Friday, September 19, 2014

The Greatest of These Is Love

One of my favorite passages from the New Testament is First Corinthians, Chapter 13. I once heard these beautiful verses about love recited in a wedding. Though written by the apostle Paul around 55 A.D. to the church in Corinth, these timeless words contain great advice for all relationships. But I want to dig deeper to understand what Paul was trying to teach the believers.
The Way of Love (English Standard Version)
If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 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. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know if part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
To put the first paragraph in context, in the preceding passage in chapter 12, Paul spoke about spiritual gifts and how each member of the church, regardless of his or her gifts, was an important member of the body of Christ. So Paul was not writing about romantic love but about agape, a selfless kind of love for other people. Above all, it is not a self-centered kind of love. Yet, so many virtues and blessings flow from it - patience, kindness, gentleness, humility, forgiveness, peace and joy. This kind of love is perfect because God is its source. God is love. God is patient and kind. God forgives, God protects.

Paul wanted the believers to know that this kind of love is so important that its absence renders a person's spiritual gifts meaningless. The Spirit gives to some the gift of wisdom, to others knowledge, to others the ability to heal, etc. Today, just as back then, we observe people who are religious, yet clearly lack love for their fellow man. Their words and actions betray the selfish motivations of their hearts. Their words are hollow, their voices are like clanging cymbals or nails on a chalkboard. Their gifts mean nothing.

To secularize this teaching, many talented people use their gifts to achieve great fame and/or wealth. Yet some of them use their gifts selfishly; their lives are an endless quest for self indulgence and attention. Even if we do good with our gifts, if our hearts are not right towards our fellow man, our good deeds lack meaning. If we act out of selfish motivations, we have gained nothing spiritually. The world sees our actions, but God sees the heart.

Agape, this selfless kind of love, is difficult to practice. I know that I should be kind and patient and polite and forgiving and grateful but too often, I fail to be what I know I should be. Why? Because my self-centered nature keeps rearing its ugly head. It tells me that no one should make me wait, no one should annoy me. It tells me that I deserve this or that. It tells me that it, this life, is all about me! How wrong I am! How wretched!
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!  - Romans 7:21-25
Learning to understand and practice the kind of enduring, selfless love that Paul described requires spiritual growth. At first you think like a child, but when you mature spiritually, you give up your childish ways, your selfish ways. Jesus is my rescuer and my teacher as I battle with my selfish nature, as I strive to become the loving person he wants me to be. He said: "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing." 

Yes, where all else fails, faith, hope and love endure. Lord, Your Love is a light in the darkness. I pray that your love will abound in me. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is doubt, faith; where there is injury, forgiveness; where there is despair, hope; where there is sadness, joy; where there is darkness, light. Amen.

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