On this Valentine’s Day I want to ask the question: what is true love?
1 Corinthians 13 is a great place to start. This might be many people’s favourite but it is much misunderstood:-
1) 1 Cor 13 is not about romantic love
I think I can say with confidence that the Apostle Paul did not dictate 1 Corinthians 13 in order that thousands of years later the vicar might have a text on which to preach at a wedding day.
2) 1 Cor 13 is not about Jesus
It is sometimes said that 1 Corinthians is a “portrait for which Jesus sat”.
Of course, of all people in the world, Jesus was know to fulfil the qualities of v4-7: He was patient, kind, not envious, humble, respectful, not self-oriented, angry, forgiving, truthful: He alone ALWAYS protects, trusts hope and perseveres.
But I think I can also say with some confidence that Paul did not primarily have Jesus in mind when he wrote 1 Cor 13.
3) 1 Cor 13 is about the Corinthians
This is a church which has caused the Apostle quite a bit of heartache. Vv 1-3 is addressed to competitive Christians who parade their knowledge, gifts and great acts of faith… which is having a hugely divisive effect on the congregation… Of course it is not so much that tongues, prophecy, interpretation, knowledge, faith, sacrifice, martyrdom are not gifts to be prized. Rather they had come to perceive these things as being the most excellent of gifts. And they had paraded them in a way that denigrated those with “lesser” gifts.
V4-7 is also about the Corinthians, for:
– They are quite clearly not patient, their love is short-lived, they are not kind … Paul believes that when such things are absent in a congregation, however great their other virtues, then things are sadly lacking.
– There should be no place for competitive, pride etc among God’s people.
– Paul seeks to show them the excellent way of LOVE: The Corinthian view of excellence is incomplete and passing
– Their gifts, their sacrifices, their wisdom will fade … love won’t
But what exactly does this mean? What does it mean to say that love will never fade and that love is the most excellent way?
Is love a force which cannot be conquered (as some of our pop songs seem to suggest)? If we are going to join Cheryl Cole and “Fight for this love” – what exactly is the love for which we fight and what does it look like?
Paul’s conclusion of this chapter is significant, I think.
Faith hope and love remain, love is the greatest.
Why? Because faith and hope die out in heaven? No. Rather, because in loving this way we most reflect God.
The key to interpreting this chapter, it seems to me is see why, in Paul’s mind, the greatest out of faith, hope and love is LOVE…
In other words, the secret of true love is: God!
In reaching this conclusion I have been very much helpful over the years by the 18th Century New England revival preacher Jonathan Edwards. For Jonathan Edwards, true religion, true worship and true love are very much focussed on God. Let me illustrate this is in the life and works of this great man.
Religious Affections – In this book Edwards described true love as affection. In modern parlance we tend to use “affection” to mean “Like, a bit” … but for the Puritans the “affections” were the root of our desires, wants and motivations.
‘The religion which God requires, and will accept, does not consist in weak, dull and lifeless wishes, raising us but a little above a state of indifference: God, in His word, greatly insists upon it, that we be in good earnest, “fervent in spirit,” and our hearts vigorously engaged in religion…’ (p.27).
Charity and its Fruits – Love as “Light and heat”
‘A truly practical or saving faith, is light and heat together, or rather light and love, while that which is only a speculative faith, is only light without heat; and, in that it wants spiritual heat or divine love, is in vain, and good for nothing. A speculative faith consists only in the assent of the understanding; but in a saving faith which is only of the former kind, is no better than the faith of devils for they have faith so far as it can exist without love, believing while they tremble’ (p.13).
By heat he means warmth. By light he means truth and intensity.
Relationship with Sarah
Jonathan Edward’s life long study in the love of God was grounded in his “uncommon union” to his wife Sarah. He wasn’t an easy man, something of a work-aholic, although he did find time to father 11 children…!
When the George Whitfield visited their Northampton home in 1740 he wrote:
“A sweeter couple I have not yet seen… she talked feelingly and solidly about the things of God, and seemed to be such a help meet for he Husband that she caused me to pray God, that he would be pleased to send me a Daughter of Abraham to be my wife”
Another visitor to their home commented that it opened up
“the world in which love lifts the whole animal endowment to an ethical level” (George Gordon)
Edwards was quite clear in his writings to say that True Virtue is not to be found in the love of love, or the sentimental sensations of love. But rather love for love to be true it flows to and from God.
Love is the root of a relationship with God
Love is the fruit of a relationship with God
All true love is grounded in God
All true love has God as its goal
Do you want to know true love?
Do you want to show true love?
God as the Ground of Love – Know true love
1 John 4:16: God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.
Put your absolute confidence, security and trust in no one other that God!
You won’t learn to love truly and fully without focussing your life on God
God as the Goal of Love – Show true love
All love should have as its highest goal, the love of God
Let me illustrate this from the well known, albeit controversial Ephesians 5:21ff passage –
The Daily Mail (see http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250464/Curate-outrages-congregation-telling-women-silent-submit-husbands.html)was outraged this week that the Curate of St Nicolas Church Sevenoaks suggested in a sermon that wives should submit to their husbands. Of course I don’t know the full details of the content of this sermon, but Paul does say in Ephesians 5 that husbands should love their wives with same sacrificial love which Christ loved the Church – in total self-giving. Wives should submit to their husbands, in sacrificial self giving.
Of course this is a tall order, not least in our egalitarian day and age. However, Paul expects both the husband and wife to see the Lord as the highest object of your affection, not your imperfect spouse. If you make God the highest object of your delight then loving and serving your less-than-perfect spouse will be possible.
The illustration which I find helpful is from golf. When lining up to putt the ball, one way of avoiding “choking on the ball”, (which is hitting the ball short of the hole) is to focus on a spot 3-4” beyond the hole and making that your target. When aiming for that, the ball will drop in the hole.
In a similar way, if we make God our greatest love then loving our less-than-perfect spouse becomes possible.
Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.’ (Matt 22:37-39)
As popular culture rightly recognises: love is often lacking when it is most needed. Experiencing true love is our life quest, but is elusive to so many people…
However 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us that true love will only be found when our lives are focused on the one true who is LOVE … for sure, it seems to me, this will do much to enliven Romantics on this Valentines Day, but more, it should and could transform our families, our churches, our friendships and, ultimately the world.
May God work this God-centred love deep in our hearts so He may be the deep source of our love and the object of our highest affections. (more on Jonathan Edward’s and Love in this Churchman journal article http://churchsociety.org/churchman/documents/Cman_117_4_Vibert.pdf)
Let’s make Valentine’s day a day which is all about God!