True Love – a reflection on 1 Corinthians 13

How would you define true love? According to a girl called Lauren: “True love is not about the hugs and kisses, the ‘I love you’s or the ‘I miss you’s, but about the chills that hit every part of your spine when you think about him” According to Tana: “You know you truly love somebody when they hurt you so badly, but all you can think about is the times when they made you smile”. While according to a girl with the wonderful name of ‘Lovely’: “True love is not how you forgive, but how you forget; not what you see but what you feel; not how you listen but how you understand; and not how you let go but how you hold on”

With the approach of Valentine’s Day I thought I would reflect on ‘true love’ in the light of Paul’s so-called ‘hymn to love’ in 1 Cor 13. I appreciate that Paul’s original focus was upon church relationships, but nonetheless I believe that by extension it is legitimate to apply the chapter to relationships in general. In this wider context I would argue that ‘True love gives – keeps on giving – and never gives up’. This true love of which Paul speaks is not any kind of love: it is Christ-like love. It is the love which sets out to give rather than to get. It is what Christians call agape-love.

Some years ago Colin Morris, a Methodist preacher, wrote a splendid book entitled Epistles to the Apostle (Hodder & Stoughton 1974) in which he imagined the reactions of some Christians to Paul’s letters. One of these ‘epistles’ contained the following paragraph:

My dear Paul, …. I really thought I loved someone very deeply before you exposed my feelings for what they really were – sheer egotism and selfishness. I have been unwilling, or more likely, afraid to allow the one I love to be herself for fear that she would desert me. Far from being good-mannered and forbearing, our relationship has been one never-ending brawl, with displays of temper, jealousy and moodiness on my part. I thought that my bouts of fury were proof of the intensity of my love, but in fact I now see that they were devices to bind her to me. I was prepared to make any sacrifice for her except the one which really mattered, willingness to trust myself to her without any guarantees or safeguards. I was always wanting reactions to prove that my love was retuned. I constantly put her to the test. I just didn’t see that what I was demanding could only be given to me freely or not at all. In the name of my so-called love I have committed all kinds of sins: pride, envy, ill-temper, suspicion and lust. Eventually, she could take no more and has gone – where I have no idea.

True love gives not in order to get, or to retain, or to control or to manipulate. True love simply gives, just as Christ gave himself for us.

Furthermore, true love is not a one-off display of love: it is not about spending £300 on a massive bouquet of flowers and then sitting back to see the reaction. True love is about giving and giving. We see this here in 1 Cor 13, where Paul uses the present continuous tense to describe actions and attitudes which are ongoing, which have become habitual and ingrained by constant repetition. So, with the present continuous tense in mind, we should translate: ‘Love is always patient and always kind’ (1 Cor 13.4a). According to Gordon Fee, these two attributes of patience and kindness “represent respectively love’s necessary passive and active responses toward others” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Eerdmans 1987).

Precisely because love always has the welfare of the other in mind, Paul says that love is not
jealous and conceited, proud and ill-mannered, selfish and irritable; loves does not keep a record of wrongs or take a perverse delight in the wrong-doing of others (1 Cor 13.4b-6).

Love always has the other in view. There is no way in which love can ever be concerned for one-self – not even for a moment. For love is always self-giving.

Furthermore, the love that gives and gives, never gives up loving. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13.7). At this point I think of the way many parents love their children, even when their love is not returned. Let’s be honest, children can sometimes be awkward, ungracious, almost ‘brutish’ individuals. Children can be incredibly hurtful not just in what they say, but also how they behave. In such a context, it can be tough to love, but true love, does not. “Love bears all things”.

True love also “believes all things”. Augustine said, “love believes the best”, while Ralph Martin wrote “love is not unduly suspicious” (The Spirit and the Congregation, Eerdmans 1984). I like the comment of Gordon Fee: “Paul does not mean that love always believes the best about everything and everyone, but that love never ceases to have faith; it never loses hope”. Hence the GNB renders this phrase: “Its faith never fails”; or in the words of Eugene Peterson, love “trusts God always. However much the life of our loved one may be in a mess, we never give up trusting that God will sort out the mess.

True love therefore “hopes all things”. To quote Ralph Martin again, love hopes “even when hope seems foolhardy and beyond credibility”. Where there is love, no case is ever hopeless. Love never gives up.

True love, declares Paul, “endures all things”, in the sense that it perseveres, whatever. When I was six years old, I went to a school in South London called ‘Cypress Road Primary Road School’. If the truth be told, it was a pretty grotty school, but it had one thing in its favour: it had a wonderful school motto, ‘Persevere’.

True love never gives up: in the words of Paul “it never ends” (1 Cor 13.8).

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