(An excerpt from the sermon, What Goes Up, from 1 Corinthians 13. Click below to watch the entire sermon.)
People often read the love chapter [1 Corinthians 13] as if the apostle is telling them they must try harder to love. “You were impatient with that person. You should try harder to be patient. You were not kind. You should try harder to be kind. You really should do better.”
That way follows a well-worn path to hypocrisy and apathy. 1 Corinthians 13 is not about what we should be doing. There is no “should” about it.
Grammarians describe “should,” “would,” and “could” words as subjunctive mood verbs. In verses one through three, where Paul describes the lengths to which someone might go to be an honorable person, there are ten subjunctive mood verbs. This is the try harder section. But where that leads – to the conviction (verse 2) that “I am nothing” and, (verse 3) that “I gain nothing” is not where we want to go.
In the next section, which runs from verse 4 through verse 8 and contains a description of love, there is not a single subjunctive mood verb. What does that mean? It means that here Paul is not telling us what we should do but what love does do. When we read this as if Paul is telling us to dig deep and be more patient, be more kind, less envious, less angry, we only succeed in frustrating ourselves—and frustrated people do not love well.
When, later in this letter, Paul tells the Corinthians to “Do everything in love” (1 Cor. 16:14), he is not saying, “Be more loving!” He is telling them to enter into love and do what they do from there. When he tells the Galatians to “serve one another in love” (Gal. 5:13), it’s the same kind of thing. It is not, “Try harder to be loving,” as if we can manufacture love, but “Keep yourselves in the love of God” (Jude 1:21). Since “love comes from God” (I John 4:7) and not from us, “digging deep” usually only leaves us in a hole. We need to go to the source of love. We need to go to God.
That is why, in the very beginning of the next chapter, Paul tells us to “follow the way of” – or, literally, pursue – “love,” which is quite different from pursuing self-improvement. The harder we try to do loving things, the harder we’ll find loving things are to do. But the more we enter into love (and it enters into us), the more we will find that loving things happen through our lives.
Let me put a question to you: Is it hard to love people? For example, when Jesus loved the men who nailed him to the cross by forgiving them, was that hard for him? I don’t think so because he was in love. Not “in love” in the way that phrase is commonly used; no, he lived in love, moved in it, and had his being in it. It wasn’t hard for Jesus to forgive those men but it would have been hard for him to call down curses on them because he was in love and love was in him.
We must keep this in mind. Paul is not telling us to do these things; he is telling us that love does these things. What we have here is neither a lovely sentiment (as some people take it) nor a grinding demand (as others take it) but a helpful description. The 15 action verbs Paul lists – 7 positive and 8 negative – reveal how love acts and does not act. That is valuable information for anyone serious about living the Christian life; that is, about entering the life of love, for it’s the same thing.
The upshot (14:1) is that we need to pursue love. And since “love comes from God,” guess where we will find it? With him. When we enter love, when it enters us, when we “keep ourselves in the love of God,” as Jude says, love ceases to be hard. In fact, our love become downright indiscriminate. We love the cashier. We love our neighbor. We love our neighbor’s petulant kid. We love our enemy. We love the person nailing us to a cross. We don’t need to try harder. We need to draw closer to the God who is love.
 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 183.