Though 1 Corinthians 13 is largely regarded as a cozy part of the Bible, a closer look reveals that it is actually deeply challenging. These “feel-good” verses confront us, humble us, and begin to show us that the things we think matter most are not what matter most to God.
The church in Corinth faced circumstances from within that threatened its existence. So, in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul showed the church “a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31)—that is, the way of agapē, the kind of love that is rooted in the very character of God and revealed in the life of Jesus Christ. Paul needed to help the Corinthians understand that it is only by growing in Christlike love that we can grow in our Christian maturity and effectively handle such difficult situations.
Paul describes the beauty of God’s love for us and the love we are to share with each other with fifteen characteristics, like the facets of a diamond. In English, several of these characteristics are translated as adjectives, but in the Greek original, all are verbs. Paul’s emphasis here is not so much upon what love is as what love does. Love behaves itself in a certain way. It is not only felt but acted on. And the fact that these verbs are in the present continuous tense cues us in to the fact that these are actions and attitudes that are habitual in the lives of those who love as God does.
Each facet of this Christlike love is worth taking a moment to meditate on. In this article, we will consider the first eight.
Love Is Patient
The word “patient” in this passage is expressive of self-control. It indicates the holding back of passions—that is, the self-sacrificial restraint of our instinctual reactions to what is happening around us. Patience of this kind was not appealing to the average Corinthian. The heroes of the day were fighters and avengers. But Paul writes that love does not avenge (Rom. 12:19). Instead, love has a long fuse. It doesn’t immediately burst into flames.
This kind of patience is about people, not simply about circumstances. Some of us are quite patient with circumstances that go awry, but when it comes to people who let us down or annoy us, we’re not as loving as we might be. We need the help of the Holy Spirit, who works a patience in our hearts reflective of the Father’s own. No one has received more offense than God has received from humankind, yet “the Lord … is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Love Is Kind
Love reacts with goodness in response to ill treatment. J. B. Phillips paraphrases this part of 1 Corinthians 13:4, “It looks for a way of being constructive.” This is the counterpart of patience: love is patient with the shortcomings of others, and so it is constructive in its kindness. People may think it reveals weakness not to answer blow for blow when someone does you harm, but actually, retribution is easy. That is the natural state of the flesh for most. The tough thing to do is to be kind to the unkind as Jesus was—and that takes God’s Spirit at work in us.
It’s so much easier to see a lack of kindness in others than to see it in ourselves. Parents exhaust themselves with telling their kids, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”—yet they may not take their own advice when speaking to a spouse, a sibling, a parent, or even the very children they’ve admonished. We need to pay attention to how we treat others, because it’s too easy to demand kindness from others while we only show entitlement.
Of all the characteristics that might mark our lives for longevity, you can never wear this one out. Our beauty will fade, our knowledge will diminish, but kindness can grow with age, and it will be long remembered. There will always be a place for kindness.
Love Does Not Envy
The Greek word zēloō can be translated as “fervent” or “zealous,” but here in verse 4, its connotation is jealousy. It is an intense passion for one’s own good in comparison with others, begrudging what others have, or sometimes even that they have anything. Far from rejoicing in the good of others, as love does, it is an insidious fixation on ourselves.
Envy is destructive, and it played a large part in the conflicts in the church at Corinth. The believers there could not grasp what Paul was saying about each part of the body being necessary, with the unseen parts being the most important (1 Cor. 12:21–25). Instead, they became envious of those who were more prominent in the church because their spiritual gifts were more visible.
We can test ourselves for envy by checking our reaction at the news of another’s success. How did I feel when the promotions came out and my name was not on the list, but my best friend’s name was? How did I feel when the papers were given back and I got a B, but my buddy got an A? There will always be people who have more than we have, and there will always be people who do better than we do. If we don’t learn to win the battle with envy, there will be no escaping the trouble it brings.
Love Does Not Boast
The loving person who is successful doesn’t seek a platform upon which to parade his or her accomplishments. The Corinthians were spiritual show-offs. They boasted about their gifts. Paul had to write to remind them that everything they had came from God, so they had no reason to boast (1 Cor. 4:7).
Within our hearts, we sense a need to flaunt our reputation, to highlight our background, to display our abilities and our successes. Then we read about Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6–8). Christlike love is not constantly anxious to impress; rather, it is ready to serve.
Love Is Not Arrogant
The King James Version says love “is not puffed up.” The Greek word translated as “puffed up” is phusioō, which means “to inflate.” J. B. Phillips puts it in more contemporary terms when he says love does not “cherish inflated ideas of its own importance.”
This is challenging when the advice of the age is “Seize the moment! Be yourself! Be your own biggest fan!” We even raise children to focus on how wonderful they are and how they can do and be anything they want. But when we love with the love of the Lord Jesus, we will not be fixated on ourselves or our abilities. Arrogance has a big head, but love has a big heart. Love is concerned with giving itself, not asserting itself.
Love Is Not Rude
Love doesn’t behave indecently or shamefully manner. It has good manners. It doesn’t think responses like “Yes, sir” and “You’re welcome, ma’am” are silly. It is gracious, courteous, and tactful, because all of these things are expressions of kindness and humility.
J. B. Lightfoot allegedly complimented one of his students by saying, “Let him go where he will, his face will be a sermon in itself.” There is a way of looking at others that shows we don’t think too much of ourselves and too little of them. In the church of Jesus Christ, we need to make sure that our outward behavior is marked by this kind of gracious love.
Love Is Not Self-Seeking
Love does not pursue selfish advantage. Jesus prioritized serving others, and He demanded the same of His disciples: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45).
The loving person who is successful doesn’t seek a platform upon which to parade his or her accomplishments.
This type of love confronts the pride that rises in our hearts. It addresses a culture that is preoccupied with self-esteem, self-aggrandizement, and self-evaluation based on factors that are transient and ultimately worthless. It is not to be so with us. No matter our status or title, we are to serve others as Christ did.
Love Is Not Easily Angered
The Greek word used here, paroxunō, is related to our English word paroxysm, meaning a violent, temporary crisis of emotion. It is the fiery outburst of a short temper.
There are people who simply get on our nerves. Some do it wittingly; most do it unknowingly but nevertheless consistently. We are tempted to blame such people for our feelings about them, as if it’s all their fault for existing, for living, or for being in the same house as us. The real problem is our own irritability.
Our own short-tempered responses are in direct contrast to the embodiment of love we see in the Lord Jesus: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Although He was provoked in many ways and had every reason, from a human perspective, to respond with fiery outbursts, He did not respond with anger but embodied love.
The Challenge of Love
Having considered only half of the facets of love that Paul describes, it is already apparent that so much of what is called love in poetry, song lyrics, and movies is far removed from the agapē love that God extends to us. Indeed, the culture in which we’re living is far more concerned with taking and getting and the self-absorbed satisfaction which begins with “me and my needs.”
It is out of a world marked by that kind of self-interest that God has called and redeemed a people for Himself. It is vitally important that we continually seek the help of the Spirit of God to apply the Word of God to our lives, because the kind of love that we discover here is a countercultural love, about which we naturally know practically nothing at all. It is only as God is at work within our lives to transform and change us that we can ever begin to put our toe in the water of this great, infinite ocean of God’s perfect love and goodness.