But the greatest of these is love?

what is loveThe famous “love chapter” of the Bible – the one you hear at every wedding – ends conclusively, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Of all the statements in all of Scripture, this may be the one our culture is quickest to embrace. Love trumps all. You’ll hear plenty about how at the end of your life, the amount of money you made, or how high you climbed the corporate ladder, or how much you achieved doesn’t matter all that much.

What matters? How much you loved and were loved.

I frequently see this in the church, too. God is love. Jesus was the ultimate example of love. Jesus even says at the last supper, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

And so, anything that threatens unity, peace, acceptance — in a word, anything that doesn’t promote love — is just downright unChristian. For that matter, anything that makes anyone feel sad or suggests that they might have done something bad has no place, either. To make someone feel sad or bad surely isn’t loving.

Especially in the recent homosexuality debate, a growing contingent inside the church — and virtually everyone outside the church — has asked how the church could deny anyone’s love.

A good friend of mine – strong in his faith – says he can’t understand how God would create someone with love for another person, then deny the person that love. (At the same time, he flinches at the notion of endorsing an incestuous relationship, and not just because of the genetic consequences. He tends to believe that’s a sickness, not something God would put in them. If they were born that way, it’s a genetic disorder. Is it reasonable to consider the one relationship normal and God-given and the other a sickness to be denounced? Is he just closed-minded and unable to see the injustice in denying these people their love?)

So the question: do we understand what love is?

I won’t argue that love is not all that remains in the end. That it’s not “the greatest of these.” I surely won’t argue that the character of God isn’t love, or that Christ wasn’t the perfect exemplar of love.

But I will say that Jesus said and did a number of things that today’s American culture – hyper-aware of our feelings as we are – would probably call mean. It’s hard to put a “nice” slant on, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?” He calls people children of hell and talks about God’s authority to throw people into hell. Are these the words of a “loving” Son, representing the God whose character is love?

Yes, Jesus welcomes sinners. But he also acknowledges that they’re sinners (sometimes in some rather uncomfortable ways: see, woman at the well) and then tells them to stop sinning. Some of these people must have felt judged. How dare he say that what they’re doing is sin? And tell them to stop? And suggest that hell awaits those who don’t? That kind of confrontation isn’t becoming of the rainbows-and-butterflies Savior I frequently hear about.

And Paul, just chapters before he wrote that soaring “love chapter,” called his readers worldly, not spiritual. Then he used some biting sarcasm with them (1 Cor 4:8-13). Then he dared to tell them not to associate with sexually immoral people — in fact, to expel someone who was in their midst. Is there anything less accepting? Less hospitable? More likely to cause divisions and conflict?

Either we have misunderstood love, or Jesus wasn’t such a perfect example of love. We have misunderstood love, or that great author of the “love chapter” was himself a terrible example of love. We have misunderstood love, or a God who would call some people wicked and send them into eternal fire is not a God of love. We have misunderstood love, or we might as well discard the Bible that gives so many examples of judgment and exclusion and denial of particular human passions.

And then there’s the issue of whether, particularly in the recent homosexuality debates, our culture has privileged romantic love above all else. If so, I would argue that this is a rather modern turn and we might be cautious to believe romantic love should hold such a high and exclusive place in our values systems.

God is love

I believe that God is love, and yet I believe there are certain deeply ingrained human passions — perhaps even things we would say were in-born — that God tells us not to act on. Because to act on those removes us from the will of God.

I believe that Christ’s example was an example of love, but it was so loving that he warned people when they were on their way to destruction

I believe that Paul knew what he was talking about when he said “the greatest of these is love.” But I think when he told the Corinthians to expel the immoral person, he showed us a different sort of love than we’d like to accept today.

This quote from this article says it very well: “When we are tempted to hide or change a difficult truth (even a truth-as-I-see-it) in the name of love, we are guilty of a failure to believe that God is who God has revealed himself to be. Likewise, when we get so committed to certain truths that we ignore the hurt done to those we are called to love, we fail in faith.”

There must be a way to do both. It needs to begin with understanding what love is.

Do you believe in the kind of love exhibited throughout Scripture, or a different kind of love – a philosophical love that would reject much of what God, Christ, and Paul say and do in Scripture?

We can have our common cultural notions of love, or we can have the loving God of Scripture. I don’t think we can have both.

4 thoughts on “But the greatest of these is love?

  1. Excellent post, Teddy! You are right to diagnose that our modern society misunderstands or misdefines love. Love wants what is best for the other person. But we have turned love into wanting what’s best for us.

  2. Yup, Teddy, it is what it is! Once again the choice looms: do we accept a God who reigns as Sovereign of the Universe or do we argue for a god in our image? Mark Galli penned an excellent work that most don’t want to deal with titled Jesus, Mean and Wild! You hit another one out of the park my man!

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