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Love and forgiveness

in 1 Corinthians

¬© Andrew Knock  (1998, 2002)


1  'Love will endure' - endure what?

"Love" is a catch-all word, one which we all invoke when we wish to sound or feel sincere.  It is one of the very greatest personal qualities, yet one of the most complex and hard to define.  The brilliant psychiatrist and writer Adam Phillips said in a TV seminar on love, "We should ban the use of the word 'love' for a year.  Then people would have to say what they mean in other words ..."  (from Issues, Melvyn Bragg, C4 November 2001)

1 Corinthians 13 is the well-known Christian hymn to love, in which Paul seeks to root the members of the Corinthian church more deeply in God.  "God is love," said St John (1 John 4.8).  God does not measure people by their gifts.  The Corinthian Christians were gifted – gifted spiritually and humanly.  But gifts, Paul teaches, are not the standard to use in evaluating people. 

In this chapter, so often made romantic and domestic when used at weddings, Paul reminds the Corinthians that when Christ returns, he will call them to account.  How have you done?  Jesus’ parable of the talents asked the same question – and remember that talents were gold coins, not skills and abilities.   Jesus meant, "What have you done with your spiritual riches?"

Paul tells his readers that gifts and abilities, even God-given ones, will disappear before Christ's Advent coming.  He asks them to consider, What will last forever, in the fire of Christ’s gaze?  What will remain? (v.13)  "Love is eternal," he says, "and when what is perfect – Jesus – comes, then what is partial will disappear." (vv.8,10)  Faith, hope and love endure; they are what will hold us upright before God’s presence, and love will do this most of all.


Love means being centred

What does Paul mean by 'love'?  He was serious about saying that love endures.  It is a 'final judgement' quality: attentiveness, waiting for Jesus, looking first to him. When you are besides a sick relative, are you listening out for Jesus?  When you are judged and condemned, are you concerned most of all with what Jesus thinks?  When you are praised for a job completed, are you listening for Jesus’ opinion, or just human ones?  And so on.

I have often made use of the distinction between 'bounded' and 'centred' sets.  (See On not excluding others.)   This distinguishes between groups who define themselves by being inside or outside a boundary, standard, or 'them-and-us' criterion; and groups who define themselves by a common direction and goal, regardless of where they are each coming from and what qualities they each possess at this stage of the journey. 

If your attitude is ‘bounded’, then you will see yourself and others in terms of insiders and outsiders, your friends and the rest, them that’s got it, them that ain’t!   Does he or she fit into our way of doing things, our kind of people?   You will – as the Corinthian Christians did – look down on some people, or have too much respect for others.  You will compare yourself with others all the time.

This, Paul says, cannot be the way of love.  You can only stop comparing yourself when you focus on Jesus all the time.  Centre your life on him, move towards him.   Even if you are a long way off, it’s the direction you’re going in that matters.  As Simone Weil wrote:

  • "Sin is not a distance, it is a turning of our gaze in the wrong direction ... It is only necessary to know that love is a direction, and not a state of the soul.  He whose soul remains ever turned in the direction of God while the nail pierces it, finds himself nailed on to the very centre of the universe.  It is the true centre ... it is God."  (The love of God and affliction, in Waiting on God, Collins 1951 pp 83, 93)

What does this mean in daily life? There is no one centre – don't think of the centre as being like the altar or the church building, or the minister. The centre is moving throughout space and time, as does the eternal Word.  The centre appears whenever someone calls you back to Jesus, by their challenging words, or their selflessness, or their unconditional invitation, or their transforming vision, or their forgiveness.


The purpose of God's love

The point we can so easily forget, when sitting through a wedding listening to the chapter I am considering, 1 Corinthians 13, is that ‘love’ is not our small human attempts.  It is an extraordinarily inappropriate text for most weddings!  As I said, it is a Last Judgement passage.  Jim Wallis came to a deep understanding of love in his Sojourners community in Washington DC, and observed:

The crucial relationship between vision and nurture has been central to our experience of community. With only vision, a community soon loses any real quality of love. With only nurture, the community forgets what its love is for. (Call to Conversion, p 128)

A remarkable phrase: "what the love is for." What does St John say? 

  • "We love because God first loved us ... This is what love is: not that we love God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the means by which we are forgiven." (1 John 4.19,10) 

In other words, don't think of what you are doing as 'love' unless you - in God's power - are "providing the means by which others are forgiven."

Respected contemporary pastor and writer John MacArthur says about this:

This is the very character by which a church should be known:  "By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."  (John 13.35)  What is it about our love for one another that is remarkable, and visible, to a watching world? 

It's not our potluck dinners or our group activities that best display our love towards one another, but our forgiveness.  Love is best manifested in forgiveness.  And the real test of love is how easily we forgive when we are offended.  ("The freedom and power of forgiveness"  p 176)

Likewise, Brother Roger of Taiz√© calls forgiveness ‘the highest expression of love’:

If we love only those who love us, we are doing nothing extraordinary.   We do not need Christ to do that. A non-believer is quite capable of doing as much.  Do you want to follow Christ, and not look back?   Then are you going to make your way through life with a heart that is reconciled?   In any disagreement, what is the use of trying to find out who was wrong and who was right?  Suppose people distort your intentions?  If you are judged wrongly because of Christ, then forgive. 

You will find that you are free, free beyond compare.  Forgive, and then forgive again.  That is the highest expression of loving.  There you make yours the final prayer of Jesus, "Forgive them, they do not know what they are doing." ("No Greater Love" pp 22,19)

Jesus Christ is God’s love gift to us, given in order that we might become forgiven, free people.  Forgiveness is the goal of God's love - it is what puts 'love' to the test, the refining fire of Christ's Advent.  If we say we love, the test of that is that we forgive - that we have received God's love as his forgiveness (including accepting our wrong and our need for forgiveness), and can now love others - by forgiving.  n

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