1 Corinthians 13:8-13; Romans 13:8-10
The passage from 1 Corinthians is the final third of what is probably a very familiar chapter of scripture. It is often read at weddings, as Paul’s poetic description of the foundational importance of love seems particularly appropriate at a ceremony in which two people declare their abiding love for one another and commit to lifelong togetherness.
However, the love of which Paul speaks, while certainly needful in long-term human relationships, is not romantic love. Nor is it an emotion that comes and goes and cannot be willed.
Rather, the love of which Paul speaks is the love that God has for all of humankind and indeed all of creation, and it is the love we are called to have for one another in Christian community and indeed for all members of the human family. This is a love that is demonstrated through action, through making one another’s concerns our own, through truly listening to and seeing another human being as they are and desiring for them their highest good, that which God has created them for and is calling them to do and to be.
The partial and the complete
In the preceding chapter, 1 Corinthians 12, Paul speaks of spiritual gifts, including prophecy, tongues, and so forth. The final verse of that chapter reads, “And [now] I will show you a still more excellent way” (v. 31). Spiritual gifts are to be earnestly desired and faithfully exercised, but if love is not the foundation for using our spiritual gifts, those spiritual gifts will count for nothing.
Additionally, Paul notes, spiritual gifts have a limited usefulness because when God’s kingdom comes in its fullness, most spiritual gifts will no longer be needed. Prophecy—which should not be understood as foretelling the future so much as offering warnings that the listeners are on a road leading to destruction and need to turn around—will come to an end, because once we are all gathered before God’s throne, there will be no more paths of unrighteousness. People will simply be righteous.
Likewise, speaking in tongues; the usefulness of this gift is limited to the present time and our earthly existence. We don’t really know what language will be like in the heavenly realm, but it’s likely that we will all be able to understand one another because we will be speaking the pure language of God’s agape love. How wonderful to contemplate!
Hungarian is a notoriously difficult language for non-native speakers to learn as it is highly inflected with 35 different cases and no particular expected word order. My great-uncle Lee lived next door to a Hungarian immigrant who once declared, “Lee, I will tell you. The language that will be spoken in heaven is Hungarian, because it takes an eternity to learn.”
Both prophecy and tongues, as well as other spiritual gifts, are only partial in nature, because our ability to know and understand as finite human beings is partial. But in heaven, with the complete knowledge with which God loves us, perhaps we will be able to understand one another regardless of what language anyone might be speaking—even Hungarian!
The childish and the adult
Paul goes on to give an analogy of partial as compared with complete knowledge from our own human lived experience. When we are children, there are a great many things we don’t understand.
When my friend Laurel’s daughter Emily was two, they lived in a house with a stream running through the backyard. Emily was fascinated by the stream and didn’t understand why her mom wouldn’t let her go and play in it. Laurel, frustrated that Emily couldn’t grasp that the water was not safe for such a small child, finally resorted to telling Emily that the water was hot. Emily understood not to touch the hot stove because it could burn her, so Laurel applied the same reasoning to the water.
Years later, Emily asked her mom if the water in the stream was hot, and Laurel said no. Emily responded, “Hmm, I wonder why I thought that?” Recognizing that the understanding of two-year-old Emily was very partial, as appropriate to a young child, Laurel gave her daughter a reason to avoid the water that she could understand.
Adults are tasked with protecting and caring for children because our understanding of the dangers of the world is much more complete. Ideally, as adults we have learned to avoid dangers, to be careful, to recognize and express our emotions appropriately, to be kind and polite, to be caring and loving. But children come into the world not knowing any of these things and, little by little, as is developmentally appropriate, they need to be taught and shown the best ways to live.
Paul offers an additional analogy. In the present world, we see things about as well as we see ourselves in a mirror. Mirrors in Paul’s day were not made of glass backed with silver, as in our own. They were polished metal, like silver or bronze, and so offered a reflection that was not nearly so clear and distinct as that of our modern glass mirrors. Looking in a first-century mirror could hardly compare with seeing someone up close and in person, face to face. No wonder Paul speaks of “seeing through a mirror dimly.”
Even when we live with someone, know them well, and see them every day, we still do not know all there is to know about them. Indeed, we do not always know everything there is to know about ourselves! But in the heavenly realm, when our knowledge, understanding, and love will be completed by being subsumed in God’s love, we will have that complete knowledge, and it will be a wondrous delight.
The greatest of these
Our knowledge, this side of heaven, is faulty and partial; it is not something to take pride in. Paul believed that Christ would return, and the world would end quite soon—within the lifetimes of at least some of those to whom he wrote. And so, while he saw spiritual gifts as important for the present moment, he believed their efficacy was temporary and limited to his generation. Of course, these spiritual gifts have also been given to succeeding generations, including our own. So it behooves us to keep making them a priority in our own lives.
While knowledge is partial and prophecy, tongues, and spiritual gifts will come to an end, three things will abide: faith, hope, and love. Faith, in which we commit ourselves to God’s purposes, and hope, in which we trust in God’s providence, are our responses to God’s love. Love, however, is primary.
While Paul contrasts childish understanding with mature adult understanding, that should not be seen as a condemnation of child-like being. In putting our faith and hope in God’s love and God’s promises, in a sense we are to be like children, calling upon our God as Father and Mother, with trustful, pure, imaginative, and receptive hearts.
Fulfilling the law
In our short passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul declares that love is the fulfillment of the law. When we love our neighbors, we will not do them harm by stealing, coveting, murdering, or committing adultery. God’s law might be seen as the specifics of what it means to love our neighbor.
In positive terms, to love another person is to desire for that person the highest good—that for which God has created them and to which God is calling them. In other words, it is to love them, to the best of our limited human ability, in the way that God loves them. “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
Bobbi Dykema is pastor of First Church of the Brethren in Springfield, Illinois.