a member of the congregation answered, “He tells us that we are sinners and headed for Hell unless we change.” When asked why they liked the second Pastor when he was saying the same thing as the first, the answer was insightful. “When the first Pastor told us we were headed for Hell it seemed like he was happy about it.” “When the new Pastor says it we can tell that it breaks his heart.”
All throughout the Bible we are commanded to love. Before Jesus died he said this,
A new command I give you. Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. [John 13:34-36]
Jesus gave this instruction as a command. Love is not something that is anchored to our emotions; it is housed in our will. Gary Thomas has written an excellent book on marriage called Sacred Marriage. He writes these insightful words,
One of the cruelest and most self-condemning remarks I’ve ever heard is the one that men often use when they leave their wives for another woman. “The truth is, I’ve never loved you.” This is meant to be an attack on the wife – saying in effect, “The truth is, I’ve never found you lovable.” But put in a Christian context, it’s a confession of the man’s utter failure to be a Christian. If he hasn’t loved his wife, it is not his wife’s fault, but his. Jesus calls us to love even the unlovable—even our enemies!—so a man who says “I’ve never loved you” is a man who is saying essentially this: “I’ve never acted like a Christian”
Being a true follower of Christ means we must learn to love others. The kind of love the Bible talks about is a decision, a mindset, and a way of looking at the world and at others.
Love is Patient – How We Respond to Others
The question we must wrestle with is: What does it mean to love? In verses 4-7 Paul describes love in positive and negative terms. The first two descriptions are a good general description of love. The first characteristic of love is that it is patient. The Greek word used here is always used in the New Testament to describe patience with people rather than circumstances. It describes a person who is slow to anger. Someone has said, “Patience is letting your motor idle when you feel like stripping the gears.” Patience then is the way we respond to others.
Reasons to be Patient There are a number of reasons for us to be patient.
1. We should be patient because God is patient. As you read through the Bible you see how patient God was with Israel. He was even patient with Ninevah and gave them time to repent. We are told that the second coming of Christ is delayed because God is patiently waiting for people to respond to His offer of grace. God is waiting for the “fullness of time”. He is not in a hurry to bring judgment.
Robert Ingersoll, the well–known atheist of the last century, often would stop in the middle of his lectures against God and say, “I’ll give God five minutes to strike me dead for the things I’ve said.” He then used the fact that he was not struck dead as proof that God did not exist. Theodore Parker said of Ingersoll’s claim, “And did the gentleman think he could exhaust the patience of the eternal God in five minutes?”
2. Because God is patient with us. We are a long way from being what we should be . . . or even from what we desire to be! God is patient with our rebellion, our justifications, our rationalizations, and our slowness in truly understanding. If it were not for God’s patience we would have been destroyed long ago. We are to extend the same kind of patience to others that we ourselves have received.
3. The person who is impatient with others will always be upset. People will not meet our expectations. They will not always do what we expect them to do. If we lack patience we will be a very unpleasant person to live around. Patience leads to a peaceful spirit. Edwards gives us a good word picture of the difference between patience and impatience. A shallow stream (like the impatient person) is disturbed by the unevenness and obstacles that it encounters. It becomes unsettled and makes a great deal of noise passing over them. A deep stream however (like those who have learned to patiently trust the Lord) pass over these same obstacles with barely a ripple.
As we learn to “wait on the Lord” we will grow deep and the trials of life will be taken more in stride.
4. To show patience is to follow the example of those who have gone before us (David with Saul; Stephen with his persecutors; Jesus with his antagonists; Paul on the mission field). Every person who has served the Lord greatly has been a person who has learned to rest in the Lord rather than rushing forward with their judgments.
What Patience Looks Like. Patience means giving people time to learn, to mature, and to develop spiritual roots, because we understand that all growth takes time. Patient people understand that we are all “works in progress”. Just as we must be patient with a child who is learning to walk or is learning a new skill, so we must be patient with each other.
Patience means resisting the tendency we all have of drawing premature conclusions about things which we don’t fully understand. Everyone has bad days. We all get frustrated. We all carry burdens other people don’t know about. The patient person is willing to cut another person some slack. The impatient person is quick to take offense.
Patience means holding our tongue. Most harsh words we say come because of frustration or (if you will) impatience. Too many Christians have destroyed their witness to their family, friends and co-workers because of foolish and impatient outbursts.
The patient person keeps scattering the seed of the gospel with others. They understand that most of us spent years hearing about the truth of the gospel before we responded. The patient person realizes that it may take time for others to respond as well. So, they keep praying and planting seeds and refuse to get frustrated and give up. We continue to trust in the work of the Holy Spirit.
One of the greatest stories of patience is the story of Abraham Lincoln,
One of Abraham Lincoln’s earliest political enemies was Edwin M. Stanton. He called Lincoln a “low cunning clown” and “the original gorilla.” “It was ridiculous for people to go to Africa to see a gorilla,” he would say, “when they could find one easily in Springfield, Illinois.” Lincoln never responded to the slander, but when, as president, he needed a secretary of war, he chose Stanton. When his incredulous friends asked why, Lincoln replied, “Because he is the best man.” Years later, as the slain President’s body lay in state after his assassination, Stanton looked into the coffin and said through his tears, “There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.” His animosity had been broken by Lincoln’s long–suffering, non-retaliatory spirit. Patient love won out.
Love is Kind – How We Act Toward Others
Patience is how love responds to others. Kindness is how love treats other people. Let’s be honest, aggressiveness and hostility are very popular in our world. We carry around in us a militancy that says, “I am not going to be pushed around”. If we feel someone is not responding as we want them to, we tend to speak forcefully rather than with tenderness. We often choose to be intimidating rather than soft. We act like every encounter is a battle that must be won rather than a misunderstanding that needs to be overcome. Give yourself a little test,
- When you get frustrated with someone does your voice get louder or softer?
- When there is a disagreement with a business do you threaten to talk to the manager, to tell all your friends what a lousy business they have, or to sue? Or do you work hard to understand and resolve the situation? Do you accept the fact that the problem could be you?
- When service isn’t what you expect do you become sarcastic and abusive or do you consider that a person might be having problems you don’t understand?
- When you see someone in need do you do something to help the person or do you start blaming the person for their problems?
- When you don’t like a particular candidate do you talk about policy or do you attack the character of the person?
I hope this list shows you that we all could learn to be a little more kind.
Kindness has a spiritual impact. There was a survey done of Muslims who have converted to the Christian faith sometimes at great personal cost. The survey (which was over a 16 year period and involved 750 former Muslims) said the number one reason Muslim leaders chose to follow Christ was the lifestyle of the Christians among them. One Egyptian convert contrasted the love shown by Christians “with the unloving treatment of Muslim students and faculty he encountered at a university.”
Others were impressed that Christians treated women as equals and enjoy loving marriages. They noticed that when these Christians came into their communities they showed respect by adapting to the culture of the people.
It doesn’t matter what we say (no matter how truthful it is) if we say it in an unkind manner. We will be quickly dismissed as one who is narrow-minded, angry and mean. Jesus treated people with respect and love. When we follow His example people are much more willing to listen to and understand the hope that lives within us.
Kindness has a practical impact. There are a lot of hurting people in the world. Christian love manifested through kindness ministers to the physical needs of people. It involves giving others what they need (physically or emotionally); it means doing what they cannot do for themselves; and it means taking time to suffer with them.
The kindness that we are called to show may involve driving someone to a Drs. Appointment; mowing someone’s lawn; listening to the same story again and again from a person who doesn’t realize they keep repeating themselves. It could be buying a bag of groceries, reading to someone who can’t see well anymore, or taking the time to pat someone on the back for a job well done. Sometimes . . . it is just a matter of noticing someone and calling them by name.
Two cautions. The kindness we are to exercise is to be motivated by the fact that we care about the person and not because of what we hope to get in return. We all know people who are really nice to someone (to their face) because they are hoping for some benefit that person can provide. We know businesses (and even churches), where the people are friendly until you sign on the dotted line . . . then it seems that once they get what they want, you are no longer important.
The kindness we exercise is to be indiscriminate. In other words it is a kindness we show to the good and the bad, our friends and our enemies, to believers and non-believers. It is not based on our judgment of how worthy the recipient is to receive our kindness. Our kindness should spring from the fact that people are valuable because they are created in the image of God. We often show greater kindness to our pets than we do the people around us!!
This is just the first two of 15 descriptions of love but I hope you already find yourself challenged and stretched in your faith. May I suggest that we think more seriously about love? The first step is to grow in our love for the Lord. The love that Paul commends is a love that comes out of our relationship with God. As we learn to truly love God, we will in turn be better at loving each other. This love will express itself in several areas of our lives.
- Certainly in our marriages and family we find the perfect place to practice patience and kindness. We are given opportunities every day to practice true and Biblical love. I challenge you to be more understanding and tolerant of the flaws in your family members. Work at looking past the flaws to focus on the treasure that is there. Look for ways to be kind. Help a mate, parent or child with a job that “isn’t yours”. Show consideration for the needs of the others in your family. Deliberately think about how your actions impact others in your household. Make it a point to say kind things. Express love and appreciation to each other.
- Begin to practice love in the church. In this place where we so often have unrealistic expectations and frequently take each other for granted, we must remind ourselves that we are in the process of growth. We must be patient with others just as we want others to be patient toward us. We need to work at considering the needs of others above our own. We must continually look for ways to encourage and build each other up.
- And of course we must also take this love out into the world. As we love others people find themselves attracted to the Jesus who loves through us. Kind words at the check out lane, a wave and a kind hello in the mall, a sincere hug for someone who is hurting, a sincere and specific thank you to a nurse or someone who is often taken for granted, a genuine interest in the pictures of a Grandmother, a comment to a Store manager or a letter to a corporate headquarters about what someone is doing RIGHT, these kinds of simple acts of kindness will lighten a load, enrich a life, and open the door to the grace of God. And this door of grace will not only be opened to others . . . it will also be opened more fully to you.
As we learn to love others we will come to see the treasure in the people around us with new clarity. We will savor the smiles and the laughter. We will fellowship with God more deeply. We will discover that love enriches the giver as much as it does the recipient. But, it’s not enough to learn about love, we must put it into practice. And today is as good a day as any to begin.