By Elton HiggsThe title above reflects a sentiment that has for centuries been ubiquitously expressed in the popular songs and literature of Western societies. But the “love” referred to is associated much more with Cupid than with God. Love as the world defines it has to do overwhelmingly with the exhilarating whirlwinds of sexual attraction and desire, whereas God’s love, magnificently presented in I Cor. 13, addresses the totality of human experience. After 1 Cor. 12, on the misuse of God’s gifts of the Spirit, Paul launches into a concise, almost poetic meditation on Transcendent Love (agape), saying, “I will show you a more excellent way” than the petty competition to prove who is most spiritual (1 Cor. 12:31).
He begins his beautiful poetic-prose meditation on Divine Love with a comprehensive catalogue of spectacular spiritual gifts that are of no profit without the enabling grace of that Love.
If I speak in the tongues of me and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but I have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (I Cor. 13:1-3)
No humanly willed virtue, nor even the exercise of a divinely granted gift has significance within itself, but can draw its value only from being grounded in the Love of God. The carnal Corinthians have been emphasizing uses of their gifts that draw attention to themselves, but Paul wants to show that no matter how spectacularly “successful” they are in the exercise of their gifts, that success is empty unless its purpose is to be a transmitter of the transcendent Love that Jesus showed supremely in His death on the cross.
How are we to recognize this love that trumps the most notable good deeds that can be imagined? Paul follows up on his astounding statement by (1) giving a down-to-earth picture of what Love does and does not do and (2) showing that of all virtues, only Love endures past this world into eternity. The characteristics of Love are catalogued in verses 4-7. The first two items are overarching, comprehensive qualities (patience and kindness) that rule out six specific negative behaviors and cultivate a vital positive one. The six negative behaviors are all self-centered and injurious to others: arrogance, rudeness, selfish insistence, irritability, resentment, and fault-finding. The vital positive behavior generated by patience and kindness is rejoicing in truth. This might not seem at first to be so very important, but it springs from a key attitude of the Christian mind, that is, seeking and embracing truth even when it is painful to know and accept, in contrast to cherishing falseness and error when it is to our advantage.
The statement in verse 8 that “love never ends” begins Paul’s assertion that the day will come when all of our experience of God, even faith and hope, will be folded into His Love, just as the Son will one day, at the end of God’s work with this world, yield back to the Father the authority given Him through the Incarnation, so that “God may be all in all” (I Cor. 15:28). Faith and hope in that day will find all that they looked forward to has become eternal reality and they will no longer be necessary. But Divine Love, which is the very nature of God, will never find its limits, for it will continue forever to be the quality that binds all beings together in a fellowship that will never be broken. All purposes since the Creation of the world have been leading toward the participation of God’s children in that state of Eternal Love. We will then know truly that “There ain’t nothin’ like love.”