Taking the advice of C. S. Lewis, we want to help our readers “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” which, he argued, “can be done only by reading old books.” Continuing our Rediscovering the Forgotten Classics series, we want to survey some forgotten and lesser-known Christian classics.
Every year around this time, I buy a bag of those heart-shaped confections, the ones stamped with affectionate sayings: “Be mine,” “One and Only,” and “xoxo.” With Valentine’s Day around the corner, many of us scramble to purchase treats, make dinner reservations, order bouquets, and find just the right greeting card for loved ones.
It’s certainly fun. I enjoy buying cheesy cards for my teenage sons and a heartfelt one for my husband. And who doesn’t love a box of chocolates?
But this holiday is also an annual reminder of what the world often thinks of love: emotional responses, physical attraction, and the trappings of romance. In our post-truth culture, love is a feeling that must be acknowledged and obeyed. It’s a fickle emotion, one that comes and goes with the tide of desire, causing people to fall in and out of its pull. It’s conditional, dependent on the other person meeting certain expectations.
Such love tries unsuccessfully to bear the weight of its own contradictions. It’s both universal and also uniquely defined by each individual. It’s both absolutely compelling and also subject to our whims. It’s transcendent and yet demands commercial expression. It calls us to worship the other person and at the same time to worship our desires. It promises to fulfill all our needs. It cautions us not to be surprised when it doesn’t.
Like the flame of a matchstick, this love eventually burns itself out.
As believers, it’s important we have a robust definition of love, one that stands apart from the ever-changing world. For the well-being of our marriages, our families, and our churches, we need an accurate measure of what love does and does not look like. We need a biblical definition of love.
Jonathan Edwards took great pains to illustrate how love must be lived out and exercised in one’s life when he exposited 1 Corinthians 13. Thus Edwards scholar Kyle Strobel has gone to great lengths to help readers understand this classic work of biblical spirituality;
Here is an updated, unabridged, and enlightening version of Jonathan Edwards’s Charity and Its Fruits—the perfect blend of doctrine and application on the all-important topic, Christian love.
First Corinthians 13 and Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards is the 18th-century Puritan preacher best known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” His sermons on 1 Corinthians 13, Charity and Its Fruits, may be lesser known, but these expositions are extremely valuable for Christian life and growth. Both R. C. Sproul and Tim Keller have listed this work as influential in their lives.
In these sermons, Edwards methodically examines each characteristic of love in Paul’s famous list. Not unlike Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, Edwards points beyond the obvious and goes straight to the heart, magnifying the true essence of biblical love. His words drive us to mine the depths of our hearts, seeking evidence of Christian love.
Our triune God is a God of love; each person of the godhead delights in, adores, honors, treasures, and glorifies the other.
Edwards starts at the source of love: God himself. Our triune God is a God of love; each person of the Godhead delights in, adores, honors, treasures, and glorifies the other. His love is also an outgoing love. God loved us, his people, in eternity past when the Father and the Son planned for our redemption.
And our love takes its model and its power from him. We love only because he first loved us. Our love culminates from the Spirit’s work within us. As Edwards explains, “It is from breathing of the same Spirit that true Christian love arises, both toward God and man. The Spirit of God is a Spirit of love, and when the former enters the soul, love also enters with it.”
Fruit of True Christian Love
In a world of candy hearts and love without limits, what distinct fruit should God’s love produce?
Preaching in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1738, Edwards has biblical wisdom for us today.
1. Love Is Patient (Long-Suffering)
Patience is more than just having a good attitude while we wait for something; it’s forbearance. It’s responding to others with a calm, gentle, and quiet spirit, even when they’ve done us wrong. While we may certainly take necessary steps to protect ourselves or to seek justice, Edwards wrote that love doesn’t take revenge or retaliate. Christlike love responds with meekness and humility, just as Christ did.
Ultimately, our long-suffering ought to mirror God’s long-suffering toward us.
Ultimately, our long-suffering ought to mirror God’s long-suffering toward us. Because Christians understand how many sins God has patiently suffered from us, Edwards wrote, “It will seem to them but a small thing to bear with the injuries that have been offered to them by their fellowmen.”
2. Love Is Kind
Kindness is doing good toward others. Of course, it’s easy to do good to those who appreciate it, but it’s hard to show kindness to those who don’t. It’s easy to do good for those who are kind in return; it’s difficult to show kindness when it is met with active unkindness.
Selfishness excludes—and even harms—others. Christian love, on the other hand, seeks the good of others and the glory of God.
But love doesn’t expect reciprocity. In this way, we image God, who sends rain on both the just and unjust (Matt. 5:45). Further, Edwards points out that doing good to someone’s soul—leading them to a knowledge of the gospel—is the ultimate good we can do for someone else.
3. Love Doesn’t Envy
Edwards defines envy as “a spirit of dissatisfaction with, and opposition to, the prosperity and happiness of others as compared with our own.” Rather than rejoice in the good God is doing in someone’s life, we often begrudge them. We want their prosperity for ourselves.
Edwards warns Christians to mortify such envy and seek contentment in God’s providence for us. He points out that Christ didn’t begrudge us anything he could give us, including a throne of glory in heaven.
4. Love Isn’t Selfish
Edwards considers selfishness an inordinate self-love, a love that bases “happiness in things that are confined to himself.” Selfishness excludes—and even harms—others. It pursues only what is best for self: worldly wealth, comfort and convenience, or pleasures and lusts. Christian love, on the other hand, seeks the good of others and God’s glory.
Embody 1 Corinthians 13
Let’s consider what it would look like for our co-workers to receive true love from us—a love that overlooks faults, responds with gentleness, and rejoices with them when they receive the promotion we wanted. Would they see the love of Christ in us? Consider what it would mean to our spouses and children if, instead of complaining about the tasks we do for them or criticizing the piles they left on the kitchen counter, we set aside our comfort to pursue their good. Would it affect how they understand God’s love for them?
If we consistently lived out 1 Corinthians 13 love, perhaps the world would even begin to see through its haze of confusion—and embrace the true love found in Christ.