The greatest love poem ever written is 1 Corinthians 13, the Bible’s love hymn:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,
I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.
This poem counts the ways in which we love others. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul said, “This love of which I speak is slow to lose patience; it looks for a way of being constructive. It is not possessive: it is neither anxious to impress nor does it cherish inflated ideas of its own importance. Love has good manners and does not pursue selfish advantage. It is not touchy. It does not keep account of evil or gloat over the wickedness of other people. On the contrary, it is glad with all good men when truth prevails” (Phillips).
If you want to commit this chapter to memory and begin practicing it, it helps to break it down into its three main sections.
Love Is Essential (verses 1-3)
The opening paragraph tells us that love is the essential motive for everything we do. In effect, the Lord warns us here that if we preach like an angel, think like a scholar, trust God with mountain-moving faith, give away vast sums of money, and even offer our bodies as sacrificial martyrs—but we don’t do it from a motivation of biblical love—it’s a worthless exercise.
It’s possible to build a great church, preach powerful sermons, sign up for mission trips, volunteer time to charity, and give generously of our means, and to do it for the wrong reasons. How easy to be motivated by pride or guilt or a craving for significance! How easy to tackle superior projects with inferior motives. We might not even recognize it. But while we look at the outward appearance, God looks at the heart.
Love Is Energetic (verses 4-7)
The second paragraph of this great chapter tells us that love is energetic. It’s always busy, on the go, helping others, and exhibiting maturity. The apostle Paul actually gives us fifteen ways of recognizing and demonstrating love, and it’s quite a list!
1. Love suffers long.
2. Love is kind.
3. Love does not envy others.
4. Love does not parade itself.
5. Love is not puffed up.
6. Love is not ill-mannered (GNT).
7. Love does not demand its own way.
8. Love is not irritable (NLT).
9. Love keeps no record of being wronged (NLT).
10. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness (HCSB).
11. Love rejoices in the truth.
12. Love bears all things.
13. Love believes all things.
14. Love hopes all things.
15. Love endures all things.
Now, that’s a great list, but we have to read it in two different ways if we’re really going to relate personally to its teaching. First, read through this list again and replace the word “love” with the name “Jesus.” It fits perfectly. He is patient, kind, never selfish, never keeping a record of wrongs, not easily provoked, always wanting the best for us regardless of His own suffering.
Second, read through the list again and put your own name in the place of the word “love.” How true would it be?
When the Lord says to us, “How do you love others? Let Me count the ways,” these are the fifteen ways He has in mind.
Love Is Everlasting (verses 8-13)
The last paragraph tells us that this kind of love—agape in the Greek—is eternal, everlasting, and perpetually enduring. After all, it’s an attribute of God himself. So it never fails. Preaching will end someday, and tongues will cease, Paul says, but love keeps on going. We pass from immaturity to maturity, but we never outgrow our need for love. In fact, we grow in love, becoming more like Jesus day by day until we arrive at eternity.
One day faith will not be as necessary to us as it is today, for we’ll walk by sight through the streets of New Jerusalem. Hope will not be as urgent, for our greatest expectations will be fulfilled. But love will still be just as necessary and as wonderful as ever!