If you grew up in church, you know I Corinthians 13 all too well. It’s the famous “love chapter” preached as Hallmark Card marriage advice at one of every two church weddings in human history. The first three verses go like this:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have 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 do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
Years ago God helped me see this passage wasn’t actually the “love chapter” but one of three “spiritual gift chapters”—starting with I Corinthians 12 and ending in chapter 14. The “love principles” we glean in it are helpful in marriage, but it’s really about how we use our gifts to build the kingdom of God alongside other flawed believers—the other eyes, ears, hands, and feet we bump into while serving as Christ’s body, the church.
Understanding that helps frame I Corinthians 13, but still doesn’t address what Paul is actually trying to say there. What the Holy Spirit helped me realize lately is, I’ve been missing Paul’s point my entire life. In fact, I’ve been reading it so wrong that I’ve been using it to believe the very thing he’s trying to stop us from believing.
That ain’t right.
In I Corinthians 12, Paul makes the case that we are all members of Christ’s body, individual body parts that, indwelled by the Spirit of Christ, make up a kind of composite of Christ himself. He goes on to say that some of us are eyes, some are hands, and so on—various parts of the body, just as God determines. In other words, he spends I Corinthians 12 talking about what we are—our identity as it relates to our function in Christ’s spiritual body.
Next, enter our famous ‘love chapter.’ What we’ve traditionally understood the next few verses to mean? “You can do all kinds of amazing things for God, but unless you’re motivated by love, they don’t count.” In other words we think Paul is saying, the missing variable in these equations is love. If you do these things with love, motivated by love, it changes everything. But let’s try that out. Let’s rewrite these equations, ‘changed’ by the love variable:
- If love motivates my gifted and eloquent speaking, I am a beautiful instrument for God (vs a resounding gong and clanging cymbal).
- If love motivates my wise and mountain-moving faith, I’m a somebody (vs being a ’nothing’).
- If love motivates my epic sacrifices, I gain points with God (vs. gaining nothing).
Does any of that sound right to you? The word “I” is used nine times. That doesn’t sound like love, does it? Also notice how Paul says a few times, “I am… I am.” Those are statements of identity. ‘Changing’ the equations with love makes Paul’s message crystal clear: This passage is actually about where we find our identity.
Here’s what Paul is saying: “If you don’t have love, you’ll be driven to find your identity in what you do and how well you do it.” He’s not saying, “Loving well makes you something, makes you somebody, gets you ahead.” That’s self-righteousness, the opposite of the gospel he preaches! No, Paul is saying the opposite: “Don’t try to find your identity in how well you speak, how fruitful you are, or how sacrificial you are. If you play that game, you lose.”
Notice too, it’s not about giving love. It’s about having love. Or not.
Paul also wrote, “God has poured his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” The Apostle John wrote, “We love because he first loved us.” Bottom line, we have love if we have received the love God has given us through Christ. And we receive it by faith.
Let’s put this all together.
The outer ring of our identity is defined by what we are: a hand, a foot, salt, light, a branch on the vine. But the core of our identity is not what we are, but who we are. Remember what Jesus heard from his father? “You are my son. I love you. I’m pleased with you.” What we are is about our function. Who we are is about our relationship with the Father—and first of all about his love for us, not our love for him. If we live out of being loved, we won’t be tempted to find our identity in how eloquently we speak, how fruitful we are, and how sacrificial we are. We’re already somebody, already accepted, already pleasing to God through Jesus. As Paul’s third example explains, if we start with that, we won’t be tempted to gain through our giving.
With our identity settled in our status as beloved children of the Father (which we know comes through resting in the perfect work of Jesus), Paul launches the next section about love. Notice the absence of “I” statements and the refreshing “being” statements he now uses: “Love is patient, love is kind.” Love is, love isn’t. Love does, love doesn’t. But it’s now about love, not about me, not about I.
And that kind of love really does change the world.
Comment below: How does this help you understand “the love chapter?”