“If we look to the bottom of the raging dissatisfaction that characterizes so many people today, chances are it all goes back to a dislike of self that has a way of poisoning everything else one perceives.”
John R. Claypool, The Preaching Event
The way we treat ourselves is the way we will treat others. The counsel of Jesus to “Love your neighbor as yourself” and“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” both begin with a love for the self as a unique and wonderful creation of God. We often miss the fact that we have to respect ourselves before we can respect others. In order to love our neighbors, following Jesus’ advice, we first have to drop the harsh and often hostile manner with which we treat ourselves.
The recognition that you will only be able to love your neighbor as you learn to love yourself is an important insight into the words of Jesus. The pattern you develop in dealing with the person you deal with most often, — yourself — becomes the pattern by which you will begin to relate to everyone else. If you don’t like yourself and are critical of yourself at every juncture, you begin to see others only in a critical way.
The hostile, critical, dissatisfied way we treat others becomes the way we perceive and begin to act toward others. One escape is to try to find heroes whom we imagine are not like us. They are super-humans without our flaws and imperfections. “If only we could be like so and so,” we say. And so, in our raging dissatisfaction with ourselves we try to become someone else, rather than learning to love the person we are.
The parables of Jesus are wonderfully good news for us if we could truly believe that what Jesus says is true. His parables tell of a God who accepts all of us as we are, without condition, in spite of who we are and where we have been. The doors to God’s acceptance are flung wide open. All are invited to enter, the poor, the marginalized, the unworthy—even you. Entrance is free and welcome to all who will enter. The parables tell of a God who is even willing to come out and search for the lost, the wayward, and the lonely. The doors to God’s acceptance of whom we are right now, in spite of our flaws, are open to all.
Why do so few go in through these doors? Is it because, in our critical way of dealing with ourselves, we know ourselves to be unworthy, undeserving of that kind of love—the love we really need?
What would happen if you believed these stories just for a minute and, foolish as it might seem, you went in? You might find that knowing you are loved and accepted will allow you to be a little easier on yourself. At the same time, you may become less critical of others and more willing to love them as you love yourself.
This reflection is the second part of an exploration into the meaning of love in the letters of St. Paul. It is part of a larger collection of my reflections on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ.
The Fruit of the Spirit — Love, Part 2
The most familiar passage in the New Testament about love is perhaps the description we find of it in the 13th chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7).
In the film “Wedding Crashers” the two main characters, played by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, crash the wedding ceremony of an unsuspecting couple. As the pastor invites a reader to the lectern, Wilson whispers to Vaughn: “20 bucks, 1st Corinthians.” Vaughn replies, “Double or nothing, Colossians 3:12.” Then, in the background, the reader begins reading the first verse of 1 Cor. 13 — “Love is patient, love is kind…” — and Vaughn having lost the bet, pays up.
This vignette shows just how popular and well known the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians is to the general public, even to folks who may not know much about the contents of the New Testament.
While we immediately see the applicability of this passage from 1st Corinthians to the marriage of two people before God, in its original context this beautiful passage of Scripture was not written to describe Christian marriage. St. Paul was writing to a Christian community to teach and direct them in the ways that they should love and respect each member of the church. St. Paul addressed 1st Corinthians to a church divided by factions, each with its own set of conflicting interests, that bore witness to division and not to the mutual love and respect that should have been on display in that particular community. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church members, gently chastising them where necessary, but always with love and great respect.
At the beginning of the letter, he writes: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor. 1:10. Throughout the ensuing letter, Paul urges the people of the church in Corinth to treat one another with mutual respect, as for example in 1 Cor. 10:24 when he writes, “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other.”
St. Paul hopes to form a Christian community built on mutual respect and love. In this community, each person is invaluable and irreplaceable. For St. Paul, when we respect another person, we not only show respect to our own self, we respect the person of Jesus Christ who has called and incorporated the other into his own body, the Church. That is why St. Paul can write the following sentences:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. … But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it(1 Cor. 12:12; 24-27v).
It might escape our notice, on first reading the beautiful words about the meaning and practice of genuine love in the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians, that the attributes of love that Paul describes in 1 Cor. 13 are those that usually are ascribed to God. St. Paul, however, desires earnestly that this sort of love be embodied in the behavior of the Christians living in the church to which he writes in Corinth.
“Love is patient, love is kind….” The description of what genuine love looks like on the ground in 1 Corinthians can also be used to flesh out the meaning of the virtues
St. Paul lists in Galatians 5: 22-23: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” The fruit of the Spirit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ, and love is first and foremost on that list.
Let’s examine St. Paul’s description of love one more time:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor. 13:4–7). One thing that stands out that often runs counter to our own expectations is St. Paul’s statement that love “does not insist on its own way.” This statement is often overlooked. We sometimes seem to think that if someone truly loves us that they should agree with us in everything. Personal relationships often falter on this very point. When we love someone, it does not mean that the other person always has to do things just the way we think they should be done. Genuine love allows for genuine difference in our relationships. As long as there mutual respect and love exist, people can agree to disagree and still live together in loving relationships with one another.
A church that is faithful to Jesus Christ is a community shaped by the love of Jesus Christ in which people can agree to disagree on some things, but not on the essential character of the church, which is always formed by mutual respect and love for one another.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13: 13).
 Raymond F. Collins; Daniel J. Harrington, ed., 1 Corinthians, Sacra Pagina Series, volume 7 (Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1999), pp. 476 ff.
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:13)
Over the past few months, I have reflected on what St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” This fruit refers to the virtues evident in the lives of those who have truly patterned themselves on the example of Jesus Christ. The reason that the New Testament writers focus on the virtues is so that Christians can live and work joyfully and productively in community.
The most difficult Christian virtue to write about is love. The word is used so often and in so many different contexts that its meaning is diffuse. Love in common parlance is used to refer both the object of our affection or desire and our relationship to it or someone else. We say, for example, that we love our spouse, our children, our parents, and our grandchildren while at the same time we say that we love chocolate ice cream.
Part of the confusion is caused by the fact the in the English language love is both a noun and a verb. Love then is both a virtue and an action. When we speak about love in the context of a church community we usually distinguish between God’s love for us and our love for one another. Our love for one another in Christian community is always modeled on God’s love for us but God’s love is both beyond our capacity to understand and to enact fully in our lives.
Talking about the love God has for each of us can be so clichéd. We have heard about it so often and in such vague terms that it becomes meaningless. Krister Stendahl, the former Dean of Harvard Divinity School and Bishop of Sweden who taught my seminary preaching class, gave his students the following advice: whenever you preach about God’s love, do so sparingly. If you talk about it too much it will go in and out of the ears of your hearers almost immediately. They won’t hear it at all. Remember, he said, when preaching that “a little love goes a long way.” That is why I saved writing about the virtue of love until last.
This post is the first of two in which I will begin to explore the meaning of love, particularly as we read about in the letters of St. Paul and other New Testament writers. The topic, of course, is enormous and a thousand books I fear would not be enough to exhaust it. This article will examine the love of God for us and the love of one another in the community of the church.
Throughout the Old Testament, and most often in the Psalms, we find this refrain: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good for his steadfast love endures forever.” The words “his steadfast love endures forever” occurs 42 times in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word the NRSV translates as “steadfast love” is hesed. It is often translated as “mercy” or perhaps even better as “loving-kindness.”
Mercy and loving-kindness are at the heart of God’s very being. This is also reflected in the New Testament book of 1 John where we find these words: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16).
For Christians, the model of love is Jesus Christ himself. The love embodied in the person of Jesus Christ is not selfish but self-giving. Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd, lays down his life for us. The writer of the Gospel of John observes that “God loved the world so much that God gave his only begotten Son” for us and for our salvation. (See Jn. 3:16). Or, as St. Paul puts it, “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8 NRSV). God’s love, in other words, is made most evident to us in the gift of God’s Son, Jesus, for us and for our salvation.
Throughout the New Testament, the example of God’s love as modeled for us in Jesus Christ is made the cornerstone of our love for one another. The example of Jesus Christ is the ultimate example of how we should act towards one another in Christian community. The author 1 John says this quite directly:
Beloved, let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:7–11)
Because God loved us so much, we ought to love one another. The model for how we are to love one another is shaped by the self-giving love of Jesus Christ. It is a cross-shaped love, a love willing to sacrifice the self on behalf of another. This love always looks first to the good of the other. St Paul captures that spirit when he advises Christians on how to live together in community with these words: “Let love be genuine; …love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor “(Rom. 12:9-10).
St. Paul writes this immediately after he says: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function…. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom 12:4, 6). In other words, St. Paul is saying that we all are not alike. We are different people with different abilities and gifts. Our abilities, our greatest strengths, are not the same nor should they be. If we truly love other persons we should not try to shape them into our own image but rather seek to love and honor them, as God by virtue of our baptism has called the other into community with us.
Imagine what Christian community would be like if we each strove to outdo one another in showing honor to one another. What if we made a point to honor everyone for who and what they are, without criticism, without rancor, without bitterness, but sought first their welfare and dignity over that of our own? How might it change our life at home, at work, at church, and in the wider world?
As St. Paul says, “Think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).
To be continued. In part 2, I will discuss the most familiar passage in the New Testament concerning love: the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.