What Love Is

Last week, we began to look at the great love chapter, I Corinthians 13, and we saw that love is the most important thing in the world, and if we don’t have love, then nothing we do or say really matters.  Our faith, our giving, our sacrifices, our preaching, it’s all worthless without love.

And now, beginning in verse 4, Paul gives us some of the characteristics of love.  Which makes sense.  Because if nothing we do apart from love matters, then we need to understand what Paul meant by the word “love”.  

We use the word “love” in so many different ways in our culture. I love Jesus; I love Sueanne; I love my kids. I love this church. I love my mother and my sister.  I love math. I love music and reading. I love going out to eat. I especially love Mexican food, seafood and pizza.  I love good humor and laughter. And obviously the word “love” doesn’t mean the same thing in all those sentences.  So, what is love?  Is it something you feel or is it something you do? Well, it all depends.

The Greeks understood that love has different meanings in different contexts. They even used different words to capture some of those meanings. For example, they used the word “philia” to speak about friendship love and mutual affection. They used the word “eros” to describe romantic love with all of its passion and desire.  And they had another word for love which they hardly ever used at all – which was the word “agape.”  

“Philos” is the love of friendship, and “eros” is the love of romance, but “agape” is the love of choice and commitment – it’s choosing to love another person.  The New Testament writers used this word to describe God’s love for us which was demonstrated by sending his Son, Jesus Christ.  And so, the word “agape” is an unconditional love, choosing to love another person regardless of your feelings.

You can’t have friendship love for your enemies; you can’t have romantic love for your enemies, but you can have “agape” love. You can choose to love your enemies unconditionally regardless of how they treat you back. That word “agape” is the word that Paul uses for love here in 1 Corinthians 13.  And so, when Paul describes the characteristics of love in these verses, he’s talking about “agape” love.

            Paul is going to break down the concept of love into different pieces.  And I think we’ll find that to be helpful as we look at our own lives to see how loving we are.  Because it’s easy for us to sidestep the word love because it’s so general, but it’s much harder for me to get around the specifics.  For example, I may say, “I love you” but if I raise the questions, “How patient am I with you?  Or, how kind am I to you?”, now I’ve got something that I can meas­ure my love with.

There’s a Peanuts cartoon where Linus tells Lucy that he wants to be a doctor, and she just laughs at him and says, “You, a doctor!  You could never be a doctor!  You know why?  Because you don’t love mankind, that’s why.”  And Linus’ response is this, “I love mankind. It’s people I can’t stand.”

And, let’s be honest, I think we all feel that way from time to time.  Some of us feel that way most of the time.  And there may be some of you here this morning who feel that way right now. Loving the world in general isn’t all that hard, but loving the people around us can be a major challenge. And that’s why it’s important that we study what Paul has to say here in I Corinthians 13.  We need to know what exactly love is and what it looks like in the nitty-gritty, every-day situations of life.

Which leads me to the observation that love is not primarily a feeling but an action. We live in an age that puts personal feelings above almost everything. We do what we want when we want because we “feel” like it. And if we don’t “feel” like it, we don’t it.

            But as I read through this chapter, I’m struck by the complete absence of any emphasis on personal feelings. The kind of love that Paul is talking here about is a love that is seen and demonstrated.  And it’s obvious that Paul is not talking about a warm feeling but rather a conscious decision to love other people no matter what.

            One of the things that we’re going to find in verses 4-7 is that Paul is going to describe love by using a series of 15 verbs.  Now, our English translations change some of those verbs to adjectives, but in the Greek, they’re all verbs.  For example, we’re going to see in just a moment that Paul says that love is patient and love is kind, which are both adjectives.  But, in the Greek, those words are verbs.  Love acts in a patient manner.  Love acts in a kind manner.

            And I believe that’s significant.  Because the love Paul is talking about here is not primarily something you feel but something you do. We may not always be able to control our feelings, but we can control our actions, and even to some extent our motivations. “Agape” love is something that you either choose to do or you choose not to do.

            With that in mind, let’s take a look at what Paul has to say about love.  Beginning in verse 4,

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (I Corinthians 13:4-7)

As we look at these various qualities of love over the next few weeks, I would encourage you to take out a pen and make two lists.  You can find a space for these on your sermon notes page.  One list is labeled “My Love Strengths” and the other is labeled “My Love Weaknesses.”  And as we go through these verses together, I’d like for you to think about each characteristic of love which Paul describes and write it down under one of those two lists.  Is this something that you do pretty well, or is it something you struggle with?  And then, when we finish out this section, we’ll talk some more about that.

We’re going to break this passage down into four parts.  First, Paul begins with two verbs which describe positively what love is. Secondly, he gives a series of seven verbs which describe negatively what love is not. Thirdly, he gives a contrasting statement to describe love: love does not do this but rather does that. And then fourthly and finally, Paul describes four things that love always does. So, over the few weeks we’re going to look at what love is, what love is not, what love does and doesn’t do, and then, finally, what love always does.

But, this morning, it’s all about what love is.  And the first thing that love is is this…..

  1. Love is Patient

Keep in mind that, in the Greek, this is a verb: “makrothumeo.”  We’ve translated it into English as if it were an adjective — “love is patient”, because we don’t really have a verbal form of “patient.”   But remember, in Greek, this is a verb.  Paul is telling us what love does, how love acts.

The Greek word “makrothumeo”, is actually composed of two shorter words: “makro”, which means “long”; and “thumeo”, which means “passion” or “anger.”  So, the word makrothumeo literally means, “takes a long time to get angry” or we would say, “slow to anger”. 

            You’ve probably heard the expression before: He or she “has a short fuse”.  When we say that about someone, we mean that it doesn’t take much to get them upset.  Say the wrong thing, and they’ll get angry.  Do something they don’t like, and they will quickly get offended.  We say they “have a short fuse.”  Well, Paul tells us that love is the opposite of that.  Love has a long fuse.”  It is not upset easily or quickly angered. 

There are actually two different kinds of patience – there’s patience with people and patience with things.  And most of the time, we tend to think of patience in terms of things or circumstances.  How do you react when your washing machine breaks down or you have to wait in traffic or there’s a long line at the grocery store?  Well, that all depends on how patient you are.  A patient person can take it all in stride while an impatient person may rant and rave and get all upset.  And it’s certainly true that we all need more patience with things or circumstances.

            But Paul is more concerned with a patience with people.  The word here means “to bear patiently with other people’s faults and offenses.”  And I think it’s significant that this is the first characteristic of agape love because, remember, agape love is totally unconditional.  It is choosing to love someone else not because of who they are, not because of all the nice things they may do for you, but it is a love that we demonstrate in spite of who they are, in spite of what they may do to you or what they have done to you in the past.

It is a love that understands that people aren’t perfect and sometimes mess up.  It is a love which sees the potential in people and doesn’t expect instant maturity or growth.  It is a love just like the love that God has for us.

Keep in mind that love comes from God himself.  God is love, and so everything that love is going to be defined by who God is.  And it is certainly true that God is patient, God is longsuffering.  In Psalm 103, the psalmist says: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love….He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.” (Psalm 103:8,10)

I love what Paul wrote to Timothy.  He said, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners — and I am the worst of them all.  But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners.” (I Timothy 1:15-16)

God has been so patient with all of us.  Think about all the times we’ve messed up, over and over.  If it were me, I would have given up on me a long time ago.  But God continues to be so patient.  And that means that we have the responsibility to demonstrate that same patient love to others. 

            That’s the whole point of Jesus’ parable of the two servants in Matthew 18.  Jesus told a story about a servant who owed his master millions of dollars that he could never repay, but he asked his master to have mercy on him.  So the master had compassion on him and forgave him the debt. 

But then, Jesus said, that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him 100 denarii – a much smaller amount, and seized him and began to choke him, saying, “Pay back what you owe.”  His fellow servant said to him, “Be patient with me, and I will repay you.” 

But the first servant was unwilling to forgive, and he threw him into prison until he could pay back everything that he owed.  Of course, we’re shocked that someone would do something like that, after they had been forgiven so much.  It seems so obvious that if you have been shown great mercy, then you should show the same level of mercy to others.

But, of course, Jesus’ story is pointed at us!  God had such great mercy and love for us, and showed us patience, forgiving us a debt that we could never repay.  Yet, sometimes we are unwilling to patiently others who do us wrong.  Jesus’ point is — if you really understand how patient God has been with you, then you’ll be willing to show that same patient love towards others. 

Max Lucado wrote: “Patience deeply received results in patience freely offered.”  If you know that you have been the recipient of God’s patient love, then you will share that same patient love with others. 

I heard someone make an interesting observation — “Patience is an interesting quality in that when I don’t need it, I want it. It’s when things start to irritate or frustrate me that I need patience, but usually at that point I don’t want to be patient!”

            The reality of life is that people are going to let you down from time to time, they’re going to disappoint you.  Even your brothers and sisters in Christ.  Even your family members.  People will say things to you that aren’t very kind, they’ll have an attitude that isn’t what it ought to be, or they’ll do something that’s not very Christlike.  And that’s where patience enters into the concept of love.

            So, is patience one of your strengths or is it one of your weaknesses?  Write it down on one of the two lists on your paper.

  • Love is Kind

            You may have heard it said, “The greatest thing a man can do for his Heavenly Father is to be kind to some of his other children.”  Love is not just some abstract concept.  It’s a deed of kind­ness, it’s something you do for someone who has a need.  Someone has described kindness as “love in action”.  It doesn’t have to take much effort, but it does take intention.  And that’s what Paul is talking about here – caring enough to be kind.  

I heard recently about a church whose entire evangelism program is structured around random acts of kindness.  On a typical Saturday, members from the church will go out into the community in groups to practice kindness.  They offer to mow somebody’s lawn. They give somebody a ride.  They wash the windows of a local office building.  Then they simply leave them a card with their church name and address and go their way.  Not everyone who receives a card visits their church afterwards, but some do, and many have come to faith in Christ through this simple ministry of kindness.

This world is often not a very kind place.  People say and do so many hurtful things.  In Romans 3:12, Paul says, “There is none who does good, no not one.”  The word “good” in this verse is that same word translated kindness in I Corinthians 13.  Paul says that nobody does what’s kind. 

            I think Paul is saying is that kindness is basically opposed to our human nature, and we recognize that that’s true.  Human beings are basically a selfish people, and our first reaction in most situations is to take care of ourselves first.  But kindness reaches out to the needs and concerns of others, and that can be a difficult thing to do.

We need more kindness in our world. Make it a point to be kind to others.  Kindness is a powerful medicine for a hurting world.  Many people will remember an act of kindness forever.

            There’s an old poem that goes like this: “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good thing, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” (Stephen Grellet, but often attributed to William Penn)

  • Kindness is speaking friendly words or sending a card to someone who’s lonely
  • Kindness is preparing food for a family with illness and carrying it to them.
  • Kindness is visiting a hospital room with a genuine desire to be there to help the patient.
  • Kindness is a driver who stops to help a stranded motorist with a flat tire.
  • Kindness is offering a glass of iced tea to the man working in the yard on a hot day.
  • Kindness is the multitude of little acts that allow love to express itself.  Kindness is love in action.

            So, love is patient and love is kind. These two words describe our passive and our active responses towards others. And when we are patient and kind, we’re acting like God.  In Romans 2:4, Paul speaks of God’s “kindness, tolerance and patience.”  So, thank God for his patience – and then be patient with others.  Praise God for his kindness – and then be kind toward others. Start with your family, and then move on to your neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, and even strangers.

            And then, ultimately, we learn to show love even to our enemies.  Keep in mind that Paul is describing in this chapter an unconditional love.  We’ve taken this chapter and turned it into cute little sayings we put on our desk or refrigerator, and we’re used to hearing these verses read in a wedding ceremony.  But, keep in mind that Paul is not talking here about a romantic love.  He’s talking about agape love, an unconditional love that makes the choice to love someone who may not be very lovable. 

            Jesus said, “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same thing. . . . But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for He Himself is kind to ungrateful and evil men(Luke 6:33, 35)

            I understand.  We all have people we dislike. We all have people we would rather not associate ourselves with. Whether our separations are based on political divides, or social divides, or theological divides, we all have people that we see as “the other side”. Our real challenge is to learn how to show love to those people.  And that means being patient with people who irritate us, and being kind to people who don’t deserve it. 

            I heard about a little girl who was invited over to a friends’ house for dinner.  The vegetable at the meal was broccoli and the mother asked her if she liked it. She responded very politely, “Oh, yes, I love it!”

            But, then, when the bowl of broccoli was passed around the table, she didn’t take any on her plate.  The mother said, “I thought you said you loved broccoli.”  The girl replied very sweetly, “Oh, yes ma’am, I do, but not enough to eat it!”

            It’s easy to say that we love the people in our lives.  But do we love them enough to be patient with them?  Do we love them enough to be kind to them?  Some people would say at this point I’ve quit preachin’ and gone to meddlin’.

            Are you keeping your list? Is patience a strength or a weakness for you? How about kindness?  Make a note, next week we’ll add some more to that list as we continue to see what love is all about.


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