Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Love" in 1 Corinthians 13 (Part 1)

Another post that I've have in draft mode that I decided to just go ahead and publish. I hurt my back on Sunday morning and I haven't felt like sitting at the computer for long periods of time, so I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get some of the pre-written drafts cleared out! (By the way, my "Whatever the law says..." series is on automatic pilot, scheduled to be posted daily for a few days).

Throughout my life, "the love chapter" (1 Corinthians 13, specifically vss. 4-8) has been one of, if not the most quoted passage of scripture I've ever heard (perhaps second to John 3:16). The setting is usually a wedding, or else a sermon that's based in one way or another on "how to love."

But during the past dozen years or so I've seen a handful of people look at this passage from another angle - an angle that has really helped me to grow in my understanding of God's love - and I'd simply like to pass along some of what I've gleaned out of all of it. "Love," in 1 Corinthians 13, is the Greek word agapē (ag-ah'-pay). I've heard lots of definitions of agapē, but one thing that is done in 1 Corinthians 13 is that agapē is actually described. It shows what agapē-love looks like in action.

Ok, well that by itself might not be new news to anyone. In fact, the many "how to love" sermons I've heard have generally been based upon the idea that 1 Corinthians 13 shows Christians "how they should behave" (how they should love). Paul is indeed saying that as a Christian, I can do all kinds of things - speak in tongues, have the gift of prophecy, can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, have faith that moves mountains, surrender my body to be burned, etc - but if I don't have love, I'm nothing.

But here's the thing. Does a Christian automatically know and understand God's love? A Christian is complete in God, and the love of God has come into the Christian and is integrated into their new identity, but does it work itself out automatically? Can a Christian simply "work on" these things as a matter of "principles" to follow in order to love people? I don't know about you, but as I read 1 Corinthians 13, and set out to "try" to do these things, I really only end up in failure. It's simply something that all the "trying" of my flesh will never be able to accomplish!

John says, "In this is love (agapē), not that we loved (agapē-d) God but that He loved (agapē-d) us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved (agapē-d) us, we also ought to love (agapē) one another" (1 John 4:10-11). The thing is... with all the rules and principles and legalism and religion out there, and with the huge external (fleshly) focus on "doing the stuff," people may be learning how to do the stuff without actually knowing God's love. They know they're "saved by grace," but yet they don't have a clue about God's love. The love of God is actually in them, but they are so focused on the externals (the flesh, "doing the stuff") that they don't know the power and love that's in them!

John also said "God is love" (God is agapē). As we see Paul describing agapē in 1 Corinthians 13, he is not only showing us what our love for others can look like, but what the love (agapē) of God looks like! In fact, unless we know God's agapē (and unless we know God as agapē), we're going to always continue to have a really hard time (an impossible time) with all our "trying" to agapē people! And so I've looked at this passage during the past dozen years or so from the perspective of seeing what God is like.

If 1 Corinthians 13 shows us what agapē looks like, and how it's demonstrated, and if God is agapē, then isn't this a good look at what God is like? And if God wants us to agapē people in these ways, is He not going to first demonstrate it Himself? In other words, can we not look at 1 Corinthians 13 as a demonstration of God's love?

I believe the first person I heard this whole idea from was my pastor in the late 90's. Then, over the years my friend Mike (with whom I record the Growing in Grace program) has talked with me about it and has also brought it up on our program from time to time. He and I had the same pastor, so I'm sure he got this idea from the same place as I did. In recent months and years, I've heard Paul Anderson-Walsh sharing about it, as well as Darin Hufford. From what I understand, Darin talks about this in his book "The God's Honest Truth" (which I haven't read, but I know several of you have) and he talked about it in this "The God Journey" podcast (14MB download). I believe I've also seen this idea on a blog or two in the past year, but I can't remember specifically which one(s).

More on this in Part 2, and I'll also look at the various descriptions of God's agapē in action from 1 Cor 13.


  1. Hi Joel;

    Back injuries are very challenging my wife lives in chronic pain from a back injury. Currently I am suffering from an injured knee so “I hear you” brother and take care during those Sunday morning prayer times….

    Excellent insights as usual….

    If we are in genuine relationship with God and therefore His love then our lives will be transformed it is not a matter of us working our way thru the self help principles check list. It seems one of the major issues is that so many Jesus followers spend so little time in the Word which God uses to enhance spiritual surgery.

  2. Joel, we're so tracking on the same page today! I had a post in draft format hanging around for months and just decided today to put it out there--and the topic was also on love. Great post of yours and now I'm off to check out the links you gave.

  3. Yeah. I have seen this chapter differently the last couple years, too. It is a wonderful descruption of GOd.

    The church I left a year and a half ago was heavy on emphasizing faith - to the point of turing it into a work - a performance based thing. Sigh, it was not fun. A little while before I left, after our Christmas Eve service, I went to my office to work (was putting in 60+ hours a week trying to be good enough - sigh).

    Lying on my chair was a present from one of the people in my department. I opened it and God spoke something to me and I started crying. The gist was an etched mirror with a part of 1 Corinthians 13:13 - "Faith, hope, love... but the greatest of these is love."

    God clearly spoke to me and said, "Love is more important than faith." Wow.

    A little later, He connected Matthew 7:21-23 with 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. Love is how we even know HIm... ;-)

  4. Hello Katherine;

    Thanks for sharing that life story with us, it is wonderful learning how God speaks to people in their lives…

  5. LS,

    Thanks for the care and concern about the back problems. It's good to have people to relate to. :) I'm finally feeling better this afternoon, and hopefully on the mend.

    I think it's true... self-help checklists don't do us a bit of good in the long run. We may (or may not) improve behavior, but anybody can do that, with or without the life of Christ. Our hope, and help, comes from knowing God intimately.


    I'll be over there to check out your blog post soon. It's cool when things line up like this. :)


    I'm looking forward to sharing some of the things I've learned regarding the descriptions of God/agape in 1 Cor 13. Sometimes it blows me away.

    Wow, what a story. I think you mentioned on Darin's blog that the church you left was a Word of Faith church. The church we attended from 1996 to 1999 had formerly been a Word of Faith church (before we began attending), and we were very, very blessed to have a pastor (the same pastor I mentioned in this blog post) who had come out of all that and who was very passionate about preaching God's love and grace, and he did a wonderful job of contrasting it with his former WOF life. As I listened to him (and I still go back and listen to the tapes), I could see that there was a very skewed view of faith, and indeed it was made into a work, when it was simply never meant to be that way!

    He shared some stories from his past that make you very sad, or very angry! The bondage that some people will put others under. Man.

    "Love is more important than faith."

    Wow, what a revelation to have received, especially in light of that constant and skewed emphasis on faith, faith, faith!

  6. One of the verses which changed my life was 'while we were yet sinners God loved us'. I have heard people saying they looooove god, they stand for God and that kind of stuff. But I couldn't love God until I understood His love for me. I had no ability to love him. Even though I could, that wouldn't last longer either. So I don't know how people can just love god without understanding His love for us - which is understood in the finality of cross and total forgiveness and acceptance in Christ.
    I have heard Bob George interprets 1 Corinthians 13 the same way you just did that it describes the way God loves us, more than how we 'should' love each other.

  7. Bino,

    That is so true. I was just listening to a PTP podcast in which Bob Christopher was talking about how we were created by God to love Him and to love others, but yet it was an impossible thing for us to do. So He took sin away, nailed the handwriting of requirements on the cross, and put His very life in us. (You know the story). :) Now we are free to love (not required to love), and as you say, if we don't first know God's love it's still going to be impossible for us to show love.