A More Excellent Way — Love, Part II

Title: A More Excellent Way: Love, Part II

Text: 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

Time: January 21st, 2007

Last week I started a sermon series on the “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13. With it being the New Year 2007 I wanted to urge us all to make a new year’s resolution to be more loving, and what better way to begin than to study what the Bible has to say about love, especially in the most famous passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13. Someone has once said that the word “love” is the most confusing word in the English language because everyone thinks they know what it means, but from the looks of things it’s obvious that people don’t know what it means. Popular culture confuses the definition of love to mean almost any romantic feeling between two people. Hollywood basically teaches that love is a romantic emotion; if one has romantic feelings, one is in love. But the Bible defines love in a very different way than our popular culture today. Yes, there is an emotional aspect to love, but according to the Bible, love can’t be defined as a feeling or emotion, it goes far beyond sentimentality. The Apostle Paul takes the entire 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians to describe love and spends little time describing what our culture considers romantic love; rather, he is trying to point us to something much more important than feelings. He lists characteristics that when taken together make up what it means to be a loving person. Characteristics are character traits that form a whole package of a personality; when these loving characteristics are brought together in our personality we display the characteristics of a loving person. Or in other words, we display love. This is vastly different than the popular notion that love is a romantic emotion or feeling. The false idea that love is an emotion or feeling gives people the false idea that it is optional in life. Or in other words, if love is merely an emotion or feeling than it can be dismissed as optional or non-essential. Some people are more emotional, others more intellectual. Some people express themselves more visibly, others more inwardly. If love is a feeling or emotion, then everyone is free to express it or not, just as they are free to laugh or cry, worry or remain calm. Under the false notion that love is an emotion or feeling, people are given the choice of opting out of love or participating, they are allowed to avoid the obligation to love because love is seen as merely an emotion. But The Apostle Paul is trying to teach us from 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (read), that love is more than an emotion or feeling, and that it isn’t an option but rather a necessity in the Christian life. So he talks about some common excuses people use to avoid the obligation to love other people and explains how these excuses won’t work. If love were merely an emotion we might be excused for not taking love seriously, but because love is far more than mere feeling or emotion, we can’t escape responsibility for treating others in a loving way. Paul lists three excuses, and answers them.

First, we can’t excuse ourselves from love on the basis of our ability. 1 Corinthians 13:1, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Now we can’t get out of being a loving person by saying, “I’m not gifted in loving people like others are, but I’m gifted in doing other things, like mechanical ability, or artistic skills, or language skills.” There is the notion that love is a gift that some people are born with and others aren’t, and this is an excuse that some make in order to avoid having to treat people in a loving way. The root cause of being unloving is the idea that there are excuses or reasons why I’m not obligated to treat people with love. People don’t get serious about loving people because they don’t see love as essential but rather only as an option in treating people. These same people use the excuse that if love is a feeling or emotion, they just don’t feel the need for it as much as some other people do. Or they don’t have the gifts or abilities for it that other people might possess. Anyway, they see love as something that, yes, if we all did treat each other with more love the world would be a better place to live, but we really all can get along without it, so that it’s really only optional. Those who have a “gift” or “ability” to love to a high degree are nice to have in the world, but the world would keep on spinning without them, so love is really only an option. But the Apostle Paul wants to do away with all such thinking by demonstrating that love isn’t an option in the eyes of God, it’s essential. He says no ability or special gift can excuse us from becoming loving people. “If I speak in the tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only making noise,” says Paul. Or in other words, no gifts or abilities can take the place of love in our lives. A great scientist might say, “My specialty is science, let someone else take care of love.” But Paul would respond, “You can’t substitute your ability for loving.” Another person might say, “I’m not naturally loving or an emotional or feeling person.” Paul would say, “It isn’t about emotion or feeling, it’s about treating people a certain way and no excuse can relieve us of that responsibility.” Paul is trying to teach us that love isn’t an option in life, we can’t get out of being loving people, and that no natural abilities can excuse us from love. We can’t substitute something we are able to do that’s good for our obligation to love. If I’m an intellectual, I can’t use that as an excuse not to love people or say that it isn’t my gift. If I’m an artist, I can’t bury myself in my work, treat people in unloving ways, and excuse it because love isn’t my specialty, art is. There is no excuse for not loving. That’s what Paul is trying to get us to see so that we don’t try to make excuses for not loving.

Second, we can’t excuse ourselves from loving because of our possessions. 1 Corinthians 13:2, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” Here Paul tries to head off another excuse for not loving based on what I possess, such as money, high paying job, high position, property, fame, fortune, power, etc. Some people feel that because of their position in life they don’t have to love other people. We see this in Hollywood with actors and actresses when they get successful. They stop caring about other people, stop treating other people right because they think that if love is an option they can get away with not loving others now that they’ve “made it.” Paul lists a number of different things that someone might possess in their spiritual life that might tempt them to not take serious their obligation to love others: the gift of prophecy, knowledge, and highly developed faith. Now in the previous chapter, Paul taught on spiritual gifts in the church and encouraged Christians to pursue spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy, which is knowledge of the future. Somebody might think that if they did what Paul said to do and possessed the gift of prophecy, then that might relieve them somewhat of the responsibility to love people because now that they have knowledge of the future and people seeking them out for wisdom and insight, they could focus on that and not worry so much about treating people with love. But again, Paul makes it plain: there is no excuse for not loving, not even our possessions, whatever we possess. No amount of money or fame or power or possessions can excuse us from our obligation to love others. In another passage, Paul says, “Permit no debt to remain outstanding, except the debt of love,” Romans 13:8. We are all in debt to others, and especially God, to love. A debt is something we owe, and according to the Bible, we owe every person love. There can be no escaping this obligation. We are obligated by God to love. We can’t escape this or make excuses. No ability we have, no possession we have can excuse us. We can’t say, “I don’t feel like loving, I just don’t feel love.” Love isn’t mostly a feeling; it’s a disposition towards others. We are called to it and we can learn it. But the most important thing we can do to love is to not make any excuses for ourselves. We must get rid of all excuses that make it easy for us to neglect love. There are no real excuses for not loving people, but as long as we think there are excuses we’ll use those to escape our responsibilities to love.

Third, we can’t excuse ourselves from loving because of our sacrifices. 1 Corinthians 13:3, “If I give all I posses to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” Paul includes this here to answer the excuse that some people might try to make, “I’m not under obligation to love because I’ve sacrificed so much.” Here a person gives everything to the poor and even sacrifices his own life in the flames, surely that person is under no obligation to love after giving all that? Wrong. Even severe sacrifice doesn’t lift us of our obligation to love. No amount of sacrifice can give us an excuse to treat people in an unloving way. If that were the case, the Apostle himself might be justified in treating everyone without love because of all the sacrifices he made to bring the gospel to the gentile world. Sometimes we feel that we make sacrifices for other people who don’t appreciate it and that it gives us justification to treat them without love at times. That’s not true. None of our sacrifices can justify unloving behavior. We must learn to love people rather than learn excuses for not loving. And loving can be learned. Some people still think that the ability to love is something like an inborn thing, some are born with it, and others are not. But that is false. The Apostle Paul is teaching us about love because it is possible to learn how to love better. Love can be learned. We can learn it by example, by watching others who have mastered certain principles and characteristics of love in their lives. We can learn it through precept, that is, through studying the characteristics of love and making application in our lives. The Bible is full of examples and precepts concerning love that we can use to learn how to love. While it is true that some people seem to have an easier time naturally loving than others, that may be due to a number of factors. Some people may possess natural abilities that would lead them to be more loving in their interactions with others; this gives them a good start in life. Others are raised in families and communities where love is encouraged and modeled for them, and they naturally follow the pattern before them. That also helps. But love is something that can be learned no matter how late in life one starts. Over the next few weeks we are going to be learning about love from 1 Corinthians 13; some of this material you are familiar with, while some of it you may not be. Some of this you will know but haven’t applied very well in your life, while other parts you may have been successful at living out during your life. As we go point by point through Paul’s teaching on love let us stop and ask ourselves some important questions such as, “What areas of love have I lacked in my life? What parts of the love equation have I neglected or omitted? What parts have I known but not applied consistently in my life?” This teaching is an opportunity for all of us to learn and live a life of love based on a careful study of God’s Word. Let’s not pass this opportunity. It may never come again in your life.

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