Happy New Year, dear reader! Have you made any resolutions for 2018? Set any goals? Established any plans for what you want to accomplish by the end of the year? In this brief post I’d like to encourage you to make at least one specific goal for this year and to move it to the top of your list. That goal is to grow in Christ-shaped, Gospel-rooted love for other people. Along with all the books you have resolved to read, and all the weight you have purposed to lose, and all the money you hope to make (or give, or save), and all the other goals you have set for the year, make it your aim to grow in Christian love.
Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13 have me thinking that this would be an altogether worthwhile pursuit for us in the coming year.
1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:1-13 ESV)
This passage is as urgent and sobering as they come. Paul makes a number of points about Christian love that are worth our attention. I’ll highlight three of them here.
First, we see that Christian ministry that lacks Christian love is worthless to God.
We see this in the first three verses of the passage. There Paul is telling us that Christian ministry without Christian love (i.e. love for other Christians) does not please God in any way. In fact, you could say that a ministry lacking Christian love is worthless in God’s sight.
He pulls no punches in these verses, making it clear that regardless of what you do in the church, even if you have the most visible, the most public, and the most influential of ministries; if you are not carrying out those ministries out of the overflow of love for God and your brothers and sisters in Christ, what you’re doing is not pleasing to God. God may use you to bring glory to his name, but it will profit you nothing. God may help people through you; but you’ll get no greater intimacy with God or reward from God because of it.
Christian ministry without Christian love is like drummer crashing cymbals with no rhythm. It’s a banker dressed in a three-piece suit, brokering big deals with imaginary customers and Monopoly money. Christian ministry without Christian love is nothing but worthless noise, according to God.
What that means is that you can preach with fire, fill the seats of your church, deliberately and meticulously cross your theological Ts and dot your doctrinal Is, strategize and execute mission statements like a boss, win converts, raise up men to lead the church into the next generation, and risk your life in radical evangelistic service to Christ – and personally profit exactly nothing for it all in the end.
These are serious words that must not be glossed over casually, especially when you consider how Paul defines and describes the kind of love he is talking about. His description of Christian love makes the matter all the more urgent.
The description of love in verses 4-7 is a deeply Christian love, shaped by the Gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, who laid down His life for sinners to save them from the just penalty of their sins.
Christian love is a love that lays down personal rights and personal preferences for the good of others. It is a love that gets its hands dirty to benefit others. It is a love that sweats, and sacrifices, and willingly suffers for the good of another.
Each of the descriptions of love that Paul gives here are verbs. Not adjectives; verbs; fifteen of them to be exact. These are not merely the things that love is. These are the things that love does.
Consider the first verb used to describe Christian love in this passage. “Love is patient” (or “long-suffering”). Christian love suffers long. In the words of one author, “The picture is not just that love is able to wait for a long time but that love receives wounds without evening the score. Love rolls with the punches” (Evan May, Love Gives Life, Kindle ed.).
Christian love begins with the assumption that I am a sinner living in the midst of sinners, which means I know I am going to be sinned against and am determined to extend grace to my brothers and sisters in Christ when they sin against me. Love is patient.
How patient are you? Do you roll with the punches, particularly with those that are punching you? Are you one who sincerely endures with other sinners for a long time without seeking to even the score?
Then consider the last few verbs in Paul’s description of Christian love in 1 Corinthians 13. He says,
“[Love] bears all things.” That is, it puts up with all kinds of difficulty.
“[Love] believes all things.” That is, it trusts that God is up to only good at all times.
“[Love] hopes all things.” That is, it waits for God to make it all things right in the end.
“[Love] endures all things.” That is, it doesn’t run from difficulty, but stands up under it. It keeps going when things get difficult.
“Love never fails.” That is, it is indestructible, it never ends, and it never comes to a point where it refuses to love. Love is, in the words of one author, “omni-enduring.”
The fact is, Christian love is far more committed to the other Christians than what most of us have probably ever experienced in a local church. Yet, these are not the ideals of a wishful-thinking God. These words are to be used for serious, sober, and careful reflection in the body of Christ. Do our relationships as members of local churches illustrate this paragraph in our Bibles?
This passage cuts me deep, because if I am honest with the Lord and myself I have to admit that my love for the church at times looks nothing like what is described here. I have such a long way to go. And I suspect, so do you.
Third, we see that Christian love is absolutely necessary to spiritual maturity.
The simple idea in the closing verses of 1 Corinthians 13 (vv. 8-13) is that love is permanent. It is what we will be doing for eternity. It is what we will be doing after Jesus returns and heaven and earth are made new. The relevance of the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is to show that what is truly advanced in the Christian life, is love; that the epitome of the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church, is love; and that without it, all the other things we do in the church are of little value.
What that means, is that if you reach the end of 2018 having met every resolution you had set for the year, but have not grown in Christian love, you won’t really have progressed
Conclusion: What to do?
If you find yourself convicted as a result of reading this post and are wondering what you should do in response, I’ll close by offering a few ways you can pursue love in 2018.
First, remember how loved you have been and continue to be by God. Paul puts it simply in Ephesians 5:2 when he says, “walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Let the truth of Christ’s love for you dwell within you, leading you to love. Study the love of God for his people. Meditate daily on the love of Christ who willingly laid down his life for you on the cross. Read authors who engage your heart with truth of God’s faithful love for his own. Don’t lose sight of how loved you are by God.
Second, if you see that your love for your brothers and sisters in Christ is clearly lacking, confess your sin to God. Confess your failure to love as sin against God and against his people. I continue to find that open and honest confession of sin is often the match that lights a fire of spiritual renewal and refreshment in my walk with Christ, something the Scriptures attest to as well, I believe. If you see a clear lack of love in your life (as defined in 1 Corinthians 13), confess that lack of love as sin to God and ask him to make you more loving as he continues to conform you to the image of his Son.
And finally, don’t forget the power that is available to you from God to enable you to live this life of love. We are not left to our own strength and our own resources to love our brothers and sisters in Christ. He has given us of His Spirit to enable us for these things. As Gordon Fee says in his commentary on 1 Corinthians: “The life that is touched by the never-ceasing love of God in Christ is in turn enabled by the Spirit to love others in the same way” (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 640). In other words, don’t be fooled into thinking that this will be easy. It won’t. It will challenge every sinful impulse that continues to live within you. It will require you to look at people differently, even those who hurt you, betray you, or simply annoy you. But God has given you power to resist those impulses, so walk by the Spirit and love to the glory of God.