By Stephen W. Hiemstra
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 (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV).
Attitudes matter. When we exercise spiritual gifts, do we seek to glorify God or ourselves?
One of the hardest things to do is to give God the glory and not focus on ourselves. Praying an ACTS prayer—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication—is helpful, for example, because our impulse is to cut straight to supplication—the give me (gimme) part of prayer. Because God already knows our needs, we are better advised simply to praise God and trust that he will meet our needs. Focusing on the gimme part of prayer hints that we do not fully trust God; the same is true when we express our love for other people.
Two false views of love are very popular today. One is a grasping, selfish—stalker—kind of love. Stalker love says: if I cannot have you, then no one else can either. For example, Beetle musician John Lennon was murdered in 1980 not by an enemy, but by a fan who earlier in the day had even sought an autograph from him. The stalker’s love is rooted in desire to possess, not to share affection or relationship.
Another false view of love arises not from the desire to possess, but to project self on the object of our desire. The classic example is that of a parent living vicariously through the child. Unfulfilled ambitions are projected onto the child and the child is then manipulated to live out a hidden script. Alternatively, a child may simply never be allowed to wander outside the shadow of the parent to develop fully as a person. These same dynamics can also occur for highly dependent spouses. This false view of love is motivated by a desire to control explicitly or implicitly.
The context for Paul’s comments about love is the expression of spiritual gifts. In chapter 12, Paul makes the point that the Holy Spirit is the source of all spiritual gifts (12 v 11) and the purpose of the gifts is to serve the body of Christ (12 v 7). Here in chapter 13, Paul makes the point that spiritual gifts not motivated by love for one another are not so spiritual. Speaking in tongues without love, for example, is like beating your own drum (gong or cymbal; v 1). This same theme continues even in chapter 14 where Paul gives explicit advice about using gifts, such as speaking in tongues and prophecy, properly in worship (14 v 4).
Clearly, like us the Corinthians do not have a proper attitude about gifts and they misunderstand the meaning of love. Paul redefines love using the word, agape. He does not use either phileo often translated as brotherly love (think Philadelphia—the city of brotherly love). He also does not use eros usually translated as romantic love. This humble, sacrificial definition of agape is unique to Paul (vv 4-7).
After defining agape, Paul goes on to suggest that he himself at one point held childish views which he gave up in adulthood—a polite way of suggesting they are childish in their view of love (v 11). He then goes on to attribute this agape love to God himself, alluding to Moses’ encounter—face to face—with God on Mount Sinai (v 12; Numbers 12:8). The argument is if God expresses a humble, sacrificial love, then we should too.
While Paul’s lesson here is about having a proper attitude about spiritual gifts, he also is careful to balance his view of agape love with faith and hope. Love is not simply a warm, fuzzy feeling. Paul balance faith, hope, and love in at least 4 other places in his letters. Faith and hope balance love by anchoring it in our relationship with God.
ἀγάπη (BDAG 39)—the quality of warm regard for and interest in another, esteem, affection, regard, love–without limitation to very intimate relationships, and very seldom in general Greek of sexual attraction.
φιλέω (BDAG 7742)—to have a special interest in someone or something frequently with focus on close association, have affection for, like, consider someone a friend.
ἔρως (BDAG 3145)—passionate interest…ardor fondness.
See: (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3, 5:8; Colossians 1:3-5; and Ephesians 1:15-21).