(An excerpt from the sermon, What Goes Up, based on 1 Cor. 13:4-8a)
We often assume that 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a is telling us what we are ordered to do – or at least what we should do. But read it for yourself: There are no commands here—not a single imperative (or even subjunctive) mood verb in this entire section. Paul is not ordering us to love; he is describing love to us. The 15 active voice verbs in this section provide us with love’s operating specs, which we can then use in our own lives. This is intensely practical stuff.
Look at the first spec: love is patient. That lets us know that if we are living in love, we will be seeing patience. But what if we see impatience instead? That is also helpful. It means an adjustment is necessary – not that we need to try harder but that we need to come to God in trust and possibly repentance, so that love can start flowing again.
The same thing works for each of these actions listed. Love acts kindly. That is an operating spec. If I am living in love as I was designed to do, I can expect kindness to be part of my life. On the other hand, if I am easily angered or am keeping a record of the wrongs, that is an indication that I have moved out of love and adjustments need to be made.
Can you see how helpful this could be? When I see patience in my life, I can rejoice in the love of God, which has brought me to this place, and I’ll trust him even more. But when I see envy in my life or realize I have been maneuvering for respect, I know that I need to come back in line with God and his Spirit.
Perhaps, as in verse 6, I am happy that something bad has happened to a person I don’t like. That is an indication that I am not operating according to spec. It’s like seeing the check engine light on your dash. It means something is wrong. Time to go to God and get that straightened out so that love can flow again.
If I discover a lack of kindness in my life, the answer is not to try and be more kind. That divides me and leads into hypocrisy. The answer is to turn to God and enter his love, which makes me whole. “Lord, I know you love this person more than life itself, because you gave your life for him on the cross. I want to enter your love for him and have your love for him enter me. Love him through me—my thoughts, my actions, my attitudes.”
Sometimes people say they tried that but it didn’t work. What they usually mean is that they didn’t feel any different after they prayed. But love does not begin with feelings and Paul doesn’t describe it that way. Instead, he describes it with action verbs, tells us what love does, not how it feels. If we are always searching for the feeling of love, we will wander from love itself because feelings are a consequence, not a cause, of love.