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1 Corinthians 13 (NIV)
1 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have 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 do not have love, I am nothing.
3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails.
But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.
When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.
12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love.
But the greatest of these is love.
Let me ask you a question about love.
Is love driven by something internal (e.g. a desire, a commitment) or external (e.g. a person, a cause)?
That was a very hypothetical question, right?
What does it look like in real life?
For example, when I Googled “what is loving” the first entry that wasn’t a dictionary or psychological definition was from The Guardian, titled “What is love – and is it all in the mind?” and it started with this:
We crave romantic love like nothing else, we’ll make unimaginable sacrifices for it and it can take us from a state of ecstasy to deepest despair.
But what’s going on inside our heads when we fall in love?
The American anthropologist Helen Fisher describes the obsessive attachment we experience in love as “someone camping out in your head”.
In a groundbreaking experiment, Fisher and colleagues at Stony Brook University in New York state put 37 people who were madly in love into an MRI scanner.
Their work showed that romantic love causes a surge of activity in brain areas that are rich in dopamine, the brain’s feelgood chemical.
... Similar brain areas light up during the rush of euphoria after taking cocaine.
In other words, love is a drug.
Now this is just talking about “romantic love,” but the title of the article simply refers to “love,” as if no qualification is needed.
So The Guardian, as well as our world, thinks that love is some internal drive, like a drug user’s desire for stimulation.
Paul’s definition of love, God’s love, couldn’t be more different.
God’s love
Today we’re looking at three descriptions of love, and I am going to start from the last one.
The three descriptions are:
not arrogant
not rude
not self-seeking
Now it so happens that the last description, the seventh in Paul’s list here in 1 Corinthians 13, is what I believe to be the core description of love in this context.
You might remember that last week I attempted to define love as “a commitment to act for the good of another.”
You could say that that is the positive version of Paul’s description.
But, again, we must be careful with our words here.
What does Paul really say?
As it happens, Paul uses three Greek words: the word for “not,” the word for self, and the word zeteo, which is often translated as “seek.”
As you can see in this word study diagram, that it’s a common word, occurring 117 times in the New Testament, most commonly as “seek.”
And you can see from the range of English words it’s translated into, that it has a fairly broad range of meaning related to searching for something, asking for it, and wanting it.
In contrast to other Greek words, zeteo carries the meaning of a very active, persistent search.
You can see this in famous verses where it is used, for example:
These two verses demonstrate both God’s love in seeking us, and also our need to embrace God’s love by earnestly looking for every opportunity to bring it into this present reality.
In fact, just three chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul had already stated this principal in a positive way:
This really brings out the nature of Christian love.
The world’s love is driven by dopamine hits or selfish desires.
“I have the right!” is the cry of the world, as Paul accurately captures it, two-thousand years ago.
But Christian love isn’t concerned with our own right—it isn’t concerned with itself at all.
Christian love never asks, “What am I getting out of this,” or “Is this good for me?” It’s too busy asking, “is this good for my neighbour?”
What are some of the things we ask of or for ourselves that get in the way of caring for others?
Now, to worldly ears, this type of selfless love sounds incredibly dangerous.
Surely you are opening yourself up to abuse, to being taken advantage of!
But there are two things to remember here:
It is not loving to encourage selfishness in others, and
You have a mighty defender in God who allows us to focus on the other person’s needs, not ours.
Think about Jesus—he is the definition of God’s love, and his life on earth was God’s love expressed in human form.
And yet he didn’t let people push him around.
His mother and brothers tried, Satan tried, the pharisees and scribes tried.
Yet Jesus refused to bow to their control because it is not loving to reward abusive or controlling behaviour.
The key is that Jesus wasn’t focused on protecting himself, but on restoring the souls of those around him.
For example, look at Jesus in Luke 13:31-35
In Jesus’ response to this demand from the Pharisees we can see his deep concern for the people of Israel, and the way that leads him to resist the Pharisee’s bullying.
We can do the same—being unselfish doesn’t mean being a pushover.
It just means that when we stand up to other’s sins, we’re not doing it to protect ourselves, we’re doing it to protect them from their own sin.
And that makes a world of difference to how we do it.
You could say that the rest of Paul’s description of love here in 1 Corinthians 13 is a lesson in how we selflessly love people who are trying to selfishly exploit us.
Which leads us back to the two previous descriptions of love.
Not rude
The two prior words in Paul’s description of love are, in a way, merely an expansion on the idea of love not being self-seeking.
The word that I have listed as “not rude,” the NIV translates as “does not dishonour others.”
This is a pretty accurate reflection of the underlying Greek word.
It’s a rare word in the New Testament, only used one other time, earlier in 1 Corinthians.
There are also two uses of the noun form of this verb, in Romans and Revelation, where the word is translated as referring to shameful sexual acts.
There is a clear connotation of sexual immorality in the way the Bible uses this word.
However, if that is all that Paul meant, he could have just said so (he has no problems being blunt elsewhere in this letter).
Rather, Paul seems to be talking about a broader range of behaviour that is as destructive and ugly and sinful as sexual immorality (and may even include that particular sin).
Paul is not merely talking about being rude by not saying thank you and please, or not using inclusive language, or whatever.
This is about treating someone as an object to be merely used for one’s own needs and then discarded.
Love never, ever does that, because love is never self-seeking!
What are some ways you have seen people “dishonoured” by others, and how could you “honour” them instead?
Not arrogant
And finally we have the description “not arrogant.”
The Greek here, physioou, means “puffed up, as in, having an inflated view of one’s own importance.
It’s easy to see why love is not like this, right?
Because love is not self-seeking, it never views itself as important.
It is too busy thinking about the needs of others to have the time to think about how it might puff itself up.
Some people people walk into a room and expect every eye to be drawn to them.
They expect to be served.
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