Every time I read St Paul’s “ode to love” in First Corinthians 13, I remind myself that I need to read it more often. It’s a kind of examination of conscience as well as an eloquent encomium to the mystery of love.
In the first part of the chapter, he compares love to other “ways,” which include spiritual gifts, prophecy, knowledge, understanding, faith, and works. He introduces the section by saying, “I will show you a still more excellent way.” If he speaks in tongues without love, he is no better than a “noisy gong.” Perhaps many would readily agree with that, since speaking in tongues is not something the majority of Christians care to do anyway. But then he gets more challenging. What if I have prophetic powers? What if I understand all mysteries and possess all knowledge? These are things that perhaps we would like to have. But if I have all these yet don’t have love, “I am nothing.” I have all knowledge and understand all mysteries, but I am still nothing if I do not also have love.
Now we come to something that in one stroke destroys the whole “faith alone” program for salvation (I guess Luther overlooked this one): “If I have all faith… but have not love, I am nothing.” Even faith is useless without love. Lest I go to the opposite extreme and rely too much on works, however, I must read on and discover that even if I am radical in almsgiving and self-sacrifice, if I have not love, “I gain nothing.” Scripture says that faith without works is dead (James 2:26). But here it also says that both faith and works without love are dead. So love is really the bottom line, as Paul concludes: “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
Love, while greater than both faith and works, does not exist independently of them. It is not a feeling, a sentiment, though emotions may pleasantly accompany it. Faith works through love, as Paul says (Gal. 5:6). (We could probably also say, for Christians, that love works through faith.) We all probably know, or know of, loveless believers, or loveless laborers in the vineyard. These will come to nothing if they do not believe and labor out of love.
What else does Paul say about love? Love is patient and kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude. If we are any of these things, we “have not love” and so we “gain nothing.” Love does not insist on its own way (now there’s a big one!). It is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong but rejoices in what is right. Love endures, hopes, believes, bears all. This is where the examination of conscience comes in. This passage reveals to us how far we fall short of true love, how much we, in one way or another, “insist on our own way.” But in so doing we depart from the way of love.
Paul goes on: love never ends. All other accomplishments, even all spiritual gifts will ultimately exhaust themselves, come to their limit, or cease with death. But not love. Prophecy, tongues, knowledge: these are all imperfect, says the Apostle, and will pass away when the perfect comes, that is, when we are perfected in the heavenly Kingdom. But love never ends. Even death does not put an end to love, even though it might not be able to be expressed or experienced in the same way.
He gives an analogy: “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 as in a mirror dimly [in his time, a mirror could only offer a dim reflection, unlike modern ones], but then face to face.” He is comparing our experience of this life with the experience of the next. We are but children, the wisest of us, here below, speaking in baby-talk and thinking with baby-brains—in comparison with the transcendent illumination and glorious life of the Kingdom of Heaven. Love is the closest we can come on earth to experiencing something of the life of Heaven. Any sort of intellectual activity is still too far remote, and even though our love on earth is inadequate, it is the best connection we have with Heaven, with God.
I wonder at times how our departed loved ones view us, now that they have entered the “face to face” condition of perfection in the glory of God. How primitive, how dim-witted, how terribly disabled we must seem to those who have passed from the imperfect to the perfect! We probably couldn’t understand them even if they were allowed to communicate to us, for it would be like an adult talking to a newborn. Yet they love us now with a more profound love, for they have entered into the fullness thereof. And, even like babies, we recognize at least something of the language of love.
Let us choose the more excellent way, the way that more fully expresses the image of God in which we were created, the way that enables us to enter into communication with God, who perhaps has some difficulty communicating anything to our lame brains, but who tries rather to reach our hearts with his everlasting love. But if we have not love we will be deaf to Him. If we write insightful blog posts but have not love, we are nothing, we gain nothing. So we ought to go back to reflect on what love is, the patience, the kindness, the not insisting on its own way, the endurance, the rejoicing in what is right, the refusal of rudeness, jealousy, irritability, etc.
Love never ends, but we have to begin. We’ll find more blessing here if we love; we will grow toward the perfect. And we’ll be open to hear and to speak with God who is Love, and who calls us to walk in that way.