read 1 Cor. 13. One of the most beautiful chapters in the Bible is read at almost every wedding. Its words strike a chord inside us, and whether we’re Christian, atheist or agnostic, we know beyond a shadow of doubt that if anything is true, these words are true. We know all our relationships would be better if we read this chapter every day. Some of us who need it most (me, me, me) have it taped to our fridges. It defines love, and here is its centerpiece:
“Love endures long and is patient and kind; love never is envious nor boils over with jealousy, is not boastful or vainglorious, does not display itself haughtily. It is not conceited (arrogant and inflated with pride); it is not rude (unmannerly) and does not act unbecomingly. Love (God’s love in us) does not insist on its own rights or its own way, for it is not self-seeking; it is not touchy or fretful or resentful; it takes no account of the evil done to it [it pays no attention to a suffered wrong]. It does not rejoice at injustice and unrighteousness, but rejoices when right and truth prevail. Love bears up under anything and everything that comes, is ever ready to believe the best of every person, its hopes are fadeless under all circumstances, and it endures everything [without weakening]. 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (Amp Bible) (emphasis added).
Something in us responds on a very visceral level to these words. We would love to be always patient, always kind. It sounds so good. It IS so good. These words are beautiful, and yet they burn like a fire.
The problem is that at the very same time that this description of love inspires us, it indicts us. If this is what love looks like, we have to admit we don’t look like this. We can all too easily become impatient. We hear ourselves being unkind. We can be rude. We can boil over with jealousy faster than the hot milk on our stoves. We can be touchy. We ARE easily angered. We fret over perceived offenses, and forget to wonder if maybe the person meant something entirely different than we assume. We find ourselves ever ready to believe the worst of even complete strangers. We often demand our own way. We can insist on our rights.
We point out we’re not ALWAYS rude. We say, “well, no one is perfect.” But that’s not what the chapter says is love. It says that love is ALWAYS patient, ALWAYS kind.
The absolute clarity of these words cuts through our rationalizations, denial and selective memory. Most of the time, we try to fool ourselves into thinking we’re not all that bad. But the only way we can think that is if we’re not trying hard to be good. Think about it. If we all tried to follow the words above for just a day, we’d fail within just a few seconds. As Tim Keller puts it in his stunning sermon “Sin as Slavery,” if you think you’re good, “it’s only because your moral ambition is too low.” Saint Paul said that the harder he tried to be good, the more he discovered evil lurking within. The harder we try to be loving, the more we’ll uncover the opposite power inside of us.
Occasionally we act like this chapter suggests, but it’s more of an overlap, like when the late Lou Reed sings SWEET JANE. Reed said he liked to sing OUTSIDE the music. That means that sometimes his singing overlapped with the music – but it’s sort of just an inevitability, a coincidence of timing. In other words, yes, sure, sometimes we can be patient and kind, but it was easier because we slept well. Or someone was kind to us that day. Or our boyfriend just texted us he can’t WAIT to see us, and we’re so happy we smile at the next person we see, even if it’s our crabby neighbor. Or if our daughter sent us an I LOVE YOU MOMMY text, we might find ourselves thinking of something nice to do for someone else. Or our promotion seems imminent; we just got into the college of our choice; our bid on the house that “smiles” at us was accepted. In other words, it’s as if the circumstances of our lives act like the music, and our hearts are singing their own lyrics, and every now and then, when the circumstances happen to be good, the two align and magic happens. Voila – we act loving. And we say, “hey, that felt great.”
But the lyrics are hearts sing all on their own sound like a diva warming up: ME ME ME ME!!!!
And just overlapping occasionally with love isn’t enough to satisfy us, is it? Aren’t we made for more than this? So how do we love in the way this chapter reveals love to be?
The answer lies in the chapter itself. The very words that indict us provide the key that unlocks the power of God in our lives. These words can make us weep because at the same time as we meet ourselves here as we really are, we meet God as He really is. We are not love. But God is love. The chapter shows us the character of God. God is infinitely different than we are. God IS patient. God IS kind. God never frets. He’s always ready to believe the best of all of us. He’s never rude. He never boils over with rage at us. He’s always longing for us to return to Him. He’s always hoping, always believing, always loving. God is perfect. God is holy.
Love is a person.
That’s why this chapter literally pins us to the cross. It nails us there by pointing out how unloving we are. We can’t hide from this chapter. And yet at the same time, the face of God beams out at us from the same words. If He is love, the words show His arms reaching out, longing to embrace us with this love.
Our only hope of permanent supernatural joy in this world is to soak up the love of God like sponges. We need to sit under the rays of God’s love all day long, no matter how crabby, impatient or rude we feel. We’re to bask in God’s love for us, like sunbathers on a blue sky day with a cooling breeze. The wash of waves breaking on the shore reminds us that no matter how relentless the evil in us rises, it can and will only break us, over and over, and broken we are crushed into the arms of God, over and over, as He molds us into who He is, in spite of what we are.
In the state of total dependence on God that this chapter brings us, our hope rises up out the ashes of ourselves. We can never truly have hope if we’re relying only on ourselves or another human for love. Instead, we discover in the character of love the truth about ourselves and how God loves us in the midst of all our imperfections. We find in this chapter therefore a freedom beyond the wildest imaginings of our self-righteous, prideful, morally superior, I-will-just-try-harder brittle selves. We find this single truth. We’re nothing without love, which is the same as saying we’re nothing without God. Because God is love.
There’s such freedom there. Gone are empty rationalizations. Banished are useless protestations. Ushered out the door is the lie that we can get there if we just try harder. In their place is only love – God’s love – for us. And God’s love IN us. Because God’s love arrives the moment we ask for it. Because God, of course, is love. And love gives love to those who want it.
So when these words about love make our hearts rise up inside us, that just shows us that we’re made in God’s image. He made us to want this kind of love. He made us to want Him.
The more deeply this chapter convicts us, the more willing we become to ask God to work through us. We let go of our pride and make room for Him. We let go of seeing others as “different” from ourselves and focus instead on how different we all are from God. We start to take in the power of the cross. Jesus bridged the gap between God’s love and our hate. He took the consequences of our hate on Himself, so we can live with love.
Letting ourselves believe, learn and know how much God loves us changes everything. Because here’s the good news:
LOVED is patient. LOVED is kind. LOVED is not rude. LOVED doesn’t insist on its own rights. LOVED is ever ready to believe the best of every person.
We are LOVED. We’re loved, even when our behavior looks nothing like this chapter. The reason we read this passage at weddings is that our deepest most intimate covenant relationship on this earth – marriage – only hints at the deep, intimate covenant relationship God offers each of us. Knowing we’re loved as we are enables us to walk onto the wildest side. We leave behind the things that separate us from each other. We can trade in our pride and its inevitable way of making us hate others, for the love we know we were made for, can never find in ourselves, and can only find in God. And when we focus on how much God loves us, instead of on whether the rest of the world is treating us with love and respect, our anger, jealousy, impatience, and unkindness melts down to the nothing it always was.
posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on October 29, 2013