"What Love Won't Do"

Feb.14, 2010 1Cor.13


Love is one of the most important things in Christianity. The New Testament teaches us that "God is love"; "God so loved the world that He gave His only Son"; and Jesus commanded His followers to "Love each other" (1Jn 4:16; Jn 3:16; Jn 15:17). Once when a legal beagle tested Him by asking what the greatest commandment was, Jesus answered that we're to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and then added that we're also to "Love your neighbour as yourself." But what does it mean to 'love your neighbour'? Is it more than just a positive attitude as you watch them come and go from the safety of your home?

Here's a short video of one Christian couple trying to show love to their new neighbour. Let's see how they do given Paul's description of love in 1Corinthians 13...[video, The Skit Guys vol.2]

So, how does that classify as 'loving your neighbour'? The muffins were a kind idea. But the husband and wife weren't very patient; in fact they were downright rude in jamming the door open. They came across as rather proud or arrogant about their faith. Their 'agenda' was more than a bit 'self-seeking' in that their primary purpose seemed to be to foist their faith on their unsuspecting neighbours and get them to come to their church, rather than offering helpful information in general. Their invasiveness wouldn't have helped their 'target' feel protected, or that they could be trusted. They did persevere, but not in a sensitive way, making it more of an endurance test for the hapless victim behind the door.

Let's hear afresh what God would teach us about real love - the genuine article - as the Holy Spirit speaks to us from 1Corinthians 13.


In 12:31B (which really ought to belong with chapter 13) Paul sidesteps from his discussion of spiritual gifts in chapters 12 and 14 to interject a description of what he terms "the most excellent way" - hyperbolic, supremely excellent, as if someone's hit one out of the ballpark. Then comes chapter 13, the 'love chapter'. What is it that makes love so great? We're not talking here about eros love or 'lust' love that Hollywood hawks as a supposed anesthetic for modern emptiness. Paul's talking about agape not eros, so sex and pleasure-hormones have nothing to do with it. Our culture may try to define 'love' that way, but here we need to let Biblical categories shape our ideas. Agape love is rated "G" not "R". What then is there to attract us to it? What makes it 'most excellent' if there's no chemical kick-back? Why do what 14:1 says, "Follow the way of agape" when our 21st-century media-mania would lead us down another path?

First, because agape-love is the most essential aspect of Christian living, without which all the other gifts - bells and whistles if you will - are pointless. This is Paul's main point in vv1-3 - the emptiness of gifts without love: apart from it, they become just annoying and useless (maybe a bit like those ardent but obnoxious neighbours we just saw at the door?). V1, "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." These were originally basins of brass - the picture here is of someone hauling off and hitting one of those big 6-foot oriental gongs right next to your ear. Or walking along the hall and happening to be underneath one of those loud school bells exactly the moment it goes off. Uggh! The gift of tongues used without love could lead to distance in relationship and needless schism in a church.

V2 lists some pretty impressive gifts - prophecy, being able to fathom all mysteries, the gift of knowledge, and mountain-moving faith. Perhaps Paul was thinking of Jesus' description of great faith: "...if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move.Nothing will be impossible for you." (Mt 17:20) Cool! But Paul says if I have even that kind of impressive gift but don't have agape-love, "I am nothing." Not, "I'm a nobody", but "I am nothing" - absolute zero; zilch. So if you're out to move mountains, or God has shown you some amazing Biblical truths and you're sure you've got a much better handle on things than anybody else in your Bible study group - better tap into some love first before you make a move. It's essential, or things might blow up in your face.

V3, "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing." Commendable generosity and honorable commitment - not long after Paul wrote this early Christians were actually being martyred in the fire, as Nero made scapegoats of the Christians for the fire of Rome and treated them like human torches. But the apostle says even such maximum investment of oneself in the cause profits nothing, is positively useless, unless it's motivated and governed by the essential ingredient - love.

Do you see how he's minimizing all the other gifts - both the ecstatic ones and the teaching ones - relative to the importance of love? Without agape, even the most stupendous spiritual gift in the world is a waste, a write-off.

Not only is love most essential, it's most enduring. This is the emphasis all through verses 8-13. The Corinthian church seemed pretty excited about tongues and interpretation and prophecy and healings - but these were all mere aids in this present time; in heaven, after Christ's return, there would be no more need for them. There's a passing-ness, a temporary quality to them. V8, tongues will cease, literally 'pause'; prophecy and knowledge will come to an end, be rendered idle, inactivated. Who will need knowledge about God when, post-resurrection, you can behold God's face directly? V10, when perfection comes - that which is complete, mature - the imperfect disappears. V11, as an adult full-grown, we put 'childish' ways behind us - they're done away with (same verb as v8, pass away or come to an end).

V12 likens our present state to looking through a bad mirror, compared to seeing face to face. 1John 3:2 tells us, "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is." And Revelation 22(4) says in the New Jerusalem God's servants "will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads." Who cares about streets of gold? That'll seem like pavement compared to the beauty and adorability of seeing God in all His magnificence.

The movie Avatar loads considerably weight into the phrase, "I see you," when the heros look at each other. That's what Paul's getting at with this "seeing face to face", being 'fully known': we'll be appreciating God as He truly is, and know He's recognizing and treasuring us, we're dear to Him.

So agape is truly 'the most excellent way', we're to 'follow the way of love' because it's most essential and most enduring. In the new creation, temporal gifts pass away because they're no longer needed. V14 identifies 3 things that remain or abide - faith, hope, and love; but the greatest even of these is love. (And that's saying a lot for Paul, who emphasized faith and believing immensely!)


So, exactly what does he mean by 'love', if not what pop songs mean by the word? Is there an exhaustive definition here? John Piper comments, "When you ponder the list, it is peculiar. If you come expecting a definition of love, it doesn't work very well. Crucial things seem to be missing. Think about other places where the core of love is defined: John 15:13, "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends." First John 4:10, "In this is love . . . that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." Romans 5:8, "But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." At the core of love is a self-sacrificing pursuit of the beloved's greatest good. Love saves. Love rescues. Love helps. And it does so, if necessary, at cost to the lover. But this core element of helping another person is not the stress in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7...What I conclude from this is that Paul is not trying to define love in the abstract. He is laying love as a grid over the messed up Corinthian church where he sees all these behaviours and says: Your attitudes and behaviours are not how love acts or feels. They were boasting in men (3:21). They were puffed up, even in wrongdoing (5:1-2). They were unwilling to suffer long and bear all things and so were taking each other to court (6:1-8). They were insisting on their own way in eating meat that caused others to stumble (8:11-12). They were acting in "rude" or unseemly ways not wearing the customary head-coverings (11:1-16). They were insisting on their own way as they ate their own meal at the Lord's Supper without any regard to others (11:21-22). They were jealous and envious as they compared their spiritual gifts and thought that some where needed and others were not (12:21-22)."

So, this chapter doesn't give us an abstract definition; Paul's giving some practical guidance in the context of the bickering, boasting, backsliding Corinthian church members. But it does offer some helpful insight into what love looks like when we're dealing with other (fallen) people.

I titled this sermon 'What Love Won't Do' because in vv4-7 more negatives are listed than positives; by majority, it's a 'don't do this' kind of list. But there are some important positives, too. Let's group them and start with the negatives. What is it that love DOESN'T do?

V4, love doesn't envy, it's not overly desirous of what it doesn't already have. Envy is a focus on MY wants.

Love doesn't boast, it isn't a braggart; literally "a self-display, employing rhetorical embellishments in extolling one's self excessively. Love doesn't boast about MY image.

Love is not proud, arrogant, literally 'puffed-up'. It can see beyond the end of its nose; love isn't hung up on MY self-importance.

V5, Love is not rude, unbecoming, indecent. It doesn't act recklessly based on MY freedom to say or do whatever carries the most shock value to snag other people's attention.

Love is not self-seeking, constantly chasing just MY own good, MY interests.

Love is not easily angered, irritable, prisoner to MY temper.

Love keeps no record of wrongs: the language is that of the accounting-office, keeping track in a ledger. Love isn't bent on defending MY rights, being eager to 'settle accounts' by taking revenge.

V6, Love does not delight in evil: it's not yielding to temptation, captive to MY sinning.

And one last thing love DOESN'T do: v8, love never fails, literally 'falls'. Love doesn't succumb to MY weakness.

So, in all these things 'love won't do', can you see a common thread? A preoccupation with me - my selfish interests - my feelings - my supposed rights and image. Love is not Myopic, short-sighted.

Contrast all that with what the same passage says love DOES.

V4, Love is patient, long-fused instead of irritable or easily angered. Love waits for anOTHER.

Love is kind: the word can also mean useful or gracious. Love shows goodness to the OTHER.

V6, Love rejoices with the truth rather than delighting in evil: it enjoys seeing the OTHER person treated fairly, impartially, justly.

V7, love always protects (or, bears all things): literally, 'covering to keep off something which threatens' - like a strong roof keeping off stormy weather, or a protective umbrella. Jesus longed often to gather Jerusalem's children together "as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings": love protects, it provides cover for anOTHER (Mt 23:37).

Love always trusts, 'believes all things' - it counts on the OTHER, depends on them, is willing to take a chance on the other. Like that family who took in the young man who was beat up and leaning against their fence, tending to his needs. Love takes a risk, in trust.

Love always hopes - it prays for the other, anticipates what the OTHER has promised.

Love always perseveres, endures all things. Love puts up with the OTHER constantly, sticks it out through bad times for the sake of the OTHER.

Finally, v13, Love remains (alongside faith and hope), love lasts or abides. It 'is there for' the OTHER.

So here, in this list of 8 things love DOES positively, we can see each is directed outside myself to another person. That's the key dynamic that makes agape-love different from other ways of relating: it's not about 'me' or 'my' but loving another person, caring for the other person not myself.

Again, John Piper comments: "Is it not surprising that the opposite of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is not hate but pride. The main category of what love does not do is arrogance (boasting, seeking its own way)." And he ties this back into those other more general verses defining Biblical love earlier, readiness to lay down one's life for others: "Love is other-directed, not self-consumed. Which means that a massive craving in our hearts must die, if we are going to love. We're not puffed up because we decide to be. We are puffed up by fallen sinful human nature. This comes from deep within who we are as corrupt human beings. If love is humble and other-directed, love is death. The glory-loving, self-exalting, attention-seeking, whining, pouting, self-pitying me has to die."


Agape love is not an option for Christians: it's commanded, in fact Jesus said it's to be a distinguishing feature by which others tell we're the real McCoy: "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (Jn 13:35) Similarly, Peter commanded the early church to get better at showing love: 1Peter 1:22, "Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart." Other translations have 'love one another fervently.' The adverb there translated 'deeply' is ektenos; the lexicon elaborates - "earnestly, fervently, intensely...From a verb which means to 'stretch out the hand,' thus it means to be stretched out--earnest, resolute, tense."

Love really is a 'stretch' some days, isn't it? With the Olympics now on, we'll be seeing a lot of athletes stretching and straining to win competitions. Chuck Swindoll uses that as an analogy to describe how Peter says we are to love others. He writes: "Stay FERVENT in love. Fervent is a word that speaks of intensity and determination. It is an athletic term for stretching to reach the tape. Have you watched the fellows and gals who run the dash? When they come around that last turn and they're pressing for the tape, they'll get right to the end and then they'll lunge forward. I've even seen them fall right there on the track, because they're pushing to reach the tape ahead of the one they're competing against. It's the idea of intensity at the tape, stretching yourself. Those who do the long jump leap into the air and throw their feet forward and they, with intensity, stretch every muscle of their body to reach as far as they can. The same with the high jumpers, or with the pole vaulters. They stretch to the uttermost to reach the limit. That's the word fervent." Let's pray.