[I blogged on 1Co 13.1-3 awhile back, this post can be seen as a continuation of that one. I'm sure I'll have at least one more post on the chapter. And this post is going to be tough for me because I really want to blog on 1Co 13.8-13, but I need to do this section on 1Co 13.4-7 first.]
I've been meditating on 1Co 13 for awhile now. No, not "meditating" as you think some mountain-top-sitting guru from some eastern religion would meditate. What I mean is that it has been at the forefront of my thoughts for awhile. I've been working on memorizing the chapter and I think I have it down. As I review the chapter to memorize, I stop and think about the chapter or the portion I'm reviewing. I run over the text aloud while I'm driving to or from work, or to or from Amy's house.
Anyway, recall that the thrust of 1Co 13.1-3 is that without love as motive for actions, the actions are worthless. They are nothing. We can exercise the gifts we have been given, but if we aren't acting out of love, the effort is wasted. We can stand as martyrs, we can give everything to charity or the poor, but the action is empty and vain if it isn't grounded in love.
That's a provocative thought, but it really does make one ask: "So, then, what is love?"
And that's the question Paul now attempts to answer. The problem is that the answer isn't quantitative. All Paul can do to define love is to describe how one who acts with love as a motive actually acts. So this is what he does. Again, the ESV formats this as plain paragraph text, it doesn't format it as poetry. And that's a shame, because when it is presented as poetry, one stops to read and looks for connections. And those connections are what we need to properly understand the text. If we read this chapter (and this section) as prose, we're missing something we need to understand.
Here is 1Co 13.4-7 in a rather wooden/literal translation because I want to point towards the Greek, which I'll discuss later. The parens indicate implicit words/context that I'm simply making explicit.
Love is patient,
love is kind,
love does not envy,
(love does) not boast,
(love is) not proud,
(love is) not disgraceful,
(love does) not desire its own (way),
(love is) not provoked,
(love does) not reckon the wrong,
(love does) not rejoice at unrighteousness
but (love) rejoices with the truth:
(love) bears all things,
(love) believes all things,
(love) hopes all things,
(love) endures all things.
Now isn't that much more clear? Paul shows us the sorts of things one does (or doesn't do) when one acts in love. This list makes me feel rather guilty. I can, without too much effort, think of times where I've been impatient with others, or unkind. Or when I've acted with envy as a motive. Or where I've combined boasting and pride into a single conversation to make myself feel better and make the person I was conversing with feel small.
Paul says that when I do such things, I'm not acting in love. When I'm acting like that, based on what Paul is teaching here (cf. v. 2 earlier) I'm nothing. And, of course, he's right.
The one on the list that really gets me, though, is that "love does not desire its own way". The ESV translates that as "it does not insist on its own way". If someone else's needs are to be more important to me than my own, how can I elevate my desires above their needs? I can't if I am acting in love. I've screwed that up countless times.
Imagine if you were in the Corinthian fellowship when this letter was received, and when it was being read to the community for the very first time. This poetic list goes on and on. Even if you weren't paying full attention (as a friend of mine used to put it, you were in church but in your mind you were "scoring touchdowns", daydreaming) you would most likely hear this bit about love and what it is not. And you'd hear something in that list (at least one thing, I'd gather) that would jolt you out of complacency and make you think.
This is what you'd hear. And I'd like to recommend that if you know a little Greek and can pronounce the words to some degree, that you work through it and read it aloud, paying attention to the syllables per line, even the bracketed text that NA/UBS list as disputed (thanks to my new friend Ulrik for this suggestion):
Ἡ ἀγάπη μακροθυμεῖ,
χρηστεύεται ἡ ἀγάπη,
οὐ ζηλοῖ, [ἡ ἀγάπη]
οὐ ζητεῖ τὰ ἑαυτῆς,
οὐ λογίζεται τὸ κακόν,
οὐ χαίρει ἐπὶ τῇ ἀδικίᾳ,
συγχαίρει δὲ τῇ ἀληθείᾳ·
I don't even need to make any of that text bold for you to see the repeated elements. In addition to the syllables, though, did you notice the ending sound of almost all of those lines (again, including the bracketed text)? It's beautiful, isn't it?
In addition to working through what love is not, Paul makes four statements at the end of this section regarding what love does. These are complete and leave no exceptions. Sure, you might say that the point is rhetorical and Paul can't actually mean "all" here. But if he didn't why would he repeat it? (Hint: if you say "emphasis", that's a cop-out. Why would Paul want to 'emphasize' it if he didn't really mean it?).
I've run too long, and it's getting late. I'm going to leave it here. Hey, it's my blog, I can do that!
I'll start in again on 1Co 13.8-13, though that section may go long. It's such a cool piece of writing. Hopefully I can get to it in the next week.