What I want us to ask this morning is: What does that look like here and now? What does it mean to live real life? How are we to spend our 70, 50, or 30 years on this earth? When you get to the end of your life (and you will get there), how will you look back and evaluate? What do you think you will wish you had done differently? What if you got there and you realized that you wasted it all? So how do we live now in such a way that that doesn’t happen? What’s the difference between a wasted life and a life well-spent? What’s the difference between a worthless and meaningless existence, and real state of being, real life? God tells us this morning through the Apostle Paul.
It looks like love: Love is the one factor that gives worth to your existence. You can be the best, most “spiritual” person in the world and have all spiritual gifts. You can be the smartest, wisest, most resourceful person. You can do the greatest acts of mercy or the most magnificent and lasting work that people will remember for decades, or even centuries. But if you don’t have God’s love motivating you, there’s a sense in which it’s all worthless. That’s what we’re going to see this morning: Love makes life worth it. We will see that by looking at three negative statements that Paul makes about a lack of love from 1 Cor 13:1-3: (1)Without love you accomplish nothing. (2) Without love you are nothing. (3) Without love, you gain nothing. Then we will define what this love is from 1 Cor 13:4-7, and finally, we will see how we can experience it.
I. WITHOUT LOVE YOU ACCOMPLISH NOTHING. (v. 1)
Paul is saying this in the context of spiritual gifts. The Corinthian church was full of issues and sin problems, yet they considered themselves to be very spiritual and prided themselves on their spiritual gifts. The problem is that they were using even their spiritual gifts in pride and selfishness rather than out of love and for the building up of the body. So after Paul establishes the beauty of the church in chapter 12, with its diversity of gifts exercised in unity, he quickly moves to the attitude that should characterize all of their dealings in chapter 13 (where we find ourselves), before he gives them specific instructions on how to use them in chapter 14.
What Paul does here, in verse 1, is that he starts with that which was most important to them, speaking in tongues, and debunks the myth that their worth is found in that. He says, “You think you’re all high and mighty because of your speaking in tongues? Well let me clarify something for you: if you speak in tongues, but don’t practice it lovingly, you accomplish absolutely nothing of worth.” That’s what he means by the whole noisy gong expression, “You’re doing nothing but making a bunch of loud, useless, unedifying, obnoxious noises.” So when love is not the backbone of our spiritual gifts, not only do we not do anything worthwhile, but we actually accomplish the opposite of what we are trying to do, namely edification and encouragement; so the gifts disrupt and detract from what they’re supposed to do!
Let’s think about it for a minute. Let’s say you have the spiritual gift of helps or mercy, and you are constantly compelled to help people and try to build up the gospel that way. But if you are a jerk to people as you’re helping them, it won’t do much good. Or if you’re nice to them but you think that you’re better than them and you look down on them, how will they receive your help?
Or some of you have administrative gifts. You are organized, and resourceful, and make any system work effectively, but if in the process you end up being frustrated at everybody else that can’t think as neatly as you, or can’t keep up with you, you accomplish absolutely nothing; people don’t feel loved or encouraged.
Or if you have creative or performance gifts, or gifts preaching and teaching. And you try to exercise that gift to bless people, but your heart and your life are cold, uncaring, and selfish; and that’s what people know you for. How do you think your service going to come across? Like a loud, annoying, and meaningless sound. It’s like you’re trying to make a beautiful melody and you strum the guitar chords, but all that comes out is the sound of fingernails scratching a chalkboard. Or it would be like me trying to preach to you, but imagine Andrew banging a huge gong the whole time. Nothing would get across. That’s what we do when we try to serve and minister without love.
So do you want to be effective in your ministry? Do you want to actually accomplish what you set out to do with your life? Then love; more important than anything else you do, love. More important than getting better at your craft; more important than learning new skill-sets, or anything else, just seek to love. But Paul goes even further than that. Look at verse 2.
II. WITHOUT LOVE YOU ARE NOTHING. (v. 2)
Paul continues to make the same point and he enumerates more examples of spiritual gifts. You can be the best prophet, the best preacher, or the best theologian. You can understand all mysteries and have all knowledge! How awesome would that be, to finally have all of our questions answered. All of the painful and nagging questions of this existence, all of our "Why, God?" questions. If God were to sit down with you and explain everything to you, Paul is saying that love is still better than all of that. Love is better than knowing. And even if you had all faith to move mountains – if there was nothing you could not do – Paul says that it is nothing compared to love. Paul couldn’t have made his point any stronger: love is supreme over everything else.
Now these (tongues, prophecy, knowledge, faith) are all things that defined the Corinthians, things in which they found their worth, and in which they prided themselves. So this is much broader than spiritual gifts. You just fill in the blank with whatever you’re relying on. What defines you? What’s that thing that you secretly (or not so secretly) want people to notice about you and recognize you for? That one thing that makes you think you’re God’s gift to humanity? What’s the one thing that when all else goes to hell, you say to yourself “Well at least I have that” or “at least I am that, and I’m going to keep my head high.” What are you clinging to? What are you ultimately trusting in? What wakes you up in the morning and gives meaning to your life? The Bible is saying that you can have all of that; you can be all of that, and more, but if love isn’t beneath it, you’re absolutely nothing!
That’s what Paul says here. Look at the end of verse 2 – “I am nothing.” Now what does this mean? Not only do I accomplish nothing, but I am nothing. There is some sense in which love is tied to identity; and not just to identity, but also to existence itself…or at least worthwhile existence. So according to this passage, if I don’t love, I am nothing. Therefore, in order to even be something, I must love. One theologian put it like this: “Love is equal to being; the one who loves is.” You know how the philosopher Descartes said, “I think therefore I am?” Well, according to this text, the Apostle Paul would probably say, “I love therefore I am.” So love is part of the very definition of true existence. Now why is that?
Think about who God is. God is the ultimate manifestation of existence. He is in himself what it means to be; he is self-existent. But God defines himself as love (1 John 4:8). So the ultimate manifestation of existing, of being, is love! All of us humans derive our existence from him; we’re dependent beings. We were created in the image and likeness of God, made to reflect God’s character, which is love. So the fullest expression of who we are as human beings (not only as Christians) is love.
However, this image of God in mankind was distorted by sin. So because of sin, we can’t love like God anymore. We are like broken, muddy mirrors that can’t reflect the sunlight anymore. We are selfish and prideful; love isn’t the natural expression of our hearts anymore. That is why Jesus came into the world. God, in his love, sent his son to be the perfect human being that we couldn’t be. He lived the life of love that we couldn’t live and died and endured God’s wrath on the cross that we deserve for our falling out of love.
And now, when we trust in Jesus, we are born again to real humanity. The Holy Spirit comes in us and starts making us into humanity the way it was meant to be, into the image and likeness of Jesus, who is in the perfect representation of God, who is love. That’s why Paul can say, “without love, I am nothing.” Because with love, in other words, with God’s love effected in my life through Christ, I am everything I was ever meant to be. When I love, there’s nothing I’m lacking; I am complete.
The problem is that we have a hard time believing that. We don’t want to be dependent creatures. We don’t want to give up control and trust God. We keep on trying to do it on our own and prove ourselves. That’s why the Apostle continues with verse 3.
III. WITHOUT LOVE YOU GAIN NOTHING. (v. 3)
He culminates with the most excellent and sacrificial displays of “selflessness” and philanthropy. I can give away all my possessions, and even die a martyr’s death…but I gain nothing without love. Think about what is the costliest, most precious, thing for you to give up. If you did that, but not out of love, you will have gained nothing.
Now these seem to be real acts of love, don’t they? The sad implication here, like with the other points, is that you can do all of this without real love. You can live the most sacrificial, seemingly selfless, life devoid of God’s love. How can this be?
There are a variety of reasons other than love for a sacrificial life: You can sell your goods out of pride; to prove something to yourself, to the world, or to God. You can do it to make yourself feel better and thus somehow give meaning to, or define, your own existence. You can do it out of fear, you can do it from compulsion; you can do it as a means of getting people to like you or praise you. And, worst of all, you can do it as a means of trying to get God to accept you, rather than doing it because he accepted you.
This goes back to the scriptural principle that God isn’t impressed with your deeds if your heart is not in the right place. 1 Sam 15:22 says that “to obey is better than sacrifice.” Likewise, Psalm 51:15-16: “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
What God cares about is your heart; not just about your external behavior. Marriage really helped me understand this principle. It turns out that when Sarah says she wants me to do something, she means that she wants me to want to do it because I love her, rather than because I’m afraid she’ll be mad at me if I don’t. For instance, if Sarah asks me to help with something, I’m going to help her. But, come to find out, when I do it with a frustrated tone and an impatient attitude, it doesn’t say “I love you” quite as much as if I did it with genuine joy. Actually, it says the exact opposite; she feels unloved by my “act of love.” So I could do the outward act of obedience all the while sending the inward message of “I don’t care about you; leave me alone.” You husbands know what I’m talking about? Now if our wives are perceptive enough to get that, I don’t think we can fool God.
So if you live your life without love, even if it’s seemingly sacrificial, it profits you absolutely nothing! It doesn’t do you any good. But the flip-side is that if you do live a life of love, it is most profitable to you. You actually get to live real life. You get to fulfill the meaning of your existence and be like your father, which brings him glory and brings you joy. So the point here isn’t: don’t be sacrificial, don’t have faith, don’t seek understanding, and don’t seek to serve others. The point is: do these things, but do them out of love.
IV. WHAT IS LOVE? (vv. 4-7)
So what does that look like? What kind of love are we talking about? First, notice from all of these what love is not: Love is not being sexually attracted to someone, even though hat is what our culture would say. Love is not really really wanting something or someone; that is what we call obsession or infatuation. Love is not saying, “You are everything to me, I can’t live without you;” that might be nice sounding and romantic, but that is actually idolatry. In fact, love is not me-focused at all. It completely focuses on the beloved. Love is never about what you can get from someone; it is about what you can give, regardless of what you get in return. This is what love looks like:
Love is patient. It does not fall for our cultural value of instant gratification: “I want it, and I want it now!” That is not love. Love can wait. But more than that, it is the ability to endure and persevere under pressure. The KJV says “love suffereth long.” Love is long suffering. If you love you can be wronged against, and you can suffer even unjustly, without retaliating.
Love is kind. If you are loving, you are gentle, compassionate, empathetic, and thoughtful. You mean for the well-being of the loved one. You genuinely care about someone else. Love isn’t a jerk. If your way of relating to people is by being a jerk, you might want to rethink that.
Love does not envy. Love delights in the blessing of someone else. The one who loves is content with his or her own lot. If you love, you truly want the beloved to succeed, irrespective of what that means for you. Love doesn’t hold someone down. You don’t compare yourself with the beloved, and you don’t try to outdo him or her. Love is not about winning. If your relationships are about winning and always having the upper hand, there is a big, big problem.
Love is not arrogant. When you love, you are not consumed with yourself, and you don’t think that you’re all that. The focus is not on you; it is on the beloved. When you love, you uplift the beloved and you humble yourself to the ground. Love is not about using the other person to make you feel good about yourself.
Love is not rude. This term can carry sexual overtones; some translations have “act unbecomingly,” so it can carry the meaning of not acting indecently. So love is decent and respectful. The term can also go beyond that, signifying any type of improper behavior that goes against conventional customs of decency and “oughtnes.” So when you love, you’re not rebellious. You don’t try to push the limits. You don’t rock the boat for the heck of it; you are not defiant.
Love does not insist on its own way. It is not controlling. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is letting go. Even if you really think that you are right, often the loving thing to do is to just relax. When you love, you are not stubborn; you are sacrificial. Love is not about always being right. Love is not about always having the last word.
Love is not irritable. It is not easily provoked. You know how some people are like ticking time bombs waiting to blow up? Or others are always frustrated and you can never seem to please them. Love is not like that. Love doesn’t get easily annoyed, frustrated or mad. Love isn’t passive-aggressive either. It doesn’t say, “Ok, I’m going to bear with you, but I’m going to be inwardly bitter and frustrated and make sure that you know that you’re pissing me off.”
Love is not resentful. Other translations have “it does not take into account wrong suffered” or “keeps no record of wrongs.” How often do we say that we forgive, but we still keep a tab on someone’s mistakes? And then all they have to do is make another mistake, and the floodgates open, and we bring it all up again. Not so with love. But just like God, who removes our sins as far as the E is from the W, so does the loving person let go of the beloved’s sins. 1 Peter 4:8 says that love covers a multitude of sins. Love doesn’t throw sin in the beloved’s face.
Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It is not happy when bad stuff happens. Love doesn’t say, “I told you so.” Love notices the pain and suffering and fights against it. At the same time it stands up for the truth and rejoices when it triumphs. So the loving person does speak truth when needed, even when it is hard, but never in a destructive or defiant way.
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. This doesn’t mean that love is gullible, naïve, or stupid. It means that love gives the benefit of the doubt. It means that love never gives up on someone. When the sorrow and the pain seem unbearable, love carries on, even if it is barely dragging itself on the floor. When everything seems dark and hopeless, love still trusts, it still believes, it still hopes. Love never ends.
V. HOW DO WE DO IT?
Looking at a list like this is convicting, isn’t it? Who could possibly live like this? So how do you do it? How do you love like this? Do you just decide to start loving? Try harder next time? Can you reach down inside of your heart of stone, melt it, and put love there? Can you will yourself to love? No!
We saw earlier that this love can’t come from you. Actually, if you think about these qualities, they are nothing more than the fruit of the spirit from Gal 5:22: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” So a love like this is actually the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life. It only comes from being in a relationship of love with God who is love, through Christ who embodied that love for us. It is only by trusting him, the ultimate expression and manifestation of love, that you can truly love.
And when you stink at it, know that there is grace in God’s love. He loved you so much that he took the punishment for your lack of love on himself. Everything that we have just said about love is derived from God’s own attitude towards you. So when you suck it up, you go to him, beg him for repentance and help, trust him to put his love into your heart, and keep trying to love, knowing that his love for you has never wavered for one second.
So just cling to Jesus…whatever that looks like for you. And that’s how you live the fullest expression of life. That’s how you are who you’re meant to be.
Going back to the question from the very beginning, what will keep you from regret on your deathbed? What is the difference between a life thrown away and a life lived on purpose? It’s love. The Love of God through Christ in you and through you.
Love is why you exist. You exist to love God, and with God’s love to love your neighbor. So if you’ve ever wondered, “why on earth am I on this earth? Why am I a part of this church, this community, this family, or this workplace?” The answer is, “to love.” You are here to love!
So in trying to live like you were meant to live, your primary task is not to find your niche in life. It is not to get better at your craft or at your form of art. It is not to get more efficient at your job. It isnot to gain more knowledge, or even to do more service. The most important and meaningful expression of your humanity is to love; that is where your focus needs to lie. You are most like God, you are most like Jesus, when you love; so you are most like who you were meant to be when you love.
The cool thing is: when you embrace that what gives meaning to your existence is love, then every experience and circumstance can become meaningful, because every experience can be a chance to love God and those around you; every circumstance can be a vehicle for love. Having to go through a boring or super-difficult day at work with annoying coworkers has a purpose: to love. Having to deal with a family that doesn’t understand you or know how to love has a purpose: to love. So keep this in mind as you go home this Christmas. Being in a cord with people that you don’t click with, or that don’t support you well, has a purpose: to love. And having to go through the craziest, most difficult and painful situations in life, that you don’t know how to even begin to deal with, has a purpose: It’s love.
A life of love is a life lived like it was meant to be lived. And through Jesus, you can live like that. We can live like that, together. That’s what the Line is all about: people trying to love Jesus and each other because he loves us, and empowers us to do so.