“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails …” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8, emphases added).
Now why did Paul do this? Why did he not simply list all the good things that love is rather than listing positive and negative aspects of what love is and is not? Some have guessed that Paul was applying his description of love to the Corinthian church to which his letter was sent – to what the Christians there were getting right and what they were not. But 1 Corinthians 13 clearly has wider application that just any one church group, and the previous chapter shows that Paul has the whole church in mind as the context of what he is saying (1 Corinthians 12:27-31).
So what was Paul’s point in giving us this “split vision” of the characteristics of love in this, his fullest description of the greatest spiritual quality? One simple answer is found in the rabbinic teaching style of Paul’s day and, in fact, throughout much of the Bible. Positive and negative expressions of important teachings and commandments were frequently put in juxtaposition in this way. We only have to look at the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17) themselves to see the same kind of positive (“You shall …”) and negative (“You shall not …”) expressions.
The same method is found throughout the teaching of Jesus and is particularly clear in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) – as when Jesus taught “…when you pray do not … But when you pray …” (6:5-6); “when you fast do not … But when you fast …” (6:16-17); etc. Paul also uses this same method on several occasions – for example, when he speaks of the Spirit of God which “… does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7).
But the fact that this was a common teaching technique of Paul’s day does not mean there is no lesson to be learned from his use of both positive and negative methods of expression in his description of love. We must always remember that Paul’s discussion of the qualities of love, and the whole of the chapter in which it is found, is given in the context of spiritual gifts. The love he speaks about is spiritual rather than physical love, and Paul’s list reminds us that this kind of love is not like human love. If we look closely we see that his list shows that spiritual love is not about the feelings involved in relationships, but about the actions that take place in them. Not a single one of the qualities of love that Paul gives is about our feelings for someone.
Paul’s description of love is actually a powerful corrective to the idea that spiritual love is an amorphous feeling that somehow guides us into being “nice” or “good” people through an elevated form of “liking” or “feeling good” about others. In fact, some of the things Paul says – such as the fact that this kind of love “is not easily angered” and “keeps no record of wrongs” – indicate that it may be applied to people with whom we do not feel much affinity just as much as to people we do like.
Part of our inability to recognize the dynamic and much more powerful nature of the spiritual love Paul talks about lies in the fact that in English the word “love” often simply means “like.” We say we love pizza, or we love the color blue, or we love a person because our concept of love involves our feelings toward something or someone. But Paul’s use of love, as we see so clearly in his list of its qualities, has nothing to do with feelings toward anyone – only our actions toward them. This is something we must always remember. No matter how warmly we feel about anyone, if it is a feeling, it is physical love. To love with spiritual love is to act toward others– just as God acted when he “… so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son… ” (John 3:16, emphases added).
So Paul’s list of the various qualities of love teaches us that spiritual love is entirely about how we behave and how we treat others. By stressing the negatives that spiritual love protects us from just as much as he stresses the positive aspects of love, Paul shows us that real love produces loving actions and precludes unloving actions. The great “love list” of 1 Corinthians 13 shows us in a concrete way what spiritual love is and what it is not.