In this series of blogs we have been exploring four Christian virtues associated with the Advent season: hope, peace, joy, and love. These virtues—as Christian virtues—find their full meaning and significance in Jesus’ ministry on earth. Without them we are at a clear disadvantage in dealing with trials and in demonstrating the reality of the gospel in our lives. I will conclude the series with some reflections on love.
Part 4: The Love Assessment
“But the Greatest of These Is Love”
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he went to great lengths to correct their aberrant view of congregational life. He had to deal with a very gifted congregation of people (1 Corinthians 1:4-7) who had “missed” the defining trait of Jesus’ disciples—love. They had experienced the ministry of the Holy Spirit in their lives; he manifested his presence through their gifts (1 Corinthians 12:7), but Paul noted that the attitude of some people toward others had been overshadowed by their misguided enthusiasm for their particular gifts. Evidently, arrogance was more noticeable than servanthood among the Corinthians. Consequently, Paul sought to readjust their perspective on what is of primary importance in the Christian life.
First, Paul made some shocking statements about one’s self-image in the light of the Spirit’s gifts:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
We might be tempted to “tone down” verses 1-3 because of the modern cultural emphasis on the power of a positive self-image. However, that would blur Paul’s attempt to reflect Jesus’ own teaching. For example, Mark records an incident in which Jesus is confronted by a scribe with the question, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” (Mark 12:28). Jesus responds with “‘you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). The scribe commends Jesus’ answer, adding that loving God and neighbor “is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mark 12:33). Recognizing that the scribe’s thinking corresponded to his own, Jesus tells him “you are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34). Love is that important.
Later, Jesus caught his disciples (or, at least Peter) “off guard” by doing something no “master” would be expected to do. He washed their feet. Having grabbed their attention, Jesus used this act of service to impress upon them this lesson:
“Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. … A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:12-15, 34-35).
The disciples’ identity as followers of Christ necessitated a commitment to love as Christ loved them, by having a servant’s attitude. Love is that important. Similarly, Paul impresses upon the Corinthians that they must serve one another in love with the gifts the Spirit had given them.
Paul then reminded the Corinthians that Christian love has clear, defining traits.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
Love puts others first, promoting their welfare. Furthermore, love puts up with the failings of others; therefore, those who love will not be easily irritated or quick to walk away from relationships. Love also centers on the truth reflected in the gospel, and thus, on the Truth incarnate (cf. John 14:6). Because love not only has to do with human relationships on earth but also with divine relationships in heaven, “love never ends. … So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13). Love is that important.
Paul also reflects on the themes of love, humility, servanthood, and the birth of Jesus in Philippians 2. Once again he urges readers to imitate the attitude Jesus himself modeled.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:3-7)
Paul always wanted to keep love in the forefront of Christians’ lives, because Jesus’ own birth and life illustrated love is that important.
The “Love” Assessment
Based on what we’ve seen in Paul’s writings and Jesus’ teaching, we can define Christian love as “a passionate commitment to sacrificially giving of oneself for the welfare of others.” Yet, too often in our lives we flounder on this commitment. Ask yourself (and your counselees), “In what ways do I regularly demonstrate a commitment to others’ welfare that involves self-sacrifice? Is that what I am known for among my family and friends? Is that the defining mark of my discipleship under Christ? Has the birth of Jesus made that kind of impact on me?”
Join the Conversation
How do you talk with counselees about any evident lack of love in their lives? How do you help them understand the relationship between love and Jesus?