My freshman year of college, I made the mistake of letting my roommate see me type. It’s one thing to tell people you type more than 90 words a minute; it’s another to let them see you do it—especially when you live in a small space condensed with hundreds of desperate people stalking the dorm halls in search of someone to quickly type their papers.
Seemingly overnight I reached cult celebrity status for my superhuman typing skills. But before you get the wrong idea that I enjoyed it, let me set the record straight: I loathed it. I got calls at all hours of the night with pathetic voices on the other end of the line, begging for my help. And faster than I could type this sentence, my dorm thrust me into the most uncomfortable pigeon hole of “last-minute typist.”
We often do something similar with Scripture. We find a nice occasion to trot out a passage and recite it with such familiarity that it loses its edge. There may be much more to take away from the particular passage, but we’ll never know because it’s forever linked in our minds with blessings, disappointments, hard times, funerals, or weddings.
First Corinthians 13 suffers from this cruel fate. Branded a matrimonial read-aloud-Scripture, you’ve probably heard it in almost every wedding you’ve ever been to. But is that all 1 Corinthians 13 is good for? Better yet, is marriage what this passage is even about?
The word translated “love” in 1 Corinthians 13—agape—is the word the Greeks used to describe their strong affection for someone, whether it be a friend, a spouse, or a child. In his book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis called agape a “Gift-love”—the kind of gift you give because you simply love the person.
Lewis wrote, “Divine Love is Gift-love. The Father gives all He is and has to the Son. The Son gives Himself back to the Father, and gives Himself to the world, and for the world to the Father, and thus gives the world (in Himself) back to the Father too.” This “Gift-love” is what Paul referenced in 1 Corinthians 13.
The Necessity of Love
In verses 1-3, Paul explained why we need love as followers of Jesus, and he was blunt: If you don’t have love, you’ve got nothing—and you are nothing (v. 2).
Paul wasted no time emphasizing that love is essential to the Christian faith. Love is the heartbeat of who God is, and we need our hearts to beat in rhythm with His.
The Character of Love
Since our culture uses the word “love” with such frivolity, it’s important to understand what exactly Paul meant when he used it in this passage. And Paul leaves little to the imagination.
Paul’s description of agape includes the following characteristics: patience, kindness, selflessness, humility, tolerance, forgiveness, righteousness, hope, and endurance (vv. 4-7). Yes, this is much more than, “I love ice cream.” This is a deep love that’s unshaken by circumstances and steely in its gaze. This is the love we need to have for one another.
The Permanence of Love
I’ve heard the following comment after witnessing many a nondescript breakup: “I just wasn’t in love with her anymore.” Thankfully, the kind of love that God has for us isn’t subject to the whims of our emotions on any given day. God’s unconditional love is something He desires for us to have toward others.
In the final segment of this chapter, Paul drove home the point that God’s love is forever (vv. 8-13). Enduring and unshakable—that’s the best foundation upon which to build anything, especially Christ-like love.
Though it’s become a traditional wedding Scripture, 1 Corinthians 13 has something to offer everyone, not just the nearly-weds. It presents rich instructions for and descriptions of true Christ-like love. The Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard reflected on the reward of letting this kind of love become personified in us: “When one has once fully entered the realm of love, the world—no matter how imperfect—becomes rich and beautiful, it consists solely of opportunities for love.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of Collegiate magazine.