The words of the apostle Paul to the believers in the church in Corinth – in the first letter at chapter 13 – are very familiar to us, often chosen at to be read at weddings. But when we actually put our own name into the list of qualities which characterise love, how many of us remain comfortable with reading this passage? I quote it here in the Message paraphrase, a fresh and modern expression of the text which helps me to hear it clearly.
Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first”, doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.
When I deliberately consider each quality of love in relation to my own life, I am convicted, bowed before a holy God, because I know very well that I do not love like this. My heart swells with protests about the provocation I receive to act in unloving ways, the unfairness of life, the sins of others, the good excuses I have for failure. And the Judge waits in silence, until my words die away and I confess with grief that I have no goodness in me, I cannot, not by my best efforts, love like this, and never will.
Only one man loved like this, the man Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came to live the life I should have lived, and then – because of my failures – to die the death I deserved to die because of my lack of love. The wonder and the glory is that by faith in Christ, I am considered right with God, in spite of my desperate failure, and not only this, but in believing, I am given a new heart, the heart of God himself, beating with divine love, so that I may live as He would have me live.
While I remain in this mortal body, I will battle against the fallenness of the world, the devil’s activities in it, and my own remnants of sin, but the truth is that I am new. I have the victory over everything that conspires against this life of loving power. With God’s help, each day and year, that victory will become clearer in my life, as I become more like Christ on the outside even as I have been made like him in my heart.
Paul goes on in the letter to the Corinthians to encourage them to persevere in this world of shifting shadows and uncertain lights, where the glory of God and the lordship of Christ can seem so uncertain to our mortal eyes. I find it enormously encouraging that the great apostle could struggle with this as I do, and express it so clearly. We are indeed all only flesh and blood, and it is foolish and unhelpful to any believer to deny how hard it can be to persevere in faith in the face of so much opposition and suffering.
Ultimately our perseverance is a work of God, and we know that it is not because of our efforts that we are saved, but rather His faithful love and Christ’s atoning work on the cross. We rest in that complete assurance of salvation even as we seek – in response to His love for us – to work with Him in realising our transformation into Christ’s likeness. Our failures do not condemn us, but rather drive us continually back to God in confession that without Him, we are and can do nothing. And every fresh embrace of Christ as our sole ground of hope and salvation is a step along the road to glory.
I will finish this post with some more words from 1 Corinthians 13 in the Message translation; words we can pray for ourselves and others, as we journey together, depending on God and rejoicing in His sufficiency for us.
We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!
But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.