What Love Does and Does Not Do

Anniversary Thoughts on 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Noël and I pondered and prayed over 1 Corinthians 13 on our 38th wedding anniversary. This is a tradition—to pick a portion of Scripture and pray our way through it on our anniversary. We turn it into thanks and praises and requests for ourselves and our family and the church and the world. Mainly, we focus on our own shortcomings with a view to improvement. We seek God’s grace and power to turn biblical truth into real life. So this time we focused on 1 Corinthians 13, especially verses 4-7.

What is Paul doing here? He says fifteen things about what love does and does not do. When you ponder the list, it is peculiar. If you come expecting a definition of love, it doesn’t work very well. Crucial things seem to be missing. Think about other places where the core of love is defined: John 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends.” First John 4:10, “In this is love . . . that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Romans 5:8, “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” At the core of love is a self-sacrificing pursuit of the beloved’s greatest good. Love saves. Love rescues. Love helps. And it does so, if necessary, at cost to the lover.

But this core element of helping another person is not the stress in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. When you try to group the fifteen elements into categories, there are two big ones: 1) statements about how love is durable and doesn’t give up, and 2) statements about how love is not proud. Thirteen of the fifteen elements seem to fit into these two categories. Of the remaining two elements, one comes close to the proactive helpfulness (as opposed to reactive patience), namely, “love is kind.” The other stresses that love rejoices when truth holds sway. So here is one way to categorize what love does and does not do.

Enduring (not fragile)

  • is patient (longsuffering)
  • bears all things
  • believes all things
  • hopes all things
  • endures all things

Humble (not proud)

  • not envious (or jealous)
  • not boastful (or proud)
  • not arrogant (or puffed up)
  • not rude (offending manners)
  • not insist on its own way (seeks not its own)
  • not irritable (not easily peeved)
  • not resentful (not keep an account of wrongs)
  • not rejoice at wrongdoing (not boast of licentious freedom)

Pro-kindness and truth

  • kind
  • rejoices with the truth (glad for the truth to advance)

What I conclude from this is that Paul is not trying to define love in the abstract. He is laying love as a grid over the messed up Corinthian church where he sees all these behaviors and says: Your attitudes and behaviors are not how love acts or feels. They were boasting in men (3:21). They were puffed up, even in wrongdoing (5:1-2). They were unwilling to suffer long and bear all things and so were taking each other to court (6:1-8). They were insisting on their own way in eating meat that caused others to stumble (8:11-12). They were acting in “rude” or unseemly ways not wearing the customary head-coverings (11:1-16). They were insisting on their own way as they ate their own meal at the Lord’s Supper without any regard to others (11:21-22). They were jealous and envious as they compared their spiritual gifts and thought that some where needed and others were not (12:21-22).

In other words, Paul is not defining love. He is applying love to the Corinthians’ situation and using it as the criterion for why some of their attitudes and behaviors are unacceptable.

But this is not less useful for us. Noël and I saw immediately how relevant these categories were for us. The first category (endurance) says that wherever there is love there is pain—love suffers long (makrothumei) . . . endures all things, bears all things.” This is realism and therefore comforting. If two people, or two thousand people, are in a relationship of love, all will be hurt. And all will need to “suffer long” and endure and bear. It struck us as amazing that this was so prominent in Paul’s treatment of love. So we prayed hard that we would be good lovers in this way (giving less and taking less offense).

Then even more penetrating is the major emphasis on pride. Is it not surprising that the opposite of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is not hate but pride. The main category of what love does not do is arrogance (boasting, seeking its own way). So we set ourselves to self-examination and prayer again: O Lord, reveal and destroy the pride in our lives.

And of course, even though they are in a small category, the other two elements of love are huge: Be kind, and be happy about the prevailing of truth. So that too is our prayer for our marriage.

We have set ourselves some new patterns of being in the word together as a couple in 2007 so that we can press on with this discipline. Pray for us and join us. We are eager to see what God has for our 39th year of “growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).

Pastor John