“The Character of Love”

“[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

(1 Corinthians 13:7)

In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Paul describes the nature of love which was at odds with the character of the church at Corinth. He begins with two positives (4a) followed by eight negatives (4b-6) which tell us what love is not like and what love will not do, the last of which is balanced by its positive counterpart. He finishes his description of love with four staccato verbs qualified by the phrase ‘all things’ (7).

First, love is ‘patient’ (a passive quality) and ‘kind’ (an active quality). Patience is long-suffering. If ‘endurance’ is putting up with difficult situations (7), ‘patience’ is putting up with difficult people. ‘Kindness’ is doing good on behalf of those difficult people. These are the two sides of God’s attitude toward us; God’s patience holds back his wrath while his kindness gives mercy (Rom. 2:4).

Next, Paul is careful to describe what love is not in terms of verbs. Notice these are behaviors not emotions, an important distinction. Love ‘does not envy.’ Envy denotes rivalry which causes strife and division (3:3). Love does not allow us to be in competition with one another. Just the opposite, love rejoices at the success of others. Love is not ‘boastful.’ That is, love does not brag or call attention to itself with self-centered actions or words. Rather, love is humble. A puffed up, self-important, ‘arrogant’ view of oneself is inconsistent with love (4:6, 18-19; 5:2; 8:1). Neither is love ‘rude,’ behaving shamefully or disgracefully. It is not ‘self-seeking,’ that is, it does not disadvantage others to advantage itself. Love forbids the exercise of liberties without regard for the negative impact it has on others (10:24, 33; Rom. 15:1-3; Phil. 2:4). Love is not ‘irritable,’ easily provoked to anger, nor does it ‘keep a record of wrongs,’ a running tally of betrayals so as to settle the score and get even later (Lk. 23:34; 2 Cor. 5:19).

Love hates evil and ‘rejoices with the truth’ simultaneously. Love celebrates behavior that reflects the gospel such as redemptive mercy, repentance and forgiveness, justice and goodness, etc. Love cannot praise ‘wrongdoing,’ but exposes and denounces it.

Lastly, love ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.’ To say that love ‘bears’ and ‘endures’ all things is to say that there is nothing that love cannot face. It can put up with any difficulty and persevere. There is a tenacity about love in the present that is motivated by its confidence in the future. Thus love ‘believes’ and ‘hopes’ all things. It is not that love believes the best about everyone (although love does this as well) but that love never stops trusting in and hoping in God. It never loses hope because it believes that God will set things right and execute justice. It believes goodness will prevail despite human evil. That’s why love endures any situation and never gives up. Indeed, ‘love never ends.'

We can easily substitute ‘Christ’ for ‘love’ in these verses and the passage still reads true. But can we substitute our name for ‘love’ with the same result? This is the challenge of Paul’s teaching and if we dare to take it seriously we will be confronted with our own failure to live up to it. No one but Jesus truly loved in this way all the time. Paul’s description of love is clear and uncompromising; this is what love is and does and what love is not and does not do.

If we were created to give and receive love then we have failed at the most fundamental level of our humanity. But there is hope because the God who ‘is love’ (1 Jn. 4:7-8) has shown us what love looks like in concrete terms by giving himself for us (1 Jn. 4:9-10). Through his initiating self-sacrifice, he gives us the power to emulate that same love to others. His love ‘abides’ in us and is ‘perfected’ through us when it spills out into the lives of others (1 Jn. 4:11-12).