I think the apostle Paul does not get nearly enough credit for being a literary genius. Sure, we read his letters and much of Christian theology comes from his discourse and understanding of Christ, but as a writer with a command of language and ideas, he goes under the radar.
Over the past few months as COVID-19 continues to dominate our conversations, as racial and civic unrest permeate our consciousness, and as an election looms large and continues to sow seeds of discord that have already been planted in abundance, two passages from Paul’s writings have forced their way into the front of my mind. I think not without reason.
For the sake of this discussion, it will be helpful to read 1 Corinthians 13. You can read it in the English Standard Version here, or even better, in your own Bible. Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait right here.
…Okay, welcome back. There are so many riffs in this passage that bear reflection. I want to focus on just a couple.
Paul’s opening salvo is on the significance of love as a motivating factor in otherwise empty pursuits. Now, when Paul says love, he is not talking about affection or romance or a nice happy feeling about someone. In fact, as we’ll see in a moment, the love that he is talking about involves a lot of things that may cause us to be unhappy.
“If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, and have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all that I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
What I love about this, and what makes Paul a genius, is that he covers nearly every avenue through which people find reasons to boast. Everywhere you turn right now, you can find people with opinions. In fact, it is harder to avoid people’s opinions than it ever has been. And we love to find clever arguments and win rhetorical points for our causes. But if that’s all we are doing—if all we want is to find eloquent ways to shut people up and show how intelligent and ahead of the curve we are, but we have no love in our actions, then we might as well be a drum getting kicked down a staircase.
We love to show how pious we are, religious and non-religious alike. We want to be perceived as good and noble, holders of secret truths and doers of the good no one else will do. We love to act humble about our goodness while posting on social media for all the world to see it. We love being martyrs for our causes, as long as we can do it from the comfort of home, with our top-of-line phones and our high-speed internet. But if it’s only about how good we can be for the sake of optics, and we don’t love our neighbors and our enemies, then all our piety and sacrifice is a pile of garbage.
But what does Paul mean by the word “love?” He would be glad you asked:
“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. Love never ends.”
How much of this do you see every day in the world around you? And be honest, how much of it do you exhibit yourself? Especially when you hear people talk about COVID-19 and masks, Black Lives Matter vs All Lives Matter, riots and protests, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, Republican and Democrat?
Paul, like Jesus, does not equivocate when he talks about love. There are no exceptions, no easy outs. This discourse is beautiful, but it is not easy. Its beauty lies in the way it levels all of our other pretenses and creates a new baseline to measure all of our opinions, all of our talk, and all of our relationships with others.
Love is patient and kind, which means it isn’t demanding or cruel or mean-spirited or vindictive or spiteful.
Love does not envy or boast, which means it doesn’t begrudge people what they have achieved or earned, nor does it brag about its successes and victories.
Love is not arrogant or rude, which means that love is humble, gracious, and even polite.
Love does not insist on its own way, which means that love gives the road to others and allows for the possibility that there is more than one way to solve a problem.
Love it not irritable or resentful, which means that love is cheerful and does not hold grudges.
Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, which means it does not celebrate or make excuses for any injustice from anyone on any side of any argument.
Love rejoices at the truth, which means that love seeks and celebrates something higher and objectively real above all of our flimsy social whims.
Love bears all things, which means it covers all aspects of our lives, and does not compartmentalize itself for the sake of convenience.
Love believes all things, which means that love gives the benefit of the doubt rather than cynically distrusting anything it disagrees with.
Love hopes all things, which means that love looks for and anticipates the best in people and circumstances, no matter how bad they seem.
Love endures all things, which means that love does not crumble under the weight of frustration or disillusionment.
Love never ends, which means that it is eternal and does not fail.
This is . . . a lot. That’s a lot of things. This means that if you really aim to make this your ambition, then you might have to forego the right to be offended or outraged. It may mean that you sacrifice your opinion for the sake of maintaining peace with another. It means that if your political party wins, you don’t rub it in the face of the other side or that if your party loses, you don’t fall into despair and anger that the nation is doomed. It may mean that you have to admit that you don’t have all the answers. By my understanding, this explanation of love means that I should speak less and listen more, even though it may mean I have to give up some ground or appear less clever than I’d like. It means that I only act in a way that edifies others, even though I may have to give up my seat at the table or forget my pride.
By Paul’s definition, love does not care what other people think. It is not self-conscious. It isn’t worried about appearing strong or smart or a good leader or an eloquent speaker or an influential presence or anything like that. Love, in this sense, is entirely oriented on others instead of self.
So when you’re reading or watching or listening to the news, when you’re engaged in conversations with others about the merits or flaws in wearing a mask, or the validity or harm of protests and riots, or the issues of race and prejudice and law enforcement and public safety, or what candidate or political party is the best choice in a world that is broken anyway, or whatever— ask yourself, “Am I interested in showing love to this person, or am I just trying to win? Am I more passionate about loving my neighbor and enemy alike, or am I more passionate about gaining allies and crushing the opposition? Am I forgetting myself enough to put others before me, or am I trying to look like the bigger person?”
I’m not saying I’m any damn good at this. But I’d like to be. And it isn’t always my first goal. I have to constantly remind myself to shut up sometimes. That isn’t easy, because just like you and just like everyone else, I believe that my opinion is the best. (By the way, if you deny believing that, then you’re dishonest—we only have opinions because we think some things are better than their alternatives. I digress.) At any rate. It may not even be fair to that that I am trying. But I am trying to try. At least if I fail, I’ll fail at something good, rather than failing at being good at something.
More to come about Paul and his genius. Until then, y’all take care and be good to one another.