Love That Lasts

1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13

We’ve been spending some time looking at that remarkable phrase in 1 Cor. 13: “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” It combines those three foundational elements of our relationship with God – faith, hope and love. We’ve spent a couple of weeks talking about the first two: 

Faith, that remarkable inner strength by which we reach up to God in confident trust, stepping out in obedience, knowing that God is and that he rewards those who seek him.

Hope, that wellspring of life. Out of it flows both faith and love. With hope, we can withstand any crisis, move forward under any burden. Hope is that ability to see clearly that God is in control, even when everything around us might seem out of control.

This morning we come to love, and I don’t have to tell you that we’re tackling a huge subject in speaking about love. Even the definition itself would be overwhelming if Paul had not so precisely and powerfully defined it in our passage this morning from 1 Corinthians 13.

As we read these words, don’t forget that the context is spiritual gifts, and how, in chapter 12, Paul had talked about how the Corinthians had compared themselves and pitted themselves against each other in their desire to have those spectacular, showy gifts like tongues and prophecy and healing. And as Paul comes to the end of that discussion he writes:

But eagerly desire the greater gifts. And now I will show you the most excellent way.

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 12:31-13:13)

Love is not only the greatest and most enduring gift, it is the very heart of our relationship with both God and people. In fact, if you don’t have love, then none of those other gifts are worth anything. If you don’t have love, your other gifts are just a self-serving sideshow.

Jesus himself highlighted love as the highest and greatest quality a person can possess: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another….”

Not only is love a noble quality, it is the defining characteristic of a follower of Jesus:  “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:33-34)

When the world looks at the church for signs of authenticity – not the name on the sign, not the doctrine that you teach, they aren’t interested in your programs or your preaching or your piety – they want to see whether you love one another.

In the summer of 1805, a missionary to the Seneca Indians spoke to a council of Indian chiefs and warriors of the six nations at Buffalo Creek, NY in the presence of the govt. agent for Indian Affairs.  This is the story as told by A. Campbell in the Millennial Harbinger:

Said the missionary, “I am come brothers to enlighten your minds and teach you how to worship the Great Spirit according to his will and to preach the gospel of his son Jesus Christ.  There is but one way to serve God, and if you do not embrace the right way you cannot be happy hereafter.”

To that offer of sharing the gospel a Seneca chief replied, “Brother, we understand your religion is written in a book.  You say that there is but one way to worship and serve the great spirit.  If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?  Why not all agree as your read the same book?  Brother, we don’t understand these things.  We also understand your religion was given to your forefathers.  We also have a religion given to our forefathers.  It teaches us to be thankful for all the favors we receive, to love one another, to be united – we never quarrel about our religion.  We’re told you have been preaching to the white people in this place – they are our neighbors, we are well acquainted with them.  We will wait a little to see what effect your preaching has upon them.  If we find it does them good, makes them honest and less disposed to cheat Indians, then we will consider what you have said.”

The world looks on – it wants to know – does your religion make you more loving, more forgiving, more patient? If not, your actions invalidate everything else you might say about Christ and the church.

Listen once again to Paul’s definition of love: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love goes beyond feelings, beyond moods and emotions. This is an embodiment of the word of Jesus, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 

Love is never a thing, an inanimate object that you set up on the mantel beside your wedding picture. It is not a feeling or emotion where you stick a thermometer in your mouth and check whether you are in love today. Don’t confuse love with infatuation. Love is not in the way we feel, but in the way we act toward each other. The question is not “Do I feel in love?” but “Am I acting in loving ways?”  Am I being patient and kind and generous? Am I humble and gentle and selfless? Is my love unconditional?

In fact, the greatest problem in marriage today is that those relationships are built on fluctuating feelings instead of an absolute commitment to each other. When those feelings ebb and wane, we quit investing in the relationship and acting in loving ways, we evaluate our relationship as failed and look for one that will make us feel more in love.

In the church, we talk a lot about loving one another, and being committed to one another, but when we get our feelings hurt, or start feeling ignored or taken for granted, or we simply quit investing ourselves in the relationships, we look down the road for a church where we will feel loved again.

The problem is, we’re looking for that feeling instead of acting in loving ways. We want that emotion that comes from that initial honeymoon period, but when it gets to the hard work of living day in and day out in loving ways, we go looking for the new feeling instead of reinvesting ourselves in the relationship.

How you feel is not nearly as important as the commitment you have made to the relationship.

You might remember Margery Williams, book The Velveteen Rabbit. In it, the Rabbit and the Skin Horse have a conversation about being real, and how love comes from years of being in a relationship:

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces….

"What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?"

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

So how do we experience that long-lasting, enduring, renewing relationship of love? How do we have a love that lasts?  Let’s look at this love under three practical headings that pinpoint how we can act in loving ways:

Love Is Committed

Commitment is hat quality in love that keeps it going through difficult times and dry spells. There is a part in the marriage vows that says, “for better or worse, for richer or poorer in sickness and in health.” Commitment is what helps love survive crises and hold up under the storms of life.  It weathers the worse, the poorer, the sickness.

When Paul said, “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” that is what he was talking about. There is a permanence to love that isn’t affect by the externals.

That word that Paul used for love – “agape” is a unique word in the Greek language. Love in the culture of that day was self-serving and feeling oriented. There were other words like eros and philos and storge that described romantic love and familial love and friendship love.  In fact, before the NT, the word “agape” was an infrequently used word and was dismissed as an inferior kind of love. But agape introduced a concept that was different from all those others – an unconditional love, that regardless of the circumstances, apart from feelings, in spite of the obstacles, I will love you and remain committed to you and our relationship. It was revolutionary then, it is still rare today.

This unconditional love has no strings attached. Most people love somebody because of their endearing qualities, their reciprocating feelings, but when those wane so does the love. Agape is an “in spite of love”. I am committed to loving you in spite of how you treat me or respond to my love for you. It is beyond emotions or feelings – it is a decision of the will, a choice I make.

Love Is Accepting

I’m not quite sure we’ve gotten the hang of that. It’s important to be committed to each other, but sometimes that’s a little chilly. Have you ever heard someone say (or perhaps even thought to yourself) “I love him because the Bible says I have to, but personally, I can’t stand him.”

This may be hard to believe, but not everyone is as easy to love as you are. There are Christians who are downright hard to get along with. And it’s a great temptation to say, “I love them as long as I don’t have to be around them.”

The apostle John doesn’t let us get away with that kind of thinking: We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:19-21)

Not every person is going to be your best friend, but love extends beyond a distasteful putting up with someone to a genuine acceptance of them, warts and all. It is a willingness to set aside differences, personality quirks, to forgive past wrongs. And if you are here this morning with feelings of hatred or contempt for a brother or sister, a friend who has wronged you, a husband or wife with whom you share only a cold apathy, perhaps a growing bitterness that you have shoved to one side, but are not willing to let go of – you’re not just alienated from that person, you are alienating yourself from God. That sounds harsh, but that’s just how serious an issue love is, if God is ruling in our lives.

Acceptance is a dynamic quality in any relationship. It is that element that allows a relationship to grow. I don’t really have to explain this for anyone. You know when someone accepts you and loves you for who you are, and also intuitively feel when someone is simply being nice out of politeness.

Acceptance allows us to set aside the mess and tear down the walls and love without having to keep score. I don’t have to live up to expectations and I’m not on display for someone to pick apart my faults.  I’m thrilled to know that there are people who love me because God wants them to, but equally as important are those who love me because they want to.

James Dobson told the story years ago about a surgeon who had to operate on a young woman. She had a tumor on her face that was very serious and the only way he could save her life involved severing a nerve in her cheek that left her permanently disfigured. When she woke up from surgery she asked for a mirror, and she asked the doctor, “Will I always look like this?” He nodded and said, “Yes.” And then with great uneasiness she look over at her husband who said, “I don’t know – I think it’s kind of cute.” Then the doctor witnessed as this young man leaned over her face and twisted his lips so that they would evenly match and meet hers and he kissed her. And the doctor wrote later, “I just stepped back and let the wonder in.”

Love Is Responsive

Understand that “responsive” is different than “reactive.” Instead of reacting to how others treat us or feel about us, our love for others is a response to the love that Christ first has for us. He is both the source and the role model for loving others.

John writes, “We love because he first loved us.”

Paul writes, “Live a life of love just as Christ loved us.”

                    “For the love of Christ compels us…” 

I knew before Diana and I ever got married that our love would last a lifetime. Not because I’m good looking or that I’m so easy to get along with, or that I have any special qualities that make me irresistibly loveable, but because our love for each other was built on something far more solid than emotions or physical attraction. Yes, we were committed to each other, Yes, we were best friends, Yes, all of the things anyone is looking for in a mate we found in each other. But even more than all that, from the very beginning we built our love on a three-way partnership. Our commitment to each other was secondary to our commitment to the Lord.

Lots of marriages struggle with staying in love and staying connected. Too many try to do that by building their love on each other, but that’s shaky ground, sometimes shifting sand. But when your first commitment is to the Lord, and your love isn’t based on your partner’s reciprocating love but on Christ’s initiating love, you can build a love that lasts. 

In Ephesians 5, Paul described that love that Christ initiated, not because we are loveable, but because he loves unconditionally:  Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. (Eph 5:25-27)

What a tremendous example of love, and a powerful motivation to love.  And what is at the heart of that love? The cross of Christ. Christ can demand that we love each other because he first loved us and showed us what real love looks like.

And so Paul reflects on that love in Romans 5: You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)

Love that lasts is no miracle, it is hard work.  It is filled with forgiveness and patience and determination. I believe that love – true love – is built on three important pillars: commitment, acceptance and in imitation of God’s love for us.

The catch is, if you have not first experienced God’s love you cannot love anyone else with that kind of love. You don’t have it in you. Only as you experience God’s love ca you open your life to be loving in that way.

You might think, “God could never really love me, because I’m not loveable.” Yes he can. Let me share a story that illustrates why: 

Kent and Barbara Hughes have four children. Their oldest, Holly was the heroine in her Christmas play, “The Gift of the Magi” – she said her part perfectly and charmed the audience, and received a standing ovation.

One of their boys, Kent is in the 4th grade and has learning disabilities (he hadn’t memorized the alphabet until the 4th grade). Kent was in his school’s Christmas play and had four lines. In a family weekend trip they had worked on those lines in the car going up and coming home. His sister and brother could say them backwards and forwards, but Kent had never said them through successfully once. That night when he went out on the stage to say his part, they were all on the edge of their seats. To everyone else he just looked like a nervous little boy, but they were watching him as their dear son. When the time came for his lines and the spotlight focused on him, he said his four lines perfectly. He had never done it once before, but that night he got it just right.

The terrible thing was, here were his parents ready to come out of their seats with rejoicing for him, but they could cheer or clap or anything, because it was the middle of the performance and no one was clapping – nobody had even noticed. His parents were so pleased and happy for him, and knew what he had gone through to accomplish that.

And the thing his parents realized that night was that they were equally proud of both their children. Though one had done a wonderful job that everybody applauded, and the other had nervously made it through four lines that nobody even noticed. They rejoiced for both their children. And they realized in a very real way that that is how God views us: as his precious children. Sometimes we perform well and receive lots of recognition, other times we barely make it through and nobody pays much attention. In fact, sometimes we fall flat on our faces and we are even ridiculed by others. Sometimes it’s the middle of the play and God can’t cheer out or rush to our side to console us. But he loves us absolutely and unconditionally. He’s nudging the angels next to him – “Hey, that’s my son, that’s my daughter. Aren’t they great?”