A commentary on 1 Corinthians 13
by David H. Petersen
The fantasy of endless human love
Our desire for perfect, never-ending love is not uniquely Christian; it is common to all of humanity. Robert Burns, for example, wanted to love his lovers with a love that would endure beyond the destruction of the planet and for which he would walk 10,000 miles. But Robert Burns, like all of us, could not live up to that wildly romantic standard. His poem “A Red, Red Rose,” like much love poetry, greeting cards and pop music, engages in wild hyperbole to make his point. It is a wonderful poem, but it is hyperbole. It is not real. We can forget that and become caught up in the fantasy that human love can satisfy every need of our soul. That fantasy always leads to disappointment.
The problem is not that what we want is not good. It simply does not exist on this side of glory. Reality tears it down and leaves those who held this fantasy in terrible pain. If that was all that happened, it would be bad enough, but it is usually much worse. Those who get married with the false idea that they are marrying their soul mates and fulfilling some destiny where love will win and satisfy them throughout all their days rarely give up on the fantasy just because it fails. Instead, they give up on their spouses. They decide that they made a mistake. They need to start over. They come to believe that a love that will satisfy and fulfill their needs is the greatest good. Therefore anything, including spouse and children, can be sacrificed in pursuit of this love. Burns’ own failed marriage and multiple affairs demonstrate that he was likely deluded in this way.
1 Corinthians 13, ESV
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
God’s love in Christ
If we do not listen carefully to 1 Corinthians 13, we can mishear it in a way that feeds this fantasy. We can mishear it as a romantic love poem. Such a reading is not only wrong, but it will damage our families and even our own sense of well-being and worth.
1 Corinthians 13 is not a love poem of that sort. It is not hyperbole either. It is not mainly about our love for one another. Rather it proclaims God’s love for us in Christ. This is how God loves this world: He gives His only begotten Son into death on the cross as a propitiation for our sins. We love because He first loved us.
His love, unlike ours, is untainted by sin and selfishness. It does not seek its own satisfaction or fulfillment. Instead, it sacrifices itself for the beloved. Thus it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It does not envy, become arrogant, rude or boastful. It does not insist on its own way or become resentful. It surpasses prophecies and knowledge. It is greater than even faith and hope. It has no perfection or end for which it strives; it is complete already and forever. It never fails. This is love: God sent His Son to suffer and die for the unlovable.
Love for the beloved’s sake
The Holy Spirit does mean for us to follow this example. The very first words of 1 Corinthians 14 are “pursue love.” Christ is an example for us. We love Him, and we love our neighbor because He first loved us. First Corinthians 13 establishes the ideal. It is the standard for love among us. It is perhaps especially suited for the love shared between a husband and a wife since Christ is the Bridegroom of the church, and this chapter is about Him and His love for us.
God’s love in Christ and the noble vocations He bestows on our wedding day can fill us with strong emotions, but let us not get so caught up in the romantic ideal that we fail to see the difficult duties of marriage. Christian love does not puff up the lover or fill the lover with feelings of happiness and joy. That is the world’s idea of romantic love. Burns rejoiced in how his beloved made him feel, not in what he did for her. In contrast, Christian love builds up the beloved for the sake of the beloved and not for the sake of the joy that it brings to the lover.
God does not call us to wild, romantic love and strong emotions. He calls us to hard work. Wedding vows are not promises to love until the seas go dry or to walk 10,000 miles. They do not contain exaggerated, romantic claims that we never expect to be called out on. They are not a promise to always feel “in love.” They require us, instead, to love. They ask us to have and to hold, to endure and be faithful in all circumstances. There is not one word about how we will feel about it. We do not make any promises about our emotions. We make, instead, promises about our actions, what we will do and how we will do it.
Love is hard work
Love is not a red, red rose at all. It is work — hard, hard work. It endures sacrifice and pain for the sake of someone else. It subdues one’s own desires, opinions and needs, being patient and kind, not resentful or angry or insisting on one’s own rights or way. It does not live for pleasure and satisfaction or self-actualization. Christian love is defined by Christ and follows His example as confessed in 1 Corinthians 13. Christian love lives entirely for someone else.
In Christological terms, holy marriage and Christian love are not the empty tomb or the return of Christ in glory. They are Gethsemane and Golgotha. This is how God loved the world: He sent His only Son to the sorrows of the cross. This also is how husbands and wives, and all Christians, love one another. They build up the beloved at their own expense.
This might sound rather grim. In a way it is. But what is pleasant to a mature Christian is different from what is pleasant to a child. In holy marriage, we give up the childish ways of Robert Burns and the romantics. We settle into the mature view that what God says is good even when it displeases our fallen flesh. We rejoice not only in the forgiveness of sins and the redemption Christ won for us, but also in the reality that God’s grace gives us a part in His kingdom. He makes us husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. He is conforming us to His image, teaching and enabling us to love one another as He has loved us. That is a great privilege and honor and a true participation in the work of God on earth. That is love worth celebrating.
The Rev. David H. Petersen serves Redeemer Lutheran Church, Fort Wayne, Ind.
This article originally appeared in print in the May 2020 issue of The Lutheran Witness.