THE GREATEST IS LOVE
By David Feddes
Zero times anything equals zero. It’s a relief to know this when you’re a child learning multiplication. Multiplication problems can be hard, but those with a zero in them are easy: 0x1=0; 0x2=0; 0x3=0; 0x100=0; 0x1,000=0; zero times a million equals zero. Simple, isn’t it?
The math is equally simple, but maybe not so comforting, when you want to figure out the value of your actions. The final product of any action equals that action multiplied by the love you have. If you have zero love, then anything you do, no matter what it is, amounts to zero. Zero times anything equals zero.
The Bible tells us this in 1 Corinthians 13. The apostle Paul writes under inspiration from the Holy Spirit:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not 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 have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing (v. 1-3).
This is one of the most splendid passages in the Bible. But it addresses realities that aren’t so splendid. God originally inspired Paul to write these words to people in Corinth who seemed to have it all—except love.
Some in the church at Corinth spoke in tongues. They were so pleased and so proud of this special gift that they said anybody who didn’t speak in tongues was at best a second-rate Christian, not really filled with the Holy Spirit—or else not a Christian at all. But Paul, guided by God, said otherwise. He said that although he could speak in tongues with the best of them, that particular gift isn’t nearly the most important of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, and it certainly isn’t as important as having God’s kind of love. In fact, without love, you could speak every language of men and angels and still be no better than the bong of a gong.
Many at Corinth took pride in having special ties to a particular Christian leader, such as Paul or Apollos or Peter. Some even claimed a special, direct tie with Christ himself. Each group felt superior to others who didn’t have their special ties to their special leader. They felt they had the inside track on prophecy and spiritual mysteries and knowledge. But even if what they claimed were true, what would it amount to without love? Zero. Just hot air, puffing them up and swelling their heads.
A number of Corinthians were into miracles and faith healing. They were so excited about the miraculous power of their faith that they saw no need for Jesus to come again and raise the dead and make all things new. They figured they could do all of that right now! “Who needs the resurrection?” they wondered. “Who needs heaven? With enough faith, you’re already as good as there!” And if anybody were suffering from health problems or financial setbacks or spiritual struggles, they simply said, “You just don’t have enough faith! You need to be more like us—the real believers. We have the faith to heal any disease and move any mountain right now—even before Christ comes again.” But this way of judging other people’s faith and boasting of their own faith showed a lack of love, so the mountain-moving faith on which they prided themselves amounted to a big, fat zero.
Now, God doesn’t say that speaking in tongues or prophetic knowledge or mountain-sized faith are bad. He just says these things don’t amount to anything without love.
But let’s take it a step further? What if I sell everything and give to the poor, and I do it to relieve a guilt complex or simply to prove how generous and unselfish I am? What if I seek martyrdom, and I do it out of a desire to be a hero for my cause? Well, generous giving and heroic self-sacrifice are great things, but if they’re not motivated by the love that comes from God, then even these great things amount to zero.
Figuring out what your life amounts to isn’t a matter of addition. You don’t have a certain total of good deeds and spiritual abilities that then increases a bit if love is added or remains the same if love isn’t added. No, love is the factor that multiplies everything else. If love is present, it dramatically multiplies the value of everything else. If the love factor is zero, it reduces everything else to zero.
Down to Earth
So then, the opening part of 1 Corinthians 13 shows how necessary love is. The next part shows what love looks like in action. The word love gets used in many different ways, but what does God’s kind of love look like? It’s not just a warm feeling or a spiritual high. Love shows itself in day-to-day behavior. Love comes from heaven, but it’s down-to-earth. The next thing the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 13 is this:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).
“Love is patient.” Translated literally, love “suffers long.” Love puts up with a lot. Love hangs in there. That doesn’t sound very flashy, does it? We’d like the power to fix every situation that’s broken and to straighten out every person that needs to be straightened out. But patience is the willingness to endure broken situations that don’t seem likely to get fixed any time soon, and to put up with people who may not be straightened out for a very long time–if ever. That’s the power of love. Love suffers long. “Love is patient.”
“Love is kind.” It’s gentle to fragile people. It’s generous to needy people. It’s tender to hurting people. It’s encouraging to insecure people. It’s helpful to people who need a hand. Love is kind—even to those who don’t deserve kindness. Love repays evil with good, cruelty with kindness. Love prays for persecutors. Love looks for ways to help a bad person become good, to help an enemy become a friend. Love “is kind.”
What Love Never Does
Now we come to some things love doesn’t do. Love “does not envy.” Envy involves resenting someone who is ahead of me and wishing that what’s theirs would be mine instead. Envy comes when I love myself more than others. When somebody else does better in school, when somebody else is the star of the game, when somebody else gets the top job, when somebody else’s kids succeed, envy scowls. But love smiles. Envy wants everything good for oneself. But love is grateful whenever good things happen, whether they happen to me or to others. Love “does not envy.”
Love “does not boast.” When life is competition, I’ve got to brag. I’ve got to promote myself and advertise myself. If I do something right, I’ve got to make sure somebody else knows about it. If I don’t toot my own horn, my horn might go untooted. What’s the use of doing something good if nobody else notices? I have to make sure that other people have the highest possible opinion of me! I have to boast! And in the process, I become more concerned with impressing others than with loving them. Love doesn’t compete for attention and admiration. Instead of trying to get itself noticed, love goes out of its way to notice what’s good in others. Love “does not boast.”
Love “is not proud.” There may be times when I resist the urge to brag and boast, but I may still keep a secret tally of my own excellence and superiority over others. Love doesn’t do that. When I live in pride, I don’t see my own flaws; or, if I do, I have a ready excuse for them. Pride puts what I do in the best possible light; pride what others do in the worst possible light. That way I come out on top. Love, however, tends to put others first and even to count them as better than myself. Love “is not proud.”
Love “is not rude.” After all, love is patient and kind, and it’s pretty hard to be patient and kind and to be rude at the same time, isn’t it? Rudeness is saying whatever I feel like saying and doing whatever I feel like doing, no matter who it hurts or how much it offends them. But love doesn’t do that. With love I don’t always have to vent my own feelings; I am more eager to respect the feelings of others. Love is too courteous and respectful and sensitive to be rude and crude.
Love “is not self-seeking.” To care only about me and mine, to put the highest priority on getting what I want, to be obsessed with self-esteem and self-fulfillment and self-realization—that self-centeredness is the very opposite of love. If I love others only as long as they follow my wishes, meet my needs, and help my personal development, then I don’t really love them at all—I just like what they do for me. Love “is not self-seeking.”
Love “is not easily angered.” It has a long fuse. It’s not quick to explode. This doesn’t mean love never gets angry, but it doesn’t get angry quickly or easily. When love does get angry, it’s for good reason. Love gets angry when something is really wrong, not merely when I don’t get my own way. Love is not touchy or irritable. It “is not easily angered.”
Love “keeps no record of wrongs.” It doesn’t keep a list of past grievances. Once a wrong has been addressed, love leaves it behind. Love has a long memory for the good that others do and a short memory for the wrongs they do. Love is slow to take offense and quick to forgive offenses. Love doesn’t take revenge. Love doesn’t file lawsuits. Love doesn’t hold grudges. Love would rather help others to a better future than chain them to a bad past. It “keeps no record of wrongs.”
Don’t get the wrong impression. Love isn’t just a matter of being “nice” no matter what sort of evil is going on. Last and not least in the list of things love doesn’t do is this: “Love does not delight in evil.” Instead, love does the very opposite: it “rejoices with the truth.”
Love does not say, “It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as it makes you happy.” Love does not delight in evil, even if somebody seems to be enjoying it. Love does not say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as it works for you.” Love rejoices with the truth, not with lies and errors and evil.
Can you imagine a mother saying to her children, “It doesn’t matter whether we feed each other poison or pancakes, as long as we all love each other”? How insane! If you love somebody, you want what’s best for them. Love can’t be indifferent to evil and falsehood, or it’s not really love.
True love comes from God. It can’t approve anything that is not of God. God’s kind of love wants what is best for others, and evil is never best for anyone–it always destroys in the long run. Truth, on the other hand, always restores and helps, even if it’s unpleasant for a time.
Love does not delight in evil or encourage people to do it, and it doesn’t gloat or rejoice when rivals are caught in their evil. When a person you disagree with or a leader whose policies you oppose falls into evil and scandal, it’s tempting to rejoice. But love does not gloat and say “I told you so” when evil befalls others. Love stands with the truth, rejoices with the truth, and seeks every possible way to turn people from the harmfulness of evil to the health of God’s truth.
What Love Always Does
After showing what love never does, 1 Corinthians 13 turns again to the positive and says what love always does: “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (v. 7). A more literal translation says, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (v. 7 RSV). In all sorts of different circumstances, love is always love.
Love “always protects.” Love knows that “a good name is more desirable than great riches” (Proverbs 22:1), and so it guards the good name of others. Love knows how to keep a secret. Love knows how to keep its mouth shut. Instead of gossiping and shaming others, love looks for ways to build them up. Instead of holding others back, love carries them forward. Now, that doesn’t mean love is one big coverup–sometimes evil needs to be exposed and punished. But even then, it’s in order to protect: to protect others from being harmed, and to protect the sinner from continuing in sin and self-deception. Love “always protects.”
“Love always trusts.” Every good relationship depends on trust, and love tends to trust. Love is realistic about the worst in others, but it is ready to believe the best. Even after being hurt and betrayed, love doesn’t surrender to cynicism. And when it’s impossible to trust a certain person, love keeps right on trusting the Source of love, God himself. Love “always trusts.”
“Love always hopes.” Love expects the best. When all seems dark, love peers through the darkness to the horizon of the future, always expecting to see the golden rays of sunrise. Love is so confident in God, so sure of the power of love, that it never loses hope that love will have the last word. Love hopes for the best in the lives of all people, even those who seem beyond hope, and love expects the best for the ultimate future of this world because it all depends on God’s mighty love. Love “always hopes.”
Love “always perseveres.” Love endures all things. Through ups and downs, through joys and disappointments, through every changing circumstances, love remains constant. Love hangs tough. It “always perseveres.”
That’s what love looks like. It comes from heaven, and it’s down to earth. Love is living in this world, powered by something that is not of this world. It is loving the way Jesus loves. Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
In another place, the Bible says, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:7-11).
Love isn’t something we can manufacture on our own. It comes from God, and it comes through Jesus Christ. God saw our sin, our utter failure to love, and in his love he sent his Son to pay for our sins and to empower us to live in love.
If you’re like me, you can’t listen to 1 Corinthians 13 without feeling a sense of failure at how far you fall short of this kind of love, and yet at the same time you feel a sense of joy and renewal that this love has a power all its own to lift us beyond our self-centered lovelessness to love again.
Trust that the love of Jesus at the cross covers your failures to love. Trust that “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:5). Then live in the power of that love, and love others as God loves you.
1 Corinthians 13 shows how necessary the love factor is, what love is like, what love never does, what love always does, and then the apostle Paul concludes by showing how long love lasts: love lasts forever. Paul writes:
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:8-13).
Love is the highest expression of supernatural, divine activity. Not tongues, not prophecy, not knowledge—but love. To those who pride themselves on supernatural fireworks, and to those who pride themselves on always being right about everything, Paul says that tongues and prophecy and knowledge—though valuable and important—are also immature and incomplete and temporary. When the end comes and we see Jesus face to face, we will at last know as fully as we are known, and our present knowledge and beliefs will seem like only distorted reflections or childish ideas. As we live our lives now, these things are helpful to give us at least some idea of who God is and what he’s like, but they’ll be left behind when we enter into full experience of the divine and have face-to-face knowledge of the Lord. Many of the spiritual gifts and ways of knowing that we need in this age will be left behind in the age to come.
Love, however, will never be left behind. Love never fails. And so our very highest priority, even now, is to trust God’s unfailing love in Jesus and to live a life of love.
Miracles and knowledge might be nice, but they don’t last. Miracles will not be necessary in the future world where God is all in all. Knowledge—at least the kind we have now—will be swallowed up in the future world where we at last see clearly.
What’s not going to pass away? What’s going to last forever? Three things: faith, hope, and love. Faith is the wonderful trust and certainty that Jesus saves and that God does all things well, a certainty that heaven will confirm completely. Hope is the expectation that the future is bright, an expectation that, in heaven, will extend on into a future that somehow keeps getting better and better for all eternity.
Faith and hope are great, but the greatest is love: love that flows out of eternity past from the very heart of God the Father; love that intersects time in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; love that enters our life by the Holy Spirit and multiplies everything in our life and makes it worth living; love that goes on and extends into eternity future and lasts forever. Without this love, you are nothing. In this love, you have everything.
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.