The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Applying 1 Corinthians 13: A Love that Misses the Mark


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This is a continuation of Applying 1 Corinthians 12.

In the middle of his discussion of spiritual gifts, Paul is going to spend a chapter talking about love. To understand why he feels it’s necessary to do this, let’s consider what we’ve learned about the state of the Corinthian church so far. The Corinthians constantly fighting amongst each other. They’re taking each other to court and celebrating sin in their midst. They’re being pushy little piglets at the Lord’s Supper and not caring if their own brothers are left hungry. What’s wrong with this picture? These Corinthians don’t seem to have any genuine concern for each other. There is no compassion, no willingness to be gracious. It’s a bunch of vicious backstabbing, bullying and shunning. Paul has just spent a chapter talking about supernatural abilities—what if the Corinthians read this material and then get off on a major power trip? Paul is clearly on a power trip with his constant exaltation of apostles, but at least Paul knows how to suck up to people and schmooze his target audience. Not so much with the Corinthians. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture these people running amuck with the concept of spiritual gifts. Paul feels the need to balance things out, so he launches into a discussion about love.

Now love doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It seeks out a target. When it comes to who we love, who should be at the top of our list? There are three Names, but none of them are mentioned in this chapter. The kind of love Paul is talking about in this chapter is a love that is directed at human beings. He says that if we aren’t brimming with love for our fellow humans, we are nothing. He doesn’t even bother to mention loving our Creators, even though Yahweh and Jesus taught that our Gods should be cherished above all else in our hearts. So what’s wrong with Paul’s teaching? Everything. Once a guy starts teaching we are nothing without something and God is not being named as that something, there are serious issues.

Now contrary to what you’re taught in church, the kind of love Paul describes in this chapter is not godly love, nor is it an accurate depiction of how God loves us. As poetic as Paul’s love sounds, it is severely lacking in boundaries. Remember that Paul prides himself on being the diplomatic sort—a fellow who works hard to not make waves among potential converts and who considers the offense of others to be an all-out crisis. Once you make pleasing people your top priority in life, you’re going to go for an ego-pleasing version of love. Ego pleasing love is the kind of love that tiptoes around pride and takes great pains to never offend. Paul’s version of love is not the kind of love that cares enough about the state of someone’s soul to give them a swift kick in the pants when they’re going astray. Paul’s love is a suck-up love, not a love that fights for the spiritual well-being of its target. Paul’s love is a doormat, whereas God’s love is a jealous, possessive, demanding, and fiercely devoted love which aggressively goes after the ones it wants while still maintaining boundaries. God’s love has limits and when those limits are crossed, we find ourselves in Hell. But Paul’s love never says “this far and no farther.” Paul’s love is spineless.

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-2)

An intimate knowledge of God is what Paul is describing here. In real life, no one will ever acquire such knowledge without putting God first, because God will not offer deep communion with Himself to anyone who doesn’t wholeheartedly pursue Him. So what Paul is actually saying is that intimacy with God is worthless if we aren’t filled with undying love for our fellow human beings. In other words, it’s the created things that count more than the Creators. Naturally the Holy Spirit finds Paul’s assessment highly insulting. If all humans were to evaporate tomorrow and you found yourself standing in the Presence of your Creators, what then? Are you “nothing” because you have no people to love? Our Gods are more than just first, They are everything. If we have Them, we do not need anything else. All human relationships are expendable, but if we are rejected by our Creators and kept apart from Them, then we are truly nothing. As usual, Paul is promoting a complete reversal of God’s priorities.

If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing. (1 Cor. 13:3)

This line about boasting is utterly immature. How does sacrificial giving give us the right to boast? Boasting of ourselves is never justified. Paul doesn’t understand the first thing about godly humility, even though this is a quality which Yahweh exalts all throughout the Scriptures that Paul is supposed to be such an expert on (see What is humility?).

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)

In other words, love is a spineless doormat. Love is when you help people destroy themselves by encouraging them to give in to all of their carnal instincts to use and abuse you. No, this isn’t love at all, it is unhealthy dysfunction. Godly love has boundaries. Godly love says no, it dishes out painful spankings to curb bratty behavior. Godly love doesn’t pretend the past never happened. If you rob your father blind, what should he do: pretend it never happened or change the locks? Don’t fall for the lie that godly love has to live in some land of delusions. When you learn that your husband is doing it with his secretary, godly love announces that he’ll be sleeping on the couch until he shows some sign of sincere repentance. When your headstrong teenager is getting high off of cussing you out and destroying your property, real love takes his toys away and tells him if he can’t scrape up some respect for your authority, he’d better find somewhere else to live. God is not some pansy who lays down in the dirt and invites us to walk all over Him. It isn’t loving to not tell your wife to step off when she’s being obnoxious. Those who promote this rot about “speaking the truth in love” in the Church today would do well to read through the prophetic books and see how the epitome of love spoke to those who were defying His Authority. Real love most certainly is rude when rude is what is called for. Real love’s patience and kindness are limited. And if we’re talking about how God loves us, love is extremely jealous.

A love that never makes any demands is not real love at all. Parents who really love their children demand certain levels of obedience and respect from them. In your relationships with your peers, love needs to demand a certain level of respect and maintain healthy boundaries. As humans, we are all selfish to the bone. Giving and sharing doesn’t come naturally to us. We desperately need those who love us to help us not destroy the relationships we care about by demanding certain things from us. The wife who lets her husband beat her up without complaint is not helping him. The friend who allows his peer to cheat and abuse him is only encouraging his friend to be the worst version of himself.

Love needs to be willing to fight for the things it cares about. Love needs to be able to recognize when it’s time to let go and move on. The man who refuses to accept the fact that his wife has divorced him and remarried is being very foolish to “never lose faith”. Misplaced faith is a major problem in this world. People don’t always come back around. Every story isn’t going to have a happy ending. God gives souls the option of choosing eternal damnation, and so must we. So to tell people to never give up and never lose faith is just stupid. Such incomplete statements will leave us utterly immobilized in life. It is not appropriate to cling to the things of earth so tenaciously. It is only God who we should be refusing to lose faith and hope in. It is only God who we should be fully devoting ourselves to and obsessing over. Other people must never be put on His level.

Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever! Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! But when the time of perfection comes, these partial things will become useless. (1 Cor. 13:8-10)

Paul is much too condescending about the knowledge of God. Spiritual wisdom is what he’s referring to when he talks about “special knowledge.” To toss the wisdom of God aside as some trivial, temporary thing is utterly obnoxious. We are spiritual creatures who are just beginning their eternal journeys with God. What does Paul think we’ll be doing in eternity if not continuing to grow in our knowledge of God? So no, our partial understanding of God is not going to be thrown out as worthless when we reach eternity, nor will God instantly download a complete understanding of truth into our souls. Growing closer to God is an eternal journey, and it is the whole point of our existence. To say that the progress we make in our relationship with God on earth is meaningless because loving other human beings is the only thing that matters is irreverent rot.

When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. (1 Cor. 13:11-12)

Indeed, when we die, a lot of things will become clear. Most clear of all will be the realization that pleasing our Creators and developing our relationships with Them are the only things that matter. For such a prominent leader in the Church, Paul shows a disturbing lack of understanding of the most basic truths. Our lives are supposed to revolve around our Creators, not other people.

Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:13)

Our Gods will last forever. They say that we will as well. But what will our quality of existence be like? If we listen to Paul, we’re going to waste precious time trying to please humans when we should be focusing on pursuing a closer walk with our three magnificent Creators.

The description of love that Paul puts out in this chapter is going to lead you astray. If you want to get a more accurate picture of love, read through the Old Testament prophetic books and listen to Yahweh pouring out His heart to Israel. Real love is far more complex and intense than what Paul has described here. But love is not what our lives should be revolving around, for love is a passion, not a living Being. At the end of the last chapter, Paul said:

But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all. (1 Cor. 12:31)

We’ve now read through his description of the ideal way to live, and we didn’t find a single mention of seeking to please our Creators or loving Them with all that we are. And Paul claims to be a Christian?

UP NEXT: Applying 1 Corinthians 14: Sunday Morning Mayhem

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