Word Magazine April 1985 Page 22


“Love: What It Isn’t”

1 Corinthians 13:1-6

By The Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas

What is love? The 13th chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Christians is one of the all time classical descriptions of Christian love. To answer that question St. Paul begins by letting us know that there are, in the Christian life, lots of “important” things that, in the last analysis, don’t count if love is absent from them. Then, he describes some of the ways that love does not behave. These we will look at in this month’s column. Next month, we will see what St. Paul says about what love does do.

Important Things That Don’t Count

In verse one of the chapter, St. Paul begins by referring to “speaking the tongues of men and angels.” The “tongues of men,” can easily be understood as the gift and talent that some of the Corinthian Christians were endowed with to instruct others about the faith. Teaching is an important role in the Church. The “tongues of angels” is what St. Paul calls the ecstatic and emotional spiritual phenomenon by which some believers uttered ununderstandable syllables as a way of expressing their spiritual experience of the Holy Spirit. But he doesn’t have a high opinion of it if it doesn’t help others. Good as these may be, however, if they are done without love, St. Paul says, the result is not of any benefit to those who do them. They become senseless noise: “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Then, in verse two, he turns to the role of the prophet. This means primarily the spiritual seer, who has deep knowledge of the wisdom and mysteries of God. That is, those who “have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge.” In today’s Church, the role of the “prophet” might be that of the “spiritual father.” With these, St. Paul naturally connects those who are very knowledgeable in the teaching of the Church, those who “teach the teachers.” Perhaps today we would identify these as the Church’s theologians. In this same verse, St. Paul adds another group of important believers: those whose faith is very strong, that is, those who “have all faith, so as to remove mountains.” Many of the most important people of the Church have no official position, but through their faith they influence us all in powerful ways. Then, in verse three, some other very important functions in the Church are identified: philanthropy and martyrdom. “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Pretty grim, isn’t it? All these important contributions to the life of the church: teaching, the gift of tongues, spiritual guidance, theological knowledge, profound faith, philanthropy and even martyrdom for the faith, are not at all important in the eyes of God, if they are not accompanied by one important characteristic of the Christian life — love! But just what is love?

Describing the Indescribable

How does one go about describing love? If we don’t know what it is, how can we practice it? Well, that is St. Paul’s dilemma in verses four through six. In reality we know what love is, only because we have experienced being loved. St. John said, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son” to us for our salvation (1 John 4:10). So it is really difficult to “define” love, probably impossible. So, what Saint Paul does is to describe some of the ways love acts, and some of the behaviors which love avoids. Here, love is not described for what it is in itself (God), nor is it described in terms of feelings, or motives. Here St. Paul describes love by the way it causes us to act.

What Love Does Not Do

In this section of the chapter we are presented with eight things which love does not do. If we use our imagination a little, bringing to mind specific situations when we ourselves acted in the manner described by these negatives, we can recognize one fundamental inner attitude in all of them. Here is the list:

“love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful, it does not rejoice at wrong.”

What is common to all those negative things? Self-centeredness.

When we are “jealous” we want for ourselves, the things that others have. When we are “boastful” we are drawing attention to ourselves and away from others. When we are “arrogant,” we project ourselves at the expense of others. When we are “rude,” we only think of our interest, and not other people’s feelings. “Insisting on your own way,” is a way of telling others that they don’t count, and that their ideas pale in front of your views. Being “irritable” means you say things based on your own bad feelings, never thinking how those sharp and hostile words effect others. “Resentment,” means you nurse your hurts, coloring all your relationships with others, in the light of some past real or imagined injustice you have suffered. And, finally, “rejoicing at the wrong,” means you feel good when others fail or do wrong, because it makes you look better in comparison! All the negatives point to a selfish attitude.

Such an attitude can never reflect the way God deals with us. For He is not selfish. He is ‘Love’ precisely because He cares about us, about our welfare and our good. Love cares first about the other, and acts without thought of any personal benefit from that action for the benefit of the other person. That is what love does! We will see what St. Paul says about this in next month’s column. But the first thing to note is that when we act selfishly, we are not acting with love.