Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Checklist for Love -- 1 Corinthians 13:4-8


A New Commandment

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. John 13:34 (NIV)

Many argue that the Gospel of John passage is Jesus specifically telling the disciples to love other Christian disciples. Elsewhere in Scripture, Jesus is clear that the extent of this love includes everyone--even enemies, outcasts, sinners and anyone not in our comfort zone.

Unfortunately, sometimes "other Christian disciples" and "enemies" are one and the same thing. In any case, the demands of love span from those closest to us to the most distant.

Checklist for Love

Now that we have the commandment to love one another, it begs the questions: How? What does it mean for Christians to love others? This certainly requires deep thought, meditation and practice. Perhaps it calls for trial & error. It is easy to dismiss "love" as merely sentimental, as a feeling rather than an action.

Paul gives us an idea of what love looks like in the famous passage in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. It is a popular reading for weddings, but its reach goes far beyond that.

I like to look at Paul's beautiful words as a checklist. It holds us accountable. "Love one another" is a powerful commandment--jaw-dropping, life-changing, paradigm-altering, heaven-and-earth-shaking, in fact. It is also open ended enough that we can find it all too easy to ignore. The word "love" is so big and the scope is so broad that we can end up doing nothing at all--it goes without saying that we will fall short, which often becomes license for inaction or downright contradiction.

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 helps stave that off. Paul keeps the magic of love while stripping it of its needless sentimentality. This where the rubber hits the road, as we shall see.

[The headers below are based on the NIV translation, with the NRSV mentioned from time to time.]

Love is patient

We can all say we feel love. It is easy to say we value love. We can all agree that love is difficult in our complex, sinful world. We can affirm these things, proverbially pat ourselves on the back and then let the discussion die on the vine right then and there. Paul does not allow that. He presses us--So, have you been patient with others?

This is a very different question about love. Do we acknowledge that others are on a path of growth, that they have limitations and blind spots, too? Patience allows space for grace to enter, instead of being drowned out by our impulsive triggers and autonomic reactions.

Love is kind

A mentor of mine would always say that it is better to describe love than to use the word love itself. Love itself is like the sun--the source of all light but almost impossible to look at directly. It is better to understand the sun by looking at the plants that grow from its rays, the rainbows that emit from a prism of raindrops and the colors visible to the eye through shades and shadow.

In other words: I cannot look at the sun, but I like how you look in the sun.

This resonates brilliantly here: Kindness. I absolutely adore this word. It connotes gentleness, compassion, warmth. It is our default stance to others when we approach them in love.

It does not envy

It is interesting that this should be in a list of qualities of love. You might think that envy and love go hand in hand. Can you not love someone so much that you also envy them? Paul suggests no. 

The Christian journey is instead one of gratefulness for the gifts God has given. We can appreciate the gifts that others have without clinging to them. Envy is often more of a sign that we are not loving ourselves than it has to do with the other person. Yes, there are many lovely things about you. Perhaps I can learn from you, but I will not confuse that with wanting to be you to the point where I confuse my own identity with you. To love others, we must first love ourselves. Envy opens the door to objectifying someone else. It begins in self-hate and ends in destroying others.

It does not boast

This is the flip side of envy. People who boast seek to augment themselves, usually at the expense of others. It comes before pride in the list, but it is pride in action, as we shall see below. Whether we envy someone else or boast about ourselves, both express a lack of love for ourselves and a break from the fundamental equality of all people before God.

It is not proud.

It was no accident that Medieval scholars and saints consistently saw pride as the deadliest of the deadly sins. It is a direct affront to God as we claim ourselves as the source of our merit rather than God, from whom all good things flow. Pride therefore makes it hard to express love properly to others, as we have attempted to obstruct the fundamental relationship of God to ourselves.

Pride comes across as an air of superiority. Underneath it all, it probably comes out of a sense of inferiority. Neither is acceptable. Love is a level playing field; it is the great equalizer. We are all children of the God, equal in God's eyes. Pride prevents us from seeing that. Pride creates hierarchy--it says that this person is better or less than this other person.


It does not dishonor others

There is a difference between disagreement and dishonoring. We can and should offer each other constructive feedback. The NRSV simply uses the word "rude." Talking abruptly and crudely is not what love looks like.

That being said, a fake politeness that masks a subtle disregard does not work very well either. It does not ultimately matter if someone is polite or not--is the other person being dishonored, slandered, mocked or disregarded by your speech and behaviors?

The Google dictionary definition of "dishonor" says it is a failure to observe an agreement or principle. I love this. The "agreement" is what Scripture tells us--that all humans are brothers and sisters to each other and children of the same God. To "dishonor" someone is to disregard this principle which has been revealed to us through the Christian faith.

It is not self-seeking

I like the NRSV translation: "It does not insist on its own way."

Love is like a dance--it would not be very artistic if one person dragged the other person around the dance floor, caveman style. Instead, they both work together to move in harmony with each other, so that neither is hurt and both can express their gifts.

You probably cannot "insist on your own way" without running the risk of "dishonoring the other person."

It is not easily angered

People often cite Jesus getting angry at the money changers in the Temple as a justification for getting angry. We must remember that Jesus is slow to anger. He does not get angry very often in the Gospel accounts.

We are always looking for little slippery slopes to bypass Jesus' commandment to love. One instance of Jesus getting angry does not give us an unlimited permission to be impulsive or regularly angry. I have heard people reason it through this way: Jesus got angry once, so therefore "anger" is a universally good thing whenever I decide to express it. The actions of Jesus suggest there may be a place for anger--as long as it is measured and very, very rare.

God is slow to anger--are we?

NRSV says love "is not irritable or resentful." Both of those works connote someone who is at the brink of anger, and others around them will feel like they are walking on eggshells.


It keeps no record of wrongs.

I admit this is a hard one for me. There has to be a place for healthy accountability. It does no one any good to be a regular punching bag for someone else. But do you define someone by your perceived problems with them or by their noteworthy characteristics? Some people walk around all day dragging that ole ball-and-chain--every pain they have ever experienced. We ought to remember things. We should not sweep problems under the rug. But once they are dealt with, they should be released to the white light of the Holy Spirit.

The NRSV is helpful here. The previous line ends with "resentful" and continues with "it does not rejoice in wrongdoing." That hones in on what I am describing. People can be truly hurt by others, but when they carry that badge of victimhood around so prominently you can sometimes wonder if they are not actually happy that they were injured--it gives them something to complain about. They almost celebrate the injury as a way to make others feel bad by holding onto that resentment and keeping score. Or they overemphasize it as a way to give them license to mistreat the other.

Sr. Helen Prejean--the Catholic sister who works against the death penalty--says it is important how we talk about our sin. She asks: Do you want your worst action to define you as a person? In other words: Is a criminal on death row a murderer who happens to be a person--or are they a person who happens to have murdered someone? It is about how we define ourselves and others. Keeping a record of wrongs can prevent us from truly entering into a relationship with the other person. We have written the sin up and written the person off. It allows us to avoid becoming vulnerable and entering into the mystery of the person before us and be open to what they have to offer.

Jesus was constantly making space and time for people that others had written off. As we shall see, love has the final say, not condemnation.


Love does not delight in evil

You can see that this is a dangerous path. What starts with "envy" quickly translates into "resentful," turns into "rejoice in wrongdoing," which ultimately leads into "delight in evil." Paul maps out this descent into the dark side very well in his litany of terms. People become so convinced of their rightness, and so entitled to their anger, that they cross a line into rejoicing in evil often without realizing it. 

It is never good when bad things happen. By definition.

But rejoices with the truth.

This is where things get dicey. Just when someone is about to let go of their preconceived notions, step out of their protected shell and engage with others in openness and vulnerability, this line shoots out like a canon blast and can justify holding on to our petty arguments and divisions.

This is a tricky passage. What do you do if another group holds a belief or has a practice that you do not agree with? Even worse, what if you consider it to be evil? Some people take this line to mean that the only way to hold true to their beliefs is to exclude people who do not fit into that.

Christians have often looked on this verse as a reason to break relationship. However, Jesus rarely did that. He disagreed with many folks but so often in Scripture you see him reaching out. He stays in relationship. He stays in dialogue. He continues to be compassionate, loving and gentle.

Pope Francis recently described a Christian as someone more interested in building bridges than walls. The pontiff nails it. There is a time and a place for walls, yes. But I am not convinced we ever need a wall until someone can demonstrate that they have first worked tirelessly to build bridges.  Until someone can show that building a wall is a last resort--and not the first, impulsive action--then I will stand unconvinced that a wall is either necessary or in line with the demands of love.

Before we snap back reflexively into our comfort zone of divisions and categories of who's right and who's wrong, I'd like to focus on the word "rejoice" here. Sometimes we think of the word "truth" as being the deposit of dogmas and doctrines that our church denomination holds. One of the most popular guiding expressions when it comes to the movement toward Christian unity is called a "sharing of gifts" St. Pope John Paul II used that expression frequently, and it has become a guiding mantra for ecumenism. Simply put, we ought to testify to how God has been working in our lives.  We can share that joy with others. 

To "rejoice in the truth" does not mean we use our beliefs as a justification for divisions and exclusions. Nowhere does it say or imply that. If you disagree, read it again and slowly. This is a celebration.

It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

As if there were any doubt.

As if this passage has not been abundantly clear.

Can you imagine protecting your enemies?  You should, because this is what love looks like.

Trust is also a hard one. Trust in what, exactly? I hear Paul asking us to give the benefit of the doubt. Can we trust that there is something of the goodness of God in everyone, even our enemies?

Can you never give up hope that goodness will always prevail, no matter how deep the wound or how vast the division? 

All of this culminates in this astonishing capstone:

Love never fails.

Just in case you were looking for an out. Just in case all of the above demands and descriptions of love were still not enough. Just in case you still found a way to escape back into your protective bubble and hurdle proverbial grenades at your opponents, Paul comes out and says it outright: Love hangs in there. Love has the final say. In short, love works and love wins. 

After all, everything besides loves is just a bunch of senseless noise (1 Cor 13:1-3).

Will you hang in there, too?

Love is one of the hardest things to do. We look for any way that we can wiggle out of the demands of love and continue in our ways of divisions. One by one, Paul engages all the reasons we give ourselves to opt out of the path of love.

We all think love is a great idea. But do we think patience is a good idea? How about kindness? . . .and so on down the checklist.

Linus sums up what this post is about so well!

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