What is Love? – 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Cor 13:4-7

What is love? Is it possible to define something that seems so mysterious and elusive? Just how elusive the definition of love is, becomes evident as we compare different individual’s definitions of love. We hear about cases of so-called, “Love at first sight.” Love has been likened to “temporary insanity,” and “a strange bewilderment.” It’s been called “a fire that rages in the heart.Stendhal in his 1822 treatise on love wrote, “Love is like a fever which comes and goes quite independently of the will.” On the other hand, Helena from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream says, “love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.” Is love a function of the emotion, or of the will, or of the mind? Evolutionary biologist and infamous atheist Richard Dawkins in a letter to his ten-year-old daughter explained love in terms of evidence. He wrote: “People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you’d never be confident of things like ‘My wife loves me’. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn’t purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

So who is right? Stendhal? Shakespeare? Dawkins? Well when the Scripture describes love in 1 Corinthians 13, oddly enough it lines up with the atheist Dawkins’ ideas closer than many others. The Holy Spirit through the apostle Paul describes rather than defines love in terms of fifteen portraits which reveal that love neither an emotion, nor an idea nor a motive. Love is a word that can only be properly defined in terms of action, attitude, and behavior. Paul has no room for abstract, theoretical definitions; instead, he wants us to know what love looks like when we see it. Thus, he paints fifteen separate portraits of love – fifteen verbs, all of which have “love” as their subject. As we see what love looks like, we realize how far short our contemporary ideas of love fall, where we love our jobs, we love our favorite sports team, we love Chinese food. In this biblical picture, love (agape) is more recognized by action than felt in the emotions.

As we look upon the portrait of love painted in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, what ought to stand out most clearly is Christ, who this text portrays most beautifully. Enjoy the following exercise: Read verses 4-7 again, and as you do, replace the word “love” with “Christ;” for each of the fifteen portraits think of an example from the life of Christ in the Gospels, where He portrayed that particular portrait. For more than anything, 1 Corinthians 13 is about Jesus Christ who is love incarnate.


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