I’m sure we all feel that way from time to time, and some of us feel that way most of the time. Come to think of it, I’ll bet some of us feel that way right now. Loving the world in general isn’t that difficult; loving the people around us can be a major challenge. And that’s why we need to study the inspired words of I Corinthians 13. We need to know what love is and what it looks like in the nitty-gritty of life. There is a sense in which love is difficult to define but easy to describe. This week I looked up “love” in the dictionary and found 18 definitions. I read them all and didn’t feel a bit more loving! Perhaps the truth is closer to this: You’ll know it when you see it. Love is better seen than defined.
That leads me to the familiar observation that love is not primarily a feeling but an action. We live in an age that honors personal feelings above almost everything. We do what we want when we want because we “feel” like it. And if we don’t “feel” like it, we don’t it. But as I survey I Corinthians 13, I am struck by the complete absence of any stress on personal feelings. The kind of love Paul is talking about is seen and experienced and demonstrated. While it may start in a feeling of compassion or pity, it never ends there.
Last week we surveyed the first three verses of this “crown jewel” of Holy Scripture. There we discovered that love is indispensable. It is more important than eloquent communication, spiritual gifts, or personal sacrifice. If we have all the attractive rudiments of true religion but don’t have love, we don’t have anything at all.
The Apostle Paul now begins to describe what love looks like. Verses 4-7 contain 15 short phrases that, like a prism held up to the sun, show us the full spectrum of love. Many people think this is the most beautiful and complete statement on love ever written. As we look at these verses, I advise you to buckle up tight because if you take these verses seriously, you are sure to be challenged, convicted, and prodded into a new way of living and a new way of loving.
In this message we will look at the 11 descriptions of love found in verses 4-6. It’s fascinating that three are positive and eight are negative, telling us what love is not, as if to say, “Let me tell you what it isn’t so you can’t be mistaken about it.”
I. Love’s Choice v. 4“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (I Corinthians 13:4). First, love is patient. The King James Version says love “suffereth long.” It is “never tired of waiting.” The Greek word literally means “long-minded.” Love is slow to give in to resentment, despair, or anger. The particular word Paul uses means to have patience with difficult people rather than having patience in difficult circumstances. It describes the person who has been wronged, who has it within his power to get even, but chooses not to use that power.
During the early days of the Civil War, Edwin Stanton was outspoken in his criticism of Abraham Lincoln. He held Lincoln in utter contempt, calling him a gorilla and a cunning clown. Although he knew about the slanders, Lincoln never retaliated. And when the time came to choose someone to oversee the war effort, Lincoln chose Stanton. When asked why, he simply replied, “Because he is the best man for the job.” After the president was assassinated in April 1865, Stanton stood weeping over Lincoln’s body and declared: “There lies the greatest ruler of men the world has ever seen.” Patient love won in the end.
Second, love is kind. The word mean something like “sweet usefulness.” Love is quick to help others and eager to reach out to those in need. Perhaps you’ve seen this famous quote: “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it, or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Mark Twain called kindness “a language that the deaf can hear and the blind can read.” He was absolutely right. Everyone can understand the language of love. It is truly the universal language, comprehended by people from every nation, by the rich and the poor, by the old and the young, by both male and female. Kindness is a universal language for it does not speak to the intellect, but directly to the heart.
In one of his news reports, Paul Harvey told about a man named Carl Coleman who was driving to work when a woman motorist, passing too close, snagged his fender with hers. Both cars stopped. The young woman surveying the damage was in tears. It was her fault, she admitted. But it was a new car-less than two days from the showroom. How was she ever going to face her husband? Mr. Coleman was sympathetic but explained they must note each other’s license number and automobile registration. The woman reached into the glove compartment of her car to retrieve the documents in an envelope. And on the first paper to tumble out, in a heavy masculine scrawl, were these words: “In case of accident, remember, Honey, it’s you I love, not the car.”
Third, love does not envy. This is the sin of those who think others have too much and they have too little. By contrast, love is generous. It does not begrudge others their gifts. How do you respond to the good fortune of others? If they do better than you, if they prosper when you don’t, if their family seems happy while yours is torn apart, how will you react? If they achieve what you cannot, if they gain what you lack, if they win where you lose, then the truth will come out. Can you lose gracefully? Can you walk away from the contest without bitterness?
If you live long enough, you’ll probably find someone who does what you do better than you can do it. You’ll meet people with your talents and your gifts-only much more of them. You’ll find people who surpass you in every way. What will you do then? This is one test of love. And if you live long enough, you are certain to encounter people who are less talented and less gifted than you in every way, yet they seem to catch all the breaks and end up ahead of you in the great game of life. How will you respond when an inferior person passes you by? This is an even sterner test of love.
Fourth, love does not boast. It does not brag, is not pompous or conceited. It has no exalted opinion of itself. It is not eager to gain the applause of others.
The Greek word translated “boast” means something like “windbag.” It has within it the idea of the person who must continually talk about himself in order to impress others.
Sometimes we would be better off saying nothing at all. Once upon a time, a turtle wanted to spend the winter in Florida but he knew he could never walk that far. He convinced a couple of geese to help him, each taking one end of a piece of rope, while he clamped his vise-like jaws in the center. The flight went fine until someone on the ground looked up in admiration and asked, “Who in the world thought of that?” Unable to resist the chance to take credit, the turtle opened his mouth to shout, “I did-”
Sometimes it’s a good idea to keep your mouth shut.
Fifth, love is not proud. The King James Version says love is “not puffed up.” That means love does not have an inflated opinion of itself. It is not filled with hot air. As I think about the truly great people I have known, they have all (on one level at least) seemed rather ordinary. They dressed and acted like real people. When someone has to dress or act or talk like they are somebody special, it’s because they’re trying to convince themselves. With those who are truly great, what you see is what you get, which is how it ought to be with all of us.
II. Love’s Refusal v. 5“It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs” (I Corinthians 13:5). Sixth, love is not rude. The King James Version says that love “does not behave itself unseemly.” This covers a lot of territory. On one level, it means that love is not ill-mannered. It does nothing of which it will be ashamed later. Love is true courtesy. It is polite, considerate, and careful for the needs and feelings of others. Love is quick to make others feel at ease. Love has good manners!
One writer sums it up by saying that love is “courtesy is love in little things.” That seems to say it all. As a practical application, remember that you don’t have to say everything you are thinking. “I’ve just got to say this.” No you don’t! And you probably shouldn’t.
Sarcasm is the main evidence of a lack in this area. How many times do we make some comment and then try to cover ourselves by saying, “I’m just kidding.” We make too many jokes at the expense of others and then try to laugh it off as cheap humor. The truth is, you weren’t kidding or you wouldn’t have said it in the first place.
Seventh, love is not self-seeking. It takes no thought for itself, does not demand its own way, and is not stubborn about things that don’t matter. Love never says, “My way or the highway.” Love says, “Let’s do it Jesus’ way.” Love serves and doesn’t worry about who gets the credit.
Eighth, love is not easily angered. This is the quality I always stop and think about when I read this chapter. This is the quality that seems to come too close for comfort. Love is not easily provoked, is not quick tempered, does not blow its top, is not easily angered, and is not irritable. By contrast, love is good-natured, easy-going, and quick to forgive.
I think most of us tend to look on this as a minor problem, as if being quick-tempered is merely a matter of temperament, personality or family background. We excuse it by saying “That’s just the way I am.” Well, that may be the way you are but it’s not the way you’re supposed to be. Over 100 years ago Henry Drummond wrote a wonderful, short treatment of I Corinthians called “The Greatest Thing in the World.” Regarding this phrase he noted that “the peculiarity of ill temper is that it is the vice of the virtuous. It is often the one blot on an otherwise noble character. You know men who are all but perfect, and women who would be entirely perfect, but for an easily ruffled, quick-tempered, or “touchy” disposition.” Let him who has ears hear what the Spirit is saying.
I know that some people excuse their bad temper by saying, “Sure, I lose my temper a lot, but it’s all over in a few minutes.” So is a nuclear bomb. A great deal of damage can be done in a very short time. Even small temper “bombs” can leave behind a lot of hurt, especially when they explode on a regular basis. Your temper is a sign of what is in your heart. A bad temper is a symptom of a terrible disease within the soul. It is an escaping bubble that reveals a fetid pit within.
Ninth, love keeps no record of wrongs suffered. The King James Version says that love “thinketh no evil.” It does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not impute evil, does not brood over injuries suffered. It is not suspicious of others, not cynical about good deeds done by others, and is not quick to remember a personal offense done by others. Warren Wiersbe said he once knew a man who actually kept a written list of the rotten things people had done to him. He also said that man was one of the most miserable people he had ever known. Many people keep mental lists of the slights they have suffered. They never get over what happened in the past. They dwell on it, they live in it, they ferment in it, and as a result, they let the past shape their present and their future.
But true love has a bad memory of wrongs done to it. Love is quick to hit the Delete key. Love is always ready to say, “I’m putting that in the past and I’m not going to bring it up again.”
III. Love’s Outlook v. 6“Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth” (I Corinthians 13:6). Tenth, love does not delight in evil. It takes no pleasure in wrongdoing, is not glad about injustice, and is not happy when evil triumphs. And it takes no joy in hearing evil openly discussed.
Love is never glad to hear bad news about another person.
Love never says, “Well, they finally got what they deserved.”
Love is never happy to hear that a brother or sister fell into sin.
Love does not enjoy passing along bad news.
This certainly goes against the grain of modern life. We all know that “Bad news sells” and that good news goes on page 75. That’s why they put those supermarket tabloids right by the checkout counter. We all want to hear the latest juicy gossip about our favorite celebrities.
True love isn’t like that. It turns away from cheap gossip and unsubstantiated rumors. And even when the rumor turns out to be true, love takes no pleasure in the misfortunes of others.
Eleventh, love rejoices with the truth.
This is the flip side of the previous phrase. Love takes joy in what is true and good and right and holy and pure. Love cheers whenever the truth wins out. It is glad to know that suspicions were unfounded. Love believes the best and is glad when the verdict is “Not guilty.”
“I hate my husband!” These are tough words to hear in that they go against our basic nature. We live in a world that talks about love in the generic sense of “I love you and why don’t we roast some chestnuts over an open fire?” But the kind of love the Bible talks about is in short supply. And even in the church, we tend to pass right over this passage because we’ve heard it in so many weddings that it seems more romantic than realistic.
How can we live this way? How can we truly love without envy, without a quick temper, without seeking our own interests, and without thinking evil of others? The answer is, we can’t. In ourselves we have no power to live this way. That’s why it doesn’t work to say, “Let’s give it the old college try and really go out there and love everyone we meet.” We will never talk ourselves into loving like this, and the sooner we admit that fact, the better off we’ll be. This isn’t some kind of rah-rah competition where we try to prove our love by our enthusiasm.
Sooner or later we have to get down to the bottom of things and admit the truth. “O God, I hate my husband. I hate my wife. I can’t stand my children. My parents are driving me nuts. I hate the people I work with and I don’t like the folks at church. I don’t love my neighbors and I can barely stand to see my own family. O God, help me. I don’t love anyone right now. And even though no one else knows it or sees it, I’m an angry person, filled with bad thoughts and completely lacking in any kind of love. If you don’t help me, I will never love anyone because I know I can’t change the way I am. Lord God, please help me. Change me. Let your love flow through me. If you want me to love others, you’re going to have to do it through me because I can’t do it myself.” That’s the kind of prayer God loves to answer.
I also think it helps to replace “love” with “Jesus” in this passage: “Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus does not envy, Jesus thinks no evil, Jesus is not quick-tempered, Jesus does not rejoice in what is evil.” If we want to love, we need more of Jesus in our lives. Run to the Cross. Stand there and behold the One who died for you. Look to Jesus. Stand next to him. Let his love fill your heart. If you will come close to Jesus, his love will begin to fill your heart and you will find yourself filled with supernatural love for others. Your life will begin to change as Jesus becomes preeminent in your heart.
Now as we come to the end, I’d like to give you some homework. Take some time this week to consider the eleven qualities of love in this passage. Think about them one by one. How do you measure up? Where are you strong and where are you weak? Which three qualities stand out as the greatest need in your life right now? Circle those three and begin to pray about them. Write down one practical step you can take in each of those areas this week. And ask God to help you grow strong in love.
There is a second part of this assignment. During December we are slowly climbing toward Bethlehem. On December 25 we will celebrate the supreme expression of God’s love-the birth of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. I’d like to challenge you to read I Corinthians 13 every day this month. December is a wonderful month to learn about love. If you read these 13 verses 31 times, Paul’s words will be tattooed on your soul. And as these words become part of your life, you will find love becoming a daily reality.
May God help us to live in love this week. Amen.