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If I Have Not Love...

Compassion

By Dennis Pollock

The apostle Paul was an amazing writer. He was no doubt a great preacher, he had a wonderful healing ministry, and he was no slouch as a church builder. He had a brilliant mind and a driving ambition to succeed like almost nobody else. But of all his prodigious gifts, I think his writing gift is the most impressive of all. And certainly it is his writing which has made him a phenomenal blessing to Christians of every age and every generation. Some people say that Paul wrote over half the New Testament. That is not true. The four gospels by themselves significantly outweigh Paul’s contributions. But he did in fact write over half the epistles of the New Testament, in fact well over half.

Paul not only had a lot of great things to teach us, but he said it incredibly well. It’s true that he was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but so were Peter and John, yet somehow Paul’s writings seem far more eloquent and even breathtaking than the other apostles. Paul clearly knew how to put pen to paper!

In this devotional study we shall look at what is perhaps Paul’s greatest prose of all, the absolute zenith of his exceptional gift as a writer. I am referring to that chapter in First Corinthians which Christians have named “the Love Chapter.” Thoughts and words taken from this chapter have been endlessly taught and preached, and reproduced on plaques, written at the bottom of paintings, and placed on all sorts of crafts and souvenirs. Even non-Christians seem to appreciate and respect his divinely inspired words found in First Corinthians 13.

The Intro

In this study we will look, not at the entire chapter, but at the introduction. It takes up three verses, about 23 percent of the chapter. But what verses they are! This section uses three different ideas to forcefully hammer home the exact same point – and that is that without love we are nothing. Let’s get started.

In Paul’s first declaration he writes:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13:1).

In another section of this epistle Paul gives instructions about public praying in tongues. Apparently tongues-speaking was the spiritual gift of choice for the Corinthian believers, and Paul felt compelled to tell them that this practice of everyone praying in tongues was going to be confusing and upsetting to the non-Christians who came into their assemblies. And although he tells them that he prays in tongues more than any, he warns them to do this praying privately, not in public gatherings. But here he warns them that, regardless of how much tongues-praying they may do, if their spiritual gift is not matched by a warm heart of love, they are doing nothing but making a lot of clamor – lots of noise but nothing more.

Sometimes those of us who strongly believe in spiritual gifts (and I certainly do) need to be reminded that the greatest spiritual gift is the grace of Jesus in us that produces a warm heart of love toward other people. We cannot be speaking in tongues and then later speaking critically and harshly about or toward our brothers and sisters in Christ, or our spouses, children, or parents. Spiritual power or spiritual gifts without a gentle, loving, compassionate, patient attitude toward and interaction with others is folly and misses the point of what Christ desires to do in us.

Mountain Mover

Paul does not stop here. He goes on to declare:

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing (1 Corinthians 13:2).

Now he moves beyond speaking in tongues and speaks of anointed, prophetic utterance, divine revelations and insights, and dynamic faith that results in miracles. And yet with all this spiritual power, insight, and faith, Paul announces that if we carry all this tremendous grace in our lives, but somehow have missed out on the grace of loving one another, and walking in gentle compassion, we have missed the boat. We are, in his words, nothing.

Wow! This is pretty heavy. Many times we judge a person’s spirituality by their talents or their dynamic spiritual gifts. But Paul tells us all of this means nothing if we are not loving in our day to day relationships and interactions with people. We can only conclude that this business of love must be huge in the sight of God. And whatever we do or do not get right in the Christian life and walk, if we don’t get this right, if we don’t walk in kindness, graciousness, and concern for others, we have failed miserably and entirely.

I think we can agree that Paul has made his point crystal clear. But he is not finished yet. By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word must be established, and Paul is determined to make it three witnesses in this case. Following his first two examples he gives a third and similar exhortation:

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing (1 Corinthians 13:3).

Sacrifice without Love

Paul is determined to push this point as far and as hard as he can. This time he talks, not about spiritual power or gifts, but about something we might consider the very essence of love – giving your goods to feed the poor or surrendering your body for a martyr’s death. Surely these acts would constitute love, would they not? But Paul says, no, it is possible to do what seem like acts of service or love, and yet not have God’s divine love pulsing in your heart and affecting the way you treat your brothers and sisters, and the people with whom you interact as you walk through this life.

Paul and the Holy Spirit could not have said it more powerfully or eloquently. Loving people is a big deal, no, make that a huge, enormous, massive deal in the eyes of God. One reason this is so important is that as Christians we embrace God’s moral laws. We agree with God that some behaviors are righteous and godly (such as faithfulness to one’s spouse, honesty, patience, and charity) and others are wicked, ungodly, and displeasing to God (such as lying, sexual immorality, stealing, murder, and violence). But at times we hold our strict code of morality in such a harsh manner that we end up with a poor attitude toward those people who have no use for morality. We don’t just hate the sin; we loathe, despise, and hate the sinner! And often this comes across so flagrantly that sinners are not drawn to the Christ of whom we speak. Rather they are repelled by us and our harsh, angry, condemning, super-critical version of Christianity. Granted it is a fine line to walk – to strongly disapprove of ungodly behavior and yet to strongly love and demonstrate love toward those whose lives are filled with wickedness. And yet it is a line that must be walked.

And according to Paul, if we cannot do this, if we do not have this patient, kindly love toward all people, we are nothing – and all our home-group meetings, and praise CD’s, and Bible studies, and worship services, and Christian concerts, and church committee meetings mean exactly nothing. Love is not optional. We must endure and be kind, we must not envy, we must not parade ourselves, or be rude, or pursue only those things which pertain to ourselves. We must love with the agape love which God gives, and which Paul so eloquently describes in the section following his amazing introduction.

Religious But Not Transformed

Some people are naturally religious. They seem almost to be born with an extra religious gene somewhere in them. If they are born into a Hindu family they will be a devout Hindu, if born a Muslim, they will be the Muslim of all Muslims. And if these hyper-religious types are born into a Christian family, they will outdo nearly all Christians in their enthusiasm for and involvement in Christian activities. Most people who observe their religious fervor will think them super-Christians. And yet with all their religious zeal and passion for all things related to Christianity, they may not be born-again at all. Their world is all about religion and not about Jesus Christ.

In such cases these passionate souls will give away their lack of genuine grace by the absence of gentle love expressed toward their fellow believers. They will be impatient, harsh, rigid, a trifle arrogant, and far more concerned about their own religious goals and pursuits than about people.

Our Lord Jesus declared, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). He didn’t say they will know us by our power or miracles or tongues-speaking or achievements or perfect attendance records or the fact that we teach Sunday School or sing in the choir, or have logged over 10,000 hours of watching Christian TV. They will know us as disciples of the Master by our love – that love that Paul described, which is patient, kind, and gentle as we relate to others.

Island “Love”

It would be so much easier if we all lived on our own personal desert islands, Robinson Crusoe style. If there were no one to argue with, no one to criticize us, no one to let us down or come between us and our dreams. We could go to bed every evening praising God for yet another day without conflict, another day without any major arguments (or even minor ones), a day where all went according to plan. No one has disappointed us, no one has hurt our feelings, and not even once have we been challenged by someone expressing an opinion which disagrees sharply with our own. Ah, life in paradise!

But of course it would not be paradise. It would be the dullest, most boring life imaginable! No fellowship, no friendship, no talking, no sharing, no laughing at someone’s joke, no pleasure in another’s company. Just another quiet, totally uneventful, meaningless day. But more importantly there would be little spiritual growth in our lives. We were made to interact with other human beings. Now that seems fine in theory, but the problem is that the humans we relate to are as imperfect as we are. And they don’t think the way we think or believe the way we believe! Like ourselves, they are impatient, flawed, sometimes grumpy, sometimes intractable, and they have the ability to drive us crazy! It would be so easy to love perfect people – you know those people like us who think like we do, believe like we believe, and act just the way we think they should act. Why can’t people just be more like us?

Even as Christ Forgave You

The truth is, having smooth, loving relationships with anyone we know well is so incredibly difficult that God feels it necessary to hammer this home throughout the Scriptures so that we really and truly get it. No matter how religious we are and how many church activities we are involved in, without this easy, long-suffering love we are precisely nothing. And lest we lose sight of what that kind of love looks like, Paul spells it out very distinctly. He does it throughout this chapter of First Corinthians 13, and he also does it in his epistle to the Colossians, writing:

“…put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (Colossians 3:12, 13).

Notice all the terms Paul uses. He does not say, “Put on boldness, assertiveness, forcefulness, aggressiveness, and by no means put up with fools and simpletons.” No, he tells us to put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, and so forth. These are the lubricants which make for strong, lasting, warm relationships. And God most definitely prizes and promotes relationships!

This is the essence of what it means to follow the meek and lowly One, our Lord Jesus Christ, the great King who humbled Himself to die on the cross for our sins, the One who touched the untouchables, who bore with the unbearable, who loved the unlovely, and befriended the friendless. This is our Jesus, and as His followers this must be our attitude. This divine love must be our trademark. Jesus declared it so. May His grace enable us to love!

 

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