1 Corinthians 13
First Corinthians 13 is Paul’s magnificent poem about love. It’s very frequently read at weddings, and is frequently used as a focus for personal meditation, because in it Paul raises the bar as to what constitutes practical love.
Every language has peculiarities which reflect the geographic and social conditions within which the language emerges. We all know about the many words the Inuit have for snow, which reflects survival needs that depend on using the right type of snow for the right purpose. The Greeks were very much into ideas, and had three distinct words for different types of love, whereas English simply uses a single term for all three.
In Greek, the language that this letter was originally written in, the word for love which Paul selected was Agape. A loose translation would be “to work for another person’s welfare, regardless of how you felt about the person”. This is the word that is usually used throughout the New Testament whenever love is talked about, which is quite a bit. When Jesus said, “Love other people as you love yourself, he mentored in this sense – work for the welfare of another person as you work for your own welfare. Of course, the meaning of the term in Greek is much richer, but it is based in this concept of working for another person’s welfare.
The other two words which the Greek language uses for love are, eros, from which we get our word erotic, and Philios, from which we get the name of the city, Philadelphia – the city of brotherly love.
To put this passage in context, the chapter 12 material which precedes it, deals with our interdependence as human beings in community, and it is one of the passages in which Paul talks about our “gifts”. In it he talks about the interdependence of body parts like eyes and ears, just like we as community members have unique specialties which work best when viewed as being part of a larger entity.
At the end of that section of his letter, Paul makes an interesting statement. He said, “And now I will show you something even better than any of the gifts – and that is the role which love plays in human community – the role which working for another person’s welfare plays in making human community and wonderful context within which to live.
In Paul’s estimate, working for another person’s welfare is far more responsible for quality life in a community than even the interdependence of our many gifts, working together in a harmonious whole. I find that to be a very interesting observation about which factors are most responsible for the quality of our life together.
In the first seven verses, Paul articulates some of the very practical aspects of working for other people’s welfare. When this passage is used as a basis for personal reflection, sometimes people are encouraged to swap in their own name for the pronoun I, as that shifts the focus from the author of the letter to the reader – and puts a challenge to the quality of our life within community front and center.
Once Paul has finished reflecting on those various aspects of life together in Chapter 13, he returns to his line of thought in chapter 12 and refers to some of the gifts again, attempting to put them into perspective in relation to this new emphasis on working for other people’s welfare. Essentially what he says is that everything else fades away over time, but the requirement that life presents us with – working for other people’s welfare – doesn’t fade with time.
The final statement in verse 13 – “and now these three remain – faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love”, is a fascinating observation of the dynamics frequently seen when we work for other people’s welfare. This sequence of terms describes both the degeneration of a situation and its restoration to quality living. It works like this:
- Everybody likes things when life is going well and people are not acting like jerks. However, if somebody goes off the rails, and their behavior starts to deteriorate, the people around him or her tend to disappear. Life is short, we don’t need a lot of hassle, we tend to walk away from obnoxious people. However, sometimes people are being obnoxious because they are under great stress, or there are unusual circumstances that are causing a lot of change in their behavior.
- Even though most people leave obnoxious people alone and tend to flee from situations that are uncomfortable, there are quite a few people who stay around as things deteriorate. These are people, as Paul points out, who would be the last to say that it’s a lot of fun to be around, and yet they would be liars of the didn’t admit that they saw something beneath the surface in the person – that is, they see with the eyes of faith. [For a definition of exactly how such people see, you can check out that passage in the book of Hebrews in chapter 11, which describes it very well.] However, sometimes the situation continues to deteriorate and these people no longer see anything beneath the surface as being good, and they tend to leave once this is no longer apparent.
- If the person is lucky, there will still be some people around, as Paul points out, who would not say that the situation is a lot of fun, would not say that they see any value under the surface with eyes of faith, but they would be the first to admit that when they walk into this person’s presence, hope springs up in their heart, often for inexplicable reasons. As the situation continues to deteriorate, these people often find that their sense of hope is fading, and when it finally dissolves and the situation appears to them to be hopeless, they leave.
- At this point, the person, the person’s behavior, or the situation has become almost impossible to tolerate it has deteriorated to such a low state. If the person is lucky, there will be one, perhaps two, people still around. This person would not say it’s a good situation, would not say that they see anything under the surface which is of value, see absolutely no hope in the long or short term for the situation being turned around, but they know that this person stands in the need of help. This person need someone to work for their welfare, despite the fact that they don’t deserve it, but as a human being they need it.
- This is the level of miracles. This is where situations turn around, if they’re going to turn around – but there certainly is no guarantee that they will turn around. Most people are unable to fulfill the requirements of this level of concern for the people around them more than two or three times in their life, if that. These types of situations are simply so demanding on the full range of our resources as human beings, that they are capable of totally destroying us and our way of life. It is in this sense that Jesus said that there is no greater love that we can show somebody then when we lay down our life/lifestyle/livelihood in the course of working for somebody else’s welfare. People who carry out this type of activity are frequently heard to remark that they could never have done it on their own, but that they felt themselves being “carried on wings like eagles” and sometimes quote Isaiah chapter 40 (also talked about in this set of passages) because it expresses their experience of help from outside themselves, while carrying on this type of challenge – which goes on day after day, and frequently year after year.
- However, as that person pours in whatever is required to turn the situation around, or at least sustain life while the person or situation is healed, sometimes things get better. As they do so, the people who seem to be able to pick up small particles of hope happen to wander by, and they sense hope returning in the situation. As they start to hang around, they pick up some of the burden of restoration, and spread out the workload for those who have been trudging along in the thankless job of working at the level of love.
- As the situation continues to improve, often accelerated by the presence of newcomers on the scene, those who see with eyes of faith beneath the surface of otherwise ugly situations happen to wander by, and see something new – not visible, but just below the surface. As they come and join in the pickup even more of the workload, and thus accelerate the healing process even further.
- Finally, one bright day the rest of the community happens to notice that the situation is no longer a mess, and the person has actually become a happy and healthy member of the community. They too rejoin the situation, and life gets back to normal. These people are frequently heard to comment, “I wonder how that happened?”. Paul’s response can be summed up in that 13th verse, which puts the meaning on his last phrase, that the greatest of them is love – because that’s where the miracle happens – when nobody else is around – during this thankless phase of community life – working for another person’s welfare.
I find it interesting that this passage is placed under the category of “when you grow bitter”. On the surface, the first part of the chapter might have been experienced as presenting a challenge to our bad attitudes, which often deteriorates into bitterness. On the other hand, the dynamics which Paul describes in the 13th verse may also have some bearing on the problem of bitterness.
Sometimes when our lives deteriorate we become bitter, and stand in the need of people to help us out. When they do, a change in our attitude often can make the difference, allowing others to come close to us and carry some of our personal burden while we move back into personal health community life.
It is also true that many people have found that their own bitterness and bad attitudes have been turned around by the very act of working for another person’s welfare themselves – because we get pulled out of our own difficulties as we get involved in other people’s lives.
The language structures of Greek and Hebrew are almost reverse to each other. Two insights which are embedded in the two languages, and both are true. Once we realize what they are, they can help us address the challenges which are presented in this chapter of Paul’s letter:
- In Greek, which is a primary root of the English language, the general underlying philosophy is that if we think that something is a good idea, we will do it – or if we feel like doing something, we do it. That is, feelings and ideas are the primary mover – sort of like the locomotive that drags the train along the train tracks.
- In Hebrew, the general underlying philosophy is that if we do something, we will eventually come to think it’s a good idea, and if we do something, we will start to feel better about life. That is, action is the primary mover of life – and it drags our ideas and our feelings along with it.
Both of these insights into life are true – and I regard them as being like a railway train with a locomotive at each end – if you can’t pull your life out of a bad situation one way, you can always pull it out the other. If you’re feeling blue, try doing something. If you can’t get operating, change your attitude. Either one can work – but not in every situation.
I heard a joke once about a husband who realized that he wasn’t being very nice to his wife. Somebody told him that he should change his actions not just his feelings. Usually, when he came home from a hard day’s work, he was hot and smelly, grabbed a beer out of the fridge, and plunked himself down in front of the television until supper. He decided that he would change his ways. He took an extra set of clean clothes to work, showered and changed before coming home, stopped in at the flower shop and picked up a dozen roses, and went to the front door instead of the back door and rang the doorbell.
When the wife answered the door, she took one look at him and burst into tears. Confused, the man asked, “Whatever is the matter?”
The wife replied, “The washing machine broke down, the kids are home with the measles, the transmission fell out of the car today...and now you come home drunk!”