The Love Chapter

By Sigrid Fowler

All writers in Op Ed are here to inform and acknowledge issues of importance to our communities, however these writings represent the views and opinions of the authors and not necessarily of The Advertiser.

​To remind myself of John’s amazing statement, “God is love” (I John 4: 8), is to open a topic the size of the ocean. Or to put it another way, imagine a stack of books the height of Mt. Everest, all dealing with what the Bible tells us about who God is and what love is. One manageable way to approach the mighty truth John declares is to look again at a biblical passage commonly called “the love chapter,” Chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the Christians of Corinth. This is a favorite, much-used portion of Scripture but well worth reexamining.

​First, Paul lays out some human scenarios made futile if love is absent—first, eloquent or supernatural speech (“the tongues of men and of angels”). Don’t we all admire the skillful speaker? Words used well are the fuel of every political campaign, every op ed, all literature (from murder mysteries to Shakespeare, jingles to epics and sonnets), all news reporting, historical records, sermons, the annals of scientific discoveries. No love, Paul says, and it’s “a sounding gong or a clashing cymbal”—just noise. Arguably, to the unscientific, even technicalities of such breakthroughs are notable when they fix a problem sparking our concern—e.g., polio vaccines. Love generates concern. No love? The words just grate.

​Then there’s knowledge. When Paul includes prophecy and “all mysteries” in his “knowledge” category, weremember the five hundred years the church fought Gnosticism, a stubborn, complex heresy based on claims of secret knowledge. Paul even extends his point to “all faith.”All this learning, all these gift claims, even “faith to move mountains”— these things are nothing without love, theknowledgeable person is nothing, even Paul himself.

​And what about altruism or activism? Paul sayscommitment so fierce as to make martyrdom an option “profits me nothing” if love isn’t present. This is no generality. Paul is specific: He lists giving up all possessions for the sake of the poor, surrendering one’s body to be burned—but no love? No profit in any of it! So much for charitable giving (i.e., tax breaks), so much for fixing society’s ills with socialism, even by fiery demonstrations!

​About now, I’m remembering an odd fact from teaching English to first-term college students: The favorite theme of all poetry is love, I told them. Surprised? Paul wouldn’t be.

​From these cautions, Paul moves into a list of characteristics he has identified as necessary for this thing called love. At this point, we have to remember Paul’s self-identification as a “Pharisee of the Pharisees” and his many years spent in some wilderness (after his Damascus road encounter with the risen Jesus), presumably rethinking what he knew about the law and the Bible. It had to be a lot. This means we can safely assume that this writer of a third of the NT was well versed in what the Bible says about God and love.

Paul says love has to have these things: first, patience and kindness. Further, love eschews jealousy, arrogance, unseemliness, irritability, and touchy self-centeredness. It holds no grudges. Love isn’t pleased with wrongdoing, but “rejoices in the truth.” Love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” My goodness! And if all that weren’t enough, Paul declares: “Love never fails.”

​Plenty of other things fail and cease—the gifts of prophecy and tongues, for example. All knowledge “will be done away,” he says then adds a fascinating comment abouthis own life—the contrast between childish immaturity and the grown-up wholeness that comes when a person puts away the limitations of “childish things.” These things are partial, Paul says—this is, incomplete. Paul no longer speaks like a child, thinks like a child, or reasons like a child. I’mremembering all those childish fears, bizarre theories and inaccurate perceptions.

​Intimidated yet? Who can live up to this picture of love? Paul ends with one striking point, an image I’ve misinterpreted. He says: “We see through a glass darkly but then face to face” (1 Cor 13: 12a). The word glass made me (others too?) think of straining to see Jesus as if through a dirty window. New translations correctly say mirror, not glass. We believers see an incomplete image, he says. In this mirror, we see only the current, dim image of Jesus. One day his image will shine, completed and perfectly evident in our faces and in our lives.