July 18, 2017
“What the world needs now is love, sweet love” are the opening words to a popular ballad of a number of years ago. It expresses a desire that virtually everyone holds. But what is love? Judging by the commonly held understanding of “love,” the world does not need any more of it! If what is happening in the world is evidence, it is very clear the world has only the foggiest of notions of what love is. If it does know, it is not doing it, or the song would not be making the statement of need.
Love is a much abused term. Because of our experiences, we all have somewhat different ideas about it. The most prevalent notion in the Western world is that love is a warm, topsy-turvy feeling, a thrill one gets in the pit of the stomach or a tingle running up and down the spine.
Some have equated it with caring, benevolent giving or nothing more than sheer emotionalism. On occasion, we use the term very casually and loosely. People express their “love” for the liturgy of a certain church. Some will say they just “love” ice cream, a certain beer, pizza, style of house, color, automobile, fashion, performer or team. People say they love an endless number of things. What some call “love” a theologian might call unbridled lust.
But these statements become ridiculous once we begin to understand what biblical love is. People’s “love” of something is merely an opinion, a preference. A preference is not love, and to use “love” in this way devalues it.
To care about something is not love either. One can care to the point of obsession or lust. A measure of caring must be a part of true love, but by itself, that caring feeling or preference is not love.
Love’s Supreme Importance
In I Corinthians 13, the Bible reveals love’s supreme importance to life. Paul directly compares love’s value to faith, hope, prophecy, sacrifice, knowledge and the gift of tongues and indirectly with all other gifts of God mentioned in chapter 12. He in no way denigrates the others’ usefulness to life and God’s purpose, but none can compare in importance to love.
The Corinthians took great pleasure in their gifts, just as we would, but a gift’s relative importance is shown in its temporal quality. That is, there are times when a gift is of no use. But love will never end; it will always be of use.
Indeed, the receiving of gifts from God—unless accompanied by and used with love—have the potential to corrupt the one receiving them. God’s gifts are powers given to enhance a person’s ability to serve God in the church. However, we have all heard the cliché, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If gifts are not received and used with love, they will play a part in corrupting the recipient, just as they were corrupting the Corinthians. Love is the attribute of God that enables us to receive and use His gifts without corruption.
The Bible says in I Corinthians 8:1, “Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies [builds up].” “Puffs up,” when opposed to “edifies,” implies tearing down, destruction. Paul is saying that pride has the power to corrupt the bearer of knowledge. This statement is part of the prologue to the great chapter on love, written because the Corinthians had allowed their emphasis to drift into the wrong areas. Even as a gift from God, knowledge has the potential to corrupt its recipient, if it is unaccompanied by love.
Paul thus begins chapter 13 by contrasting love with other gifts of God. He does this to emphasize love’s importance, completeness, permanence and supremacy over all other qualities we consider important to life and/or God’s purpose.
Prophecies end because they are fulfilled. The gift of tongues is less necessary today as then because of the widespread use of English in commerce, politics and academia. Its value depends on specific needs. Knowledge is increasing so rapidly that old knowledge, especially in technical areas, becomes obsolete as new developments arise. Yet the need for love is never exhausted; it never becomes obsolete. God wants us to use it on every occasion.
Paul also admonishes us—by instructing us “to put away childish things” (verse 11), as well as his reference to a mirror (verse 12)—that love is something we grow in. It must be perfected. What we have now is partial. Therefore, God does not give it to us in one huge portion to be used until we run out of it. In that sense, we must always see ourselves as immature. But a time is coming when love will be perfected, and we will have it in abundance like God. In the meantime, while we are in the flesh, we are to pursue love (I Corinthians 14:1).
This indicates that the biblical love is not something we have innately. True, some forms of this quality we call love come unbidden; that is, they arise by nature. But this is not so with the love of God. It comes through the action of God through His Spirit, something supernatural (Romans 5:5). Real love is unconditional. It is the way God loves us. God Is Love!