“Love is a battlefield.” “Love is a temple.” “Love hurts.” “Love is a many-splendored thing.” “Love stinks.” “What’s love got to do with it?” Popular songs are full of ideas about love, but what is love, anyway, and why is it so hard to do?
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails…” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (NIV)
This is probably one of the most-quoted passages in the Bible, after Psalm 23. Most of us have heard countless sermons on it, heard it propounded upon at weddings, memorized it in Sunday School, and many have it hanging on a wall in some form of artwork or other.
But I must confess, whenever I come across it, I cringe a little inside. Because like many of us, some of those sermons I heard preached on this passage recommended that we insert our names in there instead of the word “love.” This, I suppose, is supposed to be an encouragement to show us how we should live. A goal to shoot towards.
The problem, however, is that when you do that, you’re messing with Scripture. Fiddling around with the living, breathing Word of God. So naturally, it backfires. And what happens is that this beautiful passage that was written to show us a “more excellent way” is twisted into a checklist. A to-do list. One more set of rules to live up to. The more excellent way turns into condemnation and legalism, but so subtly that many people swallow it whole and think how wonderful it is that God has given us this template to follow to be a more loving person.
And therein they completely miss the point.
You can’t follow a template to love. Love is not a checklist. Love is not a to do list. Love is not a burden.
Because, how many of us, if we were really honest with ourselves, would admit that deep down inside we really feel inadequate in the love department? We just don’t seem to be able to get it right, all the time, and after all, “love never fails,” so we must just need to try harder, love smarter, read more Bible, or grit our teeth a little more. It’s been a constant prayer of mine for years. “Lord, just help me to love better.” Not that that’s a BAD prayer, but I think I was missing the point.
So when I read this passage recently, I suddenly saw it differently. I was trying to apply it to dealing with difficult people, but before I could get too far down my head-shaking, sigh-heaving road of self-condemnation, the Lord stopped me up short.
“It says ‘love is patient,'” He said.
“Yes, I know,” I wailed. “I’m so impatient sometimes! I just can’t do it right…”
He was gentle when He interrupted me. “But sometimes you are patient with difficult people, right?”
“Well… yes, I guess so,” I replied.
“Good then, you’re doing that. Keep doing it. Do it more. What’s next?”
“Love is kind,” I replied.
“Okay, are you kind to these difficult people?”
“Well, yes, usually I am kind. I don’t try to be mean, anyway.”
“Great. You’re doing the kind thing. That’s what you’re supposed to do. What else?”
And we went down the list and I suddenly saw that it wasn’t saying I had to do ALL these things, ALL the time, without fail. It was saying that LOVE is this way. And that LOVE never fails.
Big difference. I suddenly saw that the more I allowed myself to become more like Christ, to be transformed by the renewing of my mind, the more I would naturally act out of love. It wasn’t a checklist; it was a description of what I could expect if I surrendered to Him. And it was already playing out in my life. Not perfectly, because I am not perfect, nor am I completely transformed. Nor will I be, this side of Glory. But I’m not supposed to beat myself up over the parts I get wrong — I’m supposed to celebrate the parts I’m getting right and keep practicing them, because the more I practice it, the more I will choose love without even thinking about it. The more it will become a life-giving outpouring of God’s Spirit and love at work in my heart and the less it will be a set of empty works that I force myself to do through sheer willpower. All one has to do is look back a few verses to see what works is like — a “resounding gong or clanging cymbal.” Ironic, isn’t it, that in trying to “do” love we end up producing the very thing love is supposed to prevent us from being?
The key here is that love never fails. So maybe I can only muster up, in a given situation, two grams of love. But that’s two grams of potent, everlasting, unfailing stuff, so I need to go ahead and dispense it and not worry about the part I can’t come up with. Because those two grams will NEVER FAIL. Those two grams will do their stuff, and the nature of love being what it is, those two grams will go out, make changes, multiply and come back to me. And maybe next time, with all the multiplication going on, I’ll be further along in my own process of forgiveness, healing and becoming Christ-like, and I’ll have more than two grams to give.
It doesn’t matter how MUCH love we have. It matters that we choose to nurture it, feed it and give it away.
Love is not a burden. Love is freedom. I don’t need to beat myself up over the ways I struggle with difficult people. I need to rejoice in the love that I can give, and keep giving it. And remind myself that choosing to be kind, gentle, even-tempered and all the rest of the qualities of love is always the right choice, so even if it’s in small ways, I can go ahead and choose that over being petty, mean-spirited, judgmental or fearful. There is no element of being a door-mat in that; I am simply choosing to let God’s more excellent way rule the way I respond. There will be times that I need to step out of the way of a person so bound up in themselves or their own struggles that they threaten to smack into me with the force of a freight train, so I will. Politely, kindly, without keeping record of wrong, and without dishonoring them, but stepping out of their way nonetheless, and choosing not to join them in whatever hurtful behavior they are engaging.
Because regardless of what those around me choose to do, I have the freedom to choose love. And love never fails.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NIV)