In 1 Cor 13.4-8 Paul goes into a good deal of detail to describe the nature of agape love. He was, of course, writing about how relationships should be in the church. However, there is no reason why we cannot apply his insights to marriage.
In regard to relationships both within the church and in marriage, it is important to note that all the verbs Paul used to describe the activity of love are in the present continuous tense. Paul here described actions and attitudes which were ongoing, which became habitual and ingrained by constant repetition. Consequently, if we are to reflect the love of Christ in our relationships, then we must learn and cultivate a particular pattern of behaviour. Unfortunately, love is not something which always comes naturally. Love is something which needs to be developed, worked at and practiced. In the words of the distinguished Anglican theologian Tom Wright, ‘Love … is a language to be learned, a musical instrument to be practised, a mountain to be climbed”. (Virtue Reborn). So with this in mind, let us turn to the verses in question.
Pau began by stating “Love is patient and kind” (13.4a). This is then followed by a list of eight ways love does not . These eight negative qualities of love are no less important for being negative. As my much-missed former friend, Morgan Derham, commented: “Love is a disciplined and well-defined pattern of relationships, observing well-defined boundaries, as ready to say ‘No’ as ‘Yes’” (Encounter with God in 1 Corinthians).
First, “love is not envious” (13.4 NRSV). “It is not jealous” (GNB; RNJB). Or as we might say, ‘Orange, not green is the colour of love’. Love is always warmly disposed towards others, even when others are more popular or in the limelight. Love is not jealous when someone else is given responsibility or privilege. Love is happy to be a ‘tag on’.
Secondly, “love is not boastful” (13.4 NRSV); it is “not conceited” (GNB). Love does not talk about its own achievements or successes. Love does not brag. Or as we might say, ‘Love has no trumpet of its own to blow’; or if it has a trumpet to blow, then it is the trumpet of another. Love affirms the worth of another, not the worth of itself.
Thirdly, ”love is not arrogant” (13.4 NRSV). Literally “love is not puffed up”. Or we might say: ‘love is not swollen-headed’. Or to quote Derham again: “When someone is at peace with himself or herself and at peace with God, content to do God’s will, the need to cut others down to size or envy them never arises”. Where there is true security in God, there can be love.
Fourthly, “love is never rude” (13.5 NRSV) it is not “ill-mannered” (GNB). Love does not use ‘abrasive’ language, nor does it set out to offend others. It does not ignore people’s feelings, but always treats others with courtesy.
Fifthly ,”love does not insist on its own way” (13.4 NRSV); “it is not selfish” (GNB). Tony Thistleton commented insightfully: “Love never seeks to ‘possess’ the other for its own self-gratification. When a lover (or in a different idiom, a parent) expresses love in the form of ‘I want you’, danger signals begin to emerge suggesting a kind of love that sails too close to the wind of gratifying the ‘interests’ of the self.” (1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary).
Sixthly, love “is not irritable” (13.5 NRSV). Or in our terms, if someone ‘rubs us up the wrong way’, then in the end it is our fault, not theirs – we should not have a wrong way to be rubbed up! In this respect I read of a medical experiment involving honeymoon couples. A doctor injected them with the virus of the common cold – but never once did the couple catch a cold. He concluded that if real love and joy are in the system, then this will protect the person against disease. Similarly, love can protect us from an irritable or critical spirit.
Seventhly, love “is not resentful” (13.5 NRSV); it “does not keep a record of wrongs” (GNB). Love keeps no little black book. Love allows the other to start afresh with a clean slate. Henry Ward Beecher, an American minister and a leader in the abolition of slavery, said “every man should have a fair-sized cemetery in which to bury the faults of his friends” (a ‘Google’ quote).
Lastly, love “does not rejoice in wrongdoing” (13.6 NRSV) it is “not happy with evil” (GNB). Alas, there is a streak in us which finds delight in hearing something bad about the other. We all love to have a good gossip – yet the basis of gossip is always wrong. Christ-like love never gossips – it never gloats over the weakness of other people. It is sad, concerned and prayerful, when it sees things go wrong.