The Still More Excellent Way
The church cannot be filled with Christ if it is empty of love.
No matter how gifted a congregation may be, or how solid their theology, or how self-sacrificial their giving, they cannot truly fulfill their calling as the church if they lack love. Love is essential to serving Christ, to representing Christ. Think of it as the song to which our dance is choreographed. We might get some of the moves right on occasion, but if we’re not in-sync to the music or, even worse, aren’t even listening to it, then are we really doing what we’re called to do? Are we being the One we are supposed to be?
Seek gifts, Paul says. Earnestly desire them, like a starving man desires a full meal. But, he adds, there is a Still More Excellent Way.
The Uselessness of Lovelessness
Paul begins the thirteenth chapter by contrasting the intent of God’s gifts with the results brought about when they are used in lieu of love.
Dissonance in place of harmony
I won’t begin a debate as to the nature of what Paul calls the “gift of tongues,” but whatever its nature, those who did or would practice the gift are to meant to do so in a way that is in harmony with the rest of the church; hence Paul’s teaching that an interpreter always be present, and that the clear declaration of the Word is to be coveted over a multitude of words spoken in tongues. So it’s fitting that Paul compares tongues without love to a misplaced gong-strike in a symphonic performance, or an over-zealous cymbalist with poor-timing. The result is that a gift meant to edify and create harmony becomes a source of disconcertment and dissonance.
Vanity in place of value
Likewise, the gifts of prophecy and teaching, like those mentioned in verse two, were meant to provide clear, pronouncement of the Word and accessible exposition of it. And while doing so without love does not void the Word, it does “void” the speaker. Rather than being a vessel who, through a love of God, of the Word, and of the hearer is glorified and made much of by the transmission of the Word through them, the loveless person is brought lower, shamed and shown-up by the love they profess but do not possess.
Loss in place of gain
There’s a proverb in Scripture that says God repays, with interest, that which we give to the poor. In essence it, and the entire witness of Scripture, gives testament to the idea that we are the ones to gain we give and love self-sacrificially. But this is not the case, Paul warns, when our self-sacrifice is out of any motivation but that of love.
Someone once said that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, or apathy. If this is true then the opposite of the unconditional out-focused love is actually an indifference or apathy about God, the church or others, caused by a greater love of and interest in self. In essence, the opposite of love is pride and selfishness. When we try and fulfill our calling as a church fueled by pride and selfishness rather than love, we ruin our witness and we taint our actions. A church meant to be painted in love’s radiant brightness is instead dyed the dour, sickening shade of self-ambition.
What is Love
If love is so paramount to our existence as Christians, as the church, then we need to make sure we know what it is, and what it isn’t. Saying that ‘love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice,” is a big cliché in church circles, and it’s one that is neither false nor true. Yes, love is more than an emotion but, no, it is not emotionless. Loving my wife is something I have decided to pursue, foster, and make a priority, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also have a strong, emotional connection to her as well.
The manner in which Paul describes love is as something that must begin with a commitment. We will not love as we are called to do by a happy accident. We will not fall into it. We must commit to living in love, to living out love as a lifestyle. The half-hearted will double their grief and halve their return if they and only the those who can and will commit can and will know what it means to truly love.
We see in Paul’s description of love an attitude that arises out of a resolution. “Love is patient,” he tells us. “It is kind, and humble, and joyous, and protective.” We cannot love, it would seem, if we are more concerned about our own interests than we are the interests of other.
Take patience, for example. To be patient is to care about the good of another rather than our own time and own convenience. It is a change in attitude, shifting the focus from self to others in relation to time and convenience. Each attribute that Paul lists as a descriptor of love involves declining to seek self-interest and accepting the responsibility of looking out for others. A study of his entire list leads to the conclusion that his description of love can be summed up thusly:
To love is to commit to living in the attitude that the welfare of others is a greater priority than the fulfillment of self.
Of course commitments and attitudes are useless until they are coupled with appropriate actions. The Chinese symbol for love captures this well as it is derivative of the symbol for “heart” encased by other markings that symbolize action and movement. The end is a word-picture of love that sells it as “the heart in action.”
Why we must Love
Paul concludes his passionate section on the merits of love by reminding the church that love is paramount to their existence, more so than the gifts over which they are squabbling. “Love never fails,” he says to open his conclusion. This does not so much mean that love succeeds in all it attempts but rather that it is perpetual. All other things have an end, but this is not so with love.
One day every gift given by God to the church will see its end accomplished and will be put behind us. They are the “childish things” that must be put behind us once manhood arrives; the “partial” things that will vanish in the glory of coming Perfection. But love will continue, perfectly matured, perfectly realized, and perfectly practiced. This is why it is the greatest of the three that “abide” at the close of the chapter. Faith and hope will one day be obsolete. The hoped for Kingdom will be upon us, the One in Whom our Faith Resides will be among us, and love will be the greater for it.
The Gospel reunites us with God’s eternal love song.
The universe began with a Word spoken in verse, and with refrain, much like a song. Like a love song. God forged the universe from nothing and hovered over it like a mother hovers over her fledgling young. He spoke love to us and the universe sang love in return. It did, that is, until Man chose his own “good” over the good given by God. And the song was muted, covered over and hidden by the death dirge than man chose instead.
The Gospel is God’s invitation to sing with Him again. When Christ willingly went to the cross and chose his Father’s will and the good of man over His own life, the song was heard again in the anguished cries of a dying deity. And all who hear it there are invited to come, lay down their old music, and rejoin the song that God sang over the darkness when he created the world.
The song will come again at the end of all things, and only those who sing it will enter into the new Kingdom. So sing love, church. In all your doings, all your works, your gifts, and all your teachings, sing love.