What God's Love Is and Is Not

1 Corinthians 13

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have 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 do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophecy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

(1 Corinthians 13)

There is so much to learn about how to survive in the snow and out of the snow. I have learned why we have mudrooms, why we have to organize mittens by the door, and I have learned a lot about shoveling snow. I truly understand why the Eskimos have over a dozen words for snow- there are so many types of snow! Through the years of our lives we engage in relationships with many nuances. We learn what love is and how to express love. The Greeks recognized this by having several words for love. There is the word phileo for familial affection, the word storgi for friendship, the type of love one has for their family of faith, eros for erotic love, and then the word that Paul writes about today, agape love. This agape love is the one we need to learn the most about. It is the love that characterizes God’s love. Paul teaches us what God’s love is and is not in this familiar chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13. Agape love looks to another before it looks to self, and loves without condition. It is a love so strong that it sacrifices itself for another. The psychologist Karl Menniger said that love was the medicine for the sickness of the human race, and if you give or receive love, you experience some type of healing. We can all agree with that. Paul would agree as well, except he would most likely take the definition of love to an even higher level- including human healing but leading finally to a human-divine connection.

There is no greater link to God than love. Understanding God’s love and trying to model God’s agape love takes great effort. Many times we tend to protect ourselves from that kind of love by either rejecting it or by being too complacent to take the steps toward it.

Once Charlie Brown asked Lucy to try love- love would make her a much happier person. She answered him, “You blockhead, I love the world, it’s the people I can’t stand.” What a simple yet profound way to describe many of our attitudes. We may be living lives that have somehow pulled back from loving people with the type of love described in 1 Corinthians 13. Maybe our lives are so busy with other things that we have made a conscious or subconcisous decision to do less than God desires. There are terrible consequences when we ignore God’s command to love.

C.S. Lewis touched on this idea of how we protect our hearts from love in his book, The Four Loves. Here is an excerpt:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin or your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable…The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers…of love is Hell.” 4e5cf5d178

What stark words from C.S. Lewis- but they underscore the fact that there is nothing more important in our life- in our ability to connect with God, in our ability to connect with others, and in our spiritual development than love. Paul’s description of love lists both positive and negative attributes of this agape love. Each one of these characteristics holds behind it a mountain of life stories that we can recall when we reflect upon love’s power in our lives.

When we are truly patient, agape love cuts through the dysfunction in our lives that others threaten to create. It does not allow others to inhibit our own growth. When we react lovingly to another who lashes out at us, the suffering from the evil that has come our way is greatly diminished. I remember my father telling me in grade school about people who called others bad names. “You control yourself- maybe you cannot control them, but you control yourself- pray for your enemies as the Bible said and you will not be imprisoned by their negativity.”

This relates to our professional lives. President Abraham Lincoln’s reaction to Edwin Stanton’s offensive remarks illustrates this point. Even though Edwin Stanton called Lincoln a clown and a gorilla, Lincoln appointed him to direct the war effort. Lincoln’s closest supporters could not understand why he would appoint what many would characterize as an enemy to one of the most vital posts in government. When asked how he could do this Lincoln responded, “Because he is the best man for the job.” At Lincoln’s grave Stanton made a very public comment that Lincoln was the best ruler of men God had put upon the earth. What a total reversal…Lincoln’s powerful display of God’s love within helped him to function as a President without personal interference. Maybe there is someone in the workplace who simply does not like you. Would your Christian love be powerful enough to change that person? That is not the question. Sometimes people are not willing to change who they are…and you cannot take that on as your life’s mission…but you can change yourself. You can act with love! Paul wrote, “Love is patient…” Be patient enough to see clearly how you should react to others who strike out against you.

There is a lot of work involved in this type of love. Agape love takes the most effort, the most risks, and the most determination. The principle is lived out in the workplace and also in our marriages. Sometimes couples forget that love requires constant work and they take love for granted. Paul wrote, “Love is kind…” and kindness is sometimes the first thing to fly out the window in marriages. Love takes effort and work!

There is a vignette about newlyweds in Reader’s Digest. The husband slowly loses the kindness that undergirds love. The first year of marriage his bride was sick and he took her to the hospital and delivered food daily. The vignette proceeds through years of marriage with each level of care becoming less generous and kind until the 7th year when the husband asks her to stop coughing and exclaims, “Are you trying to give me pneumonia?”

Love is not a free for all giving license to walk all over another since we love each other. Love has strict commands that Paul lists. When an engaged couple comes in for discussion, I underscore the fact that love is not a feeling, it is a command from God, it is a commitment- a commitment to live out 1 Corinthians 13 to be patient, kind, not insist upon his or her own way, and not resentful….

Paul Harvey’s guest Carl Coleman talked about how a woman hit his car. As they were exchanging papers, she was distraught. She and her husband had just purchased the new car just days prior. She was beside herself worrying about how her husband would react. Then she unfolded a piece of paper from the glove compartment- a note he wrote to her- “In case of accident, remember, it is you I love, not the car…”

That is the kind of love that God commands. This helps us understand the boundaries God puts on love. Just as God’s love is portrayed in the Bible as a flowing stream with beautiful trees bearing fruit on its banks, we must see those characteristics in 1 Corinthians 13 as the banks of the stream. If we had no banks, the stream would dissipate into a washed out swamp. There are real obligations involved in love, obligations to behave properly.

Love also demands that when others try to destroy the banks of this stream we must not hold resentment in our hearts. Love must fill up our hearts and resentment against another can take up a lot of space. How can we fully love when our hearts are poisoned with bitter resentment- the answer is- we cannot fully love. We must release ourselves from resentment against another and move on with life. We must pour out what consumes us and fill ourselves again with God’s beautiful love.

Many worship services feature a portion of the Psalms as our second Scripture reading. The Psalms contain such emotion, both highs and lows, and many were written by King David.

Yet Scripture reveals that at the end of David’s life, on his deathbed, he struck out against a man who had heckled him as he left Jerusalem to avoid fighting his own son in battle. David’s troops asked to strike down the heckler and David said no. Then on his deathbed, David recalled the heckler and made a statement as if to say, “Ok, you know what to do, go find him and bring his grey head down to the grave.” David had harbored resentment in his heart, it had consumed a portion of his life- that was revealed in this spiritual giant’s final words. If that could happen to David, we know it could happen to us. We might go through life with a heckler following us around reminding us of a reason to hold hatred in our hearts. Don’t let that happen! Let it go and move on! Let God’s love fill the heart completely.

I read a story about a bride and groom who were separated by his enlistment in the Civil War. They wrote letters to each other and kept in close contact through the mail until his letters abruptly stopped. The bride to be was so worried – she reread his letters and lived in agony with the questions of what had happened. Finally she received a letter not in his handwriting that stated an injury- he had lost both of his arms and was relieving her of the commitment to marriage. Her reaction was so poignant. She boarded a train, found him in a military hospital, and said, “These will be your hands now! And they will never let you go!” That is a perfect example of God’s agape love for us. We can learn how to love from 1 Corinthians, but we can also learn what God is like. Since God is love, try reading the verse using God in place of the word love. God never fails- God will never let us go no matter what we lose in this life. When we lose something, or when we are lost, God is always looking for us and trying to locate us again to tell us that love never ends.

There is no better way to see how to live a life of perfect love than to look at the life of Jesus. The way that Jesus treated others, forgave, held others to a high standard and spoke the truth in love, the way that Jesus behaved so humbly- it is truly a picture of perfect love. There was no selfishness in Jesus. He lived for others completely and perfectly. When we walk with Jesus in our lives and exemplify his love to others, we do experience a connection to the divine. It is possible and sometimes we even realize that we are living in the midst of God’s perfect love. There are moments of day to day life when we serve others, love others, pray for others, that God’s love is magnified in our hearts. And there are special moments in life when God’s love washes over us and we feel overcome…the birth of a baby, at the graveside of a loved one when we are lifting prayers of thanksgiving for a precious life, a wedding. May our experiences of God’s love fill our lives, connecting us to God every moment of every day. Love pours from heaven in a flowing stream, and every time we drink of it we gain a glimpse of the heavenly kingdom. When I see the look on a groom’s face when he sees his bride appearing at the back of the aisle about to begin her wedding prcessional, it is as if he is seeing heaven for the first time.

We are called to no greater task than to love others with God’s agape love God wants us to realize that we are called to lives of love. Yes, love is the medicine of humanity and let us not forget that it is also very heaven oriented. Love is the music of the soul. God wants love to be the soundtrack of our lives. All that we do or say, all that we are, should be mediated by God’s love. Jesus stresses a new commandment with the disciples, “Love one another!” Let us not forget that there is nothing more important to God in our lives than this commandment to love.

When the final curtain falls and our lives are over, I doubt that God would ask, “How were your grades?” or “How clean did you keep your house?” or “How well did you perform at your job?” But I would not be surprised if God, as he embraces us and welcomes us into the kingdom of heaven, asks, “How much did you love?”