ALTHOUGH 1 CORINTHIANS 13 FORMS part of a sustained argument that runs through chapters 12–14, the passage constitutes such a lovely unit with so many wonderfully evocative lines that it has called forth countless extended treatments. Today I shall reflect a little on the first three verses.
This text does not say that love is everything and that the other things mentioned—speaking in tongues, the gift of prophecy, an ability to fathom mysteries and all knowledge, a faith that can move mountains, self-denying surrender of all possessions for the sake of the poor, and suffering a martyr’s death—are nothing. Rather, it insists that those things are utterly insignificant unless they are accompanied by love. Love does not displace them; its absence renders them pointless and ultimately valueless.
This paragraph is calculated to abase the arrogant. History offers sad examples of people who have become proud of their gift of tongues, of their prophetic gift, even of their philanthropy and self-sacrifice. But it is a contradiction in terms to be proud of one’s love, in any Christian sense of love. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why these other virtues are destroyed if unaccompanied by love.
One of the most striking features of this statement about love is how it rules out of bounds one of the definitions of love that still persists in some Christian circles. They say that Christian love does not belong to the emotional realm, but is nothing other than an unswerving resolve to seek the other’s good. That is why, they say, love can be commanded: one may thoroughly dislike the other person, but if one conscientiously resolves upon his or her good, and acts accordingly, it is still love. Quite frankly, that sort of casuistry is reductionistic rubbish. What has just been dubbed “love” is nothing other than resolute altruism. But in these verses Paul firmly distinguishes between altruism and love: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames” (1 Cor. 13:3): here are both altruism and self-sacrifice, but Paul can imagine both without love. So love must be something other than, or more than, mere altruism and self-sacrifice.
It may be difficult to provide a perfect definition for Christian love. But it is not difficult to find its supreme example. Christ’s love for us is not grounded in our loveliness, but in his own character. His love is not merely sentimental, yet it is charged with incalculable affection and warmth. It is resolute in its self-sacrifice, but never merely mechanical self-discipline. If we wish to come to terms with the apostolic depiction of Christian love as “the most excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31b; see also the meditation for October 11) that all believers must follow, we need only imitate Jesus Christ.