Have you ever looked right at something, but not really seen it?
That happens to me regularly in the grocery store — I’ll head down an aisle, get one item I need, head to the next aisle over, and then must go back to the previous section because I walked right by something I would have benefited from paying attention to.
I frequently do the same with 1 Corinthians 13. Paul’s first letter to Corinth is complex; he writes to a group of people entangled in all sorts of things that aren’t ultimately good for them. He writes to them about disrespect of sexuality, worship of idols and desire to take advantage of others for personal gain.
And then in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s attention turns to people who need correction, not because they’re engaged in loose living or public embarrassment, but because they’re trying really hard to do what’s right, but they’re missing it.
Sometimes being in church frees us from our sin; other times, we use our knowledge of spiritual life to become more sophisticated in our ways of sinning. We don’t sin as obviously as we did before we knew better; we just practice sin that’s subtle enough to grow undetected amid the pile of good things we’re doing.
This is what seems to be happening in the Corinthian church.
In sharp contrast to those who are sinning boldly, there’s a group of people who are devoted believers, earnestly desiring to live the “spiritual life,” who believe God has given them spiritual gifts that (if they’re able to hone them) will give them a “hotline to heaven,” so they can really be in tune with God.
They’re especially enamored with the gifts of tongues (or otherworldly languages) and of prophecy (the ability to speak a message from God to God’s people, especially about the future), and so they build their lives around seeking to develop those gifts.
And yet even as this congregation presses into these gifts, many come to church and go home to relationships that just aren’t right.
They try incredibly hard to understand tongues of angels but don’t try at all to understand the neighbor with whom they have a grievance. They’re curious about the mysteries of the heavens; but can’t be bothered to be curious about their neighbors. They can speak a prophetic word, but their relationships are marked by mistreatment, resentment and tension that they carry.
The idea that people can grow in their capacity, success, in honing their God-given spiritual gifts and have relationships that remain unchanged is chilling (but it’s also something we should take seriously).
This is the context for 1 Corinthians 13.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing (I Corinthians 13:1-3).
In other words, it’s possible to do:
- Spiritually beneficial things (hone your faith, build your knowledge),
- Morally helpful things (giving to the poor, sacrificing your body),
- And still miss the main thing, which is to live a life of love.
For Paul, the first place to look to assess your “spiritual health” is not just at how often you’ve read your Bible or given to the poor — it’s to assess the quality of love you’re giving to the people in your life.
Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35).
And if that is truly how we live — a life of love — we wouldn’t be able to put enough chairs in churches. As it stands today, they know us not by our love but by our arguments, our hunger for influence and our defensive positions on cultural issues. But here, Paul is laying it all out for us … reminding us that we can have whatever success and morality we want in life, but if we don’t have love, we’re hanging curtains in a house with a rotting foundation.
We tend to define love as flowery, syrupy or decorative; but what Paul’s describing here is a different kind of thing.
He’s saying love is:
- Patient — able to endure trouble, misfortunes and offenses
- Kind — gentle and attentive toward others
- Not jealous — love celebrates what it already has, without being possessive
- Not boastful or proud — represent ourselves just as we are … no worse, no better
- Not shameful or selfish — not using others as objects for personal gain
- Not poisoned by anger or resentment — slow to keep track of offenses
- Love rejoices with what’s true — even when it’s difficult to say or hear
- Love protects — provides shelter from life’s harshness
- Love hopes — it keeps working toward what could be
- And love is durable and unfailing … because this kind of love is not a decorative thing, or a flowery thing, it’s the character of Jesus Christ, applied to our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our work (fundamentally) is an exercise in saying “yes” to the Holy Spirit as God helps us take on the character of Christ. That “yes” can be so small that we barely notice it — like pausing for five seconds to checking our heart and tone before responding to someone who’s tempting us toward anger. Or it can be bigger; like reaching out to rebuild a fractured relationship and un-poisoning that relationship from long-held offenses. But big or small, our only work is that of partnership: aligning our will with God’s character in the small habits that — over time —harden into character and help us to live a life of Christlike love.
Rev. Ethan Linder is the pastor of discipleship at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development Division.
This article is adapted from Rev. Linder’s Sermon on August 21, 2022, called “If I Have Not Love.”