The Character of Love

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1 Corinthians 13:4-7

INTRODUCTION: Please turn with me in your Bible to 1 Corinthians 13. Last week we looked at verses 1-3 of this chapter where we learned that love is the true measure of all that you do. Nothing we say, nothing we have, and nothing we do has any value apart from love. Love is the true measure of all things.

Now in verses 4-7 Paul goes on to describe the true character of love. That makes sense. If nothing we do matters apart from love, we had better understand what Paul means by the word. We use the word “love” in so many different ways in our culture. I love Jesus; I love my wife; I love my children. I love this church. I love my Mom and Dad, my brother and sisters. I love my dogs. I love music and reading. I love going out to eat. I particularly love Mexican food, seafood and Italian. I love good humor and laughter. Now obviously the word “love” did not mean exactly the same thing in all those sentences. What is love? Is it something you feel or something you do? Well, it depends.

The Greeks understood that love has different meanings in different contexts. They even used different words to capture some of those meanings. They used the word “philos” 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 used at all – that was the word “agape.” This was the word that the Greek translation of the Old Testament most often used to speak of God’s love.

Now if “philos” is the love of friendshp, and “eros” is the love of romance, “agape” is the love of choice and commitment – choosing to love another person. The New Testament writers picked up on this word and used it extensively to describe God’s self-sacrificing love for man displayed in the sending of his Son, Jesus Christ. And so the word came to represent unconditional love, choosing to love another person regardless of your feelings. You could not have friendship love or romantic love for your enemy, but you could have “agape” love. You could choose to love your enemy unconditionally regardless of how he treated you back. The word Paul uses for love here in 1 Corinthians 13 is “agape.” And so when Paul describes the character of love in these verses, he is talking about “agape” love.

Henry Drummond in his classic little booklet on 1 Corinthians 13 called, “The Greatest Thing in the World,” compares verses 4-7 to light passing through a prism and being separated out into its various colors. Just as the various colors of the spectrum all work together to make white light, so Paul describes love in its component parts, a rainbow of actions that all work together to make true agape love.

As we study Paul’s description, it becomes clear that he is not talking about a warm feeling but rather a conscious decision to love other people no matter what. Paul describes “agape” love in verses 4-7 using a series of 15 verbs. Our English translations change some of the verbs to adjectives, but in the Greek they are all verbs. I believe that’s significant. The love Paul is talking about 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 choose to do or not to do. And God measures your entire life by it.

1 Corinthians 13:4-7 – 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

As we look at these various qualities of love together, I would encourage you to take out a pen and paper and make two short lists. Label one list “My Love Strengths” and the other list “My Love Weaknesses.” As we go through these verses together, think about each characteristic of love which Paul describes and write it down under one of your lists. We’ll talk more about that at the end of the message.

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 that. And then fourthly and finally, he describes four things that love always does. So we are going to look at what love is, what love is not, what love does in contrast to something else, and then, finally, what love always does.

I. Love described positively – what love is (verse 4a)

First of all, Paul begins with two verbs which describe positively what love is. “Love is patient, love is kind.” (1 Corinthians 13:4a) Now when we read that verse in English, those sound like adjectives, not verbs. But once again in the original language all of the descriptions in verses 4-7 are verbs. They are not describing so much what love is but how love acts. Love acts patiently; love acts kindly. Going back to last week’s passage: if you speak in the tongues of men and angels, if you have the most incredible spiritual gifts, if you make the most noble of sacrifices, but do not practice patience and kindness towards others, then you are nothing, you gain nothing.

    A. Love is patient.

Isn’t it interesting that the very first word Paul chooses to describe love is patience? The word here means “to bear patiently with other people’s faults and offenses, to be longsuffering.” This is the first characteristic of agape love because it is totally unconditional. It is choosing to love another not because of who they are, but in spite of who they are, in spite of what they do to you or have done to you. It is a love which understands the frailties of human nature and refuses to take offense. It is a love which sees the potential in people and does not demand instant maturity or growth. It is a love which continues to desire the best for others even when it is slandered or abused. It is a love remarkably like God’s.

Think about it. Isn’t God incredibly patient with us? Psalm 103:13-14 – “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him; 14 for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” 2 Peter 3:9 – “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” Paul wrote to Timothy: “I am the worst (of sinners). 16 But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. (1 Timothy 1:15-16) God is love, and therefore God is patient with us.

    B. Love is kind.

Secondly, love is kind. It has been said, “The greatest thing a man can do for his Heavenly Father is to be kind to some of his other children.” It is not difficult to be kind. It doesn’t take much effort, but it does take intention. And that is what Paul is talking about here – caring enough to be kind. Sometimes just a word is enough. Proverbs 12:25 says, “An anxious heart weighs a man down, but a kind word cheers him up.” Love practices acts of kindness to others – simple, loving acts of kindness.

I know of a church whose entire evangelism program is structured around random acts of kindness. It is an idea that was spearheaded by Steve Sjogren in his book The Conspiracy of Kindness. On a typical Saturday, members from the church 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 very often not a kind place. People say and do so many hurtful things. We need a lot more kindness in our world. Make it a point to be kind to others. Let it be spontaneous, no hesitation. If you can think it, you can do it. Kindness is a powerful medicine for a hurting world. Many people will remember an act of kindness forever.

There is 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)

Love is patient, love is kind. These two words describe our passive and our active responses towards others. God is described as being both patient and kind. God holds back his wrath and pours forth his mercies. In Romans 2:4 Paul speaks of God’s “kindness, tolerance and patience,” and how God’s kindness leads us towards repentance. 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.

Are you keeping your list? Is patience a strength or a weakness for you? How about kindness? Jot them down, and let’s move on.

II. Love described negatively – what love is not (verses 4b-5)

Paul has just shown us two positive characteristics of love. The next section is the longest. Next Paul uses seven verbs to describe love negatively – what love does not do. “Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Corinthians 13:4b-5)

    A. Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

Let’s look at the first three of these descriptions: “Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.” First, “Love does not envy.” The word here is a strong word which literally means to burn with zeal, but when applied negatively it means to burn or boil with envy. We can envy many things – a person’s position in life, their possessions, or their appearance. We can even envy another person’s spiritual gifts or service for God! Love does not envy, because love is glad for what the other person has. There is no rivalry or competition in love.

You cannot love someone and envy them at the same time. Envy causes us to treat others in wrongful ways. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because they envied him. The gospel writers tell us that it was out of envy that the chief priests handed Jesus over to be crucified. Envy is a poison which eventually consumes the person who chooses to harbor it in his or her life. Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Love does not envy.

Next comes, “Love does not boast.” If envy is desiring what another person has, boasting comes from the desire for others to see what you have. Sometimes a person boasts truthfully about themselves. But more often they tend to stretch the truth. The Greek word can mean to exaggerate or display yourself, to brag about yourself, literally to be a windbag! It means to act and talk in such a manner that you draw attention to yourself.

Some people feel the need always to be on center stage. They want others to notice them, to admire them. They look for what they can get from others rather than what they can give to others. You cannot boast and love at the same time, because boasting is concerned with you, while love is concerned with others.

Closely related to boasting is the issue of pride. “Love is not proud.” Once again, in the Greek this is a verb rather than an adjective. The word actually means to inflate. You could translate it, “Love does not puff itself up.” Boasting is pride acting outwards in relation to other people. Pride acts inward in relation to yourself. It is the act of puffing yourself up in your own eyes until you feel so superior to others that you cannot possibly love them. This kind of pride breeds a critical and judging spirit that has no patience with others and no desire to act kindly. Love does not envy, love does not boast, love is not proud.

    B. Love is not rude, it is not self-seeking.

The next pair of verbs tells us that love is not rude or self-seeking. When Paul writes that “love is not rude,” he uses a verb which means to act disgracefully or dishonorably. It means to violate the accepted standards of behavior in such a way that you make others feel uncomfortable.

Paul is speaking here about common courtesy. This is love in relationship to society. We are social beings who live in community. As such we have certain social customs and expectations. Love cares enough about people that it seeks to respect those conventions. Immodest dress, offensive language, and disrespect for others – all of these are examples of a general rudeness which is incompatible with agape love. Therefore love does not dress, speak or act in a way that defies general standards and offends other people.

I realize that’s not popular talk in our highly individualistic culture. Most people take the attitude, “I’ll do whatever I want, and if you don’t like it, tough!” Love says, “I will do whatever ministers to others, and if I don’t like it, tough.”

Our family once spent three whole weeks during our family devotions time studying just this one portion of verse 5: “Love is not rude.” We used this as an opportunity to talk to our boys about courtesy and how this is part of what it means to love others. Using a book called “Uncommon Courtesy for Kids,” we discussed manners of speech (please, thank you, excuse me), apologies, consideration for others, table manners, answering the phone, church behavior, and even traveling in the car. Our culture calls it courtesy; Paul calls it love.

Love is not rude or “self-seeking.” This next word speaks about seeking your own advantage, putting yourself before others. Paul writes in Philippians 2:3-4 “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4 Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Notice that we should not neglect ourselves, but neither should we seek our own advantage to the detriment of others. You’ve heard the saying, “Some persons love people and use things; others love things and use people.” Love does not use people to gain its own advantage. It looks outward rather than inward. It takes the attitude of Jesus who came “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Love is not rude or self-seeking.

    C. Love is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Now we come to the final pair in this section. “Love is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” “Not easily angered” has to do with the short-term, while “keeping no record of wrongs” has more to do with the long-term.

To be easily angered means to be easily provoked or stirred up, to be irritated or touchy, to yield to provocation. Now understand this, we all have certain buttons which when pushed will trigger an unloving reaction. Push the right buttons on me on the wrong day, and I will probably end up owing you an apology. But some people are covered with buttons. They seem to take special pride in polishing and grooming their buttons, and then they wear them all over the front of their life where people can’t help but bump into them. They even set their buttons on a hair trigger so that the slightest touch will provoke a reaction. Paul says that is not love.

This goes along with patience. Proverbs 19:11 says, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.” A bad temper reveals an unloving spirit. We should bear with one another in love. It is to your glory to overlook an offence.

That’s the short-term, blowing up when someone presses your buttons. Others struggle more with the long-term side of this: “love keeps no record of wrongs.” Being easily angered is a quick reaction which results in hurtful words and harmful actions. Keeping a record of wrongs is the long-term decision to hold on to bitterness and resentment, to choose not to forgive. It is the difference between the quick flare and the slow burn. The word Paul uses here literally means “to count the evil, to credit it to someone’s account.”

Some people actually keep written records. I once had a man come into my office with a file folder containing a detailed log of all the wrongs committed against him by various pastors over the years. It was a large file. He had a history of moving from church to church. He would stay just long enough until the pastor offended him enough that he would leave. I pointed him to 1 Corinthians 13:5 and asked him how he could keep a written log like that when the Bible says to keep no record of wrongs. I guess he didn’t like what I had to say, because he didn’t stay at the church very long. And unless the Lord has changed his heart along the way, my name is probably sitting in a file folder in a cabinet somewhere along with dozens of other pastors’ names.

But you don’t have to keep written records in order to violate this verse. Have you ever blacklisted someone in your heart? Are you waiting to settle a score? Do you have a habit of bringing up the past? Then you are not practicing love. Love does not store up resentment and bears no malice. Love forgives all offenses and keeps no records.

This is the way God loves us when God forgives our sin in Christ. We read in Psalm 130:3-4 “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? 4 But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that “God . . . reconciled us to himself through Christ . . . not counting men’s sins against them . . . God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” God says in Jeremiah 31:34, “I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

“Love does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” How’s your list coming? You should have some strengths and some weaknesses listed by now. If you have only strengths listed, you’re either very loving, or you’re not being honest with yourself. If you have only weaknesses listed, you’re either very humble, or you’re not giving yourself enough credit. Try to keep a realistic balance between your areas of strength and weakness.

III. Love described with a contrasting statement. (verse 6)

Paul has described love in positive terms – what love is; and in negative terms – what love is not. Now he goes on to describe love with a contrasting statement in verse 6: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Corinthians 13:6)

    A. Love does not delight in evil.

When Paul says that love does not delight in evil, he means that love takes no pleasure in unrighteousness, in injustice, in any wickedness at all. Love never rejoices when people are mistreated, when evil wins out, when God is dishonored, or when God’s law is disobeyed. Rather than rejoicing, love cries out with the psalmist in Psalm 119:136 – “Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.”

Love does not delight when evil befalls another person. Love is never glad at another person’s misfortune, never gossips about another’s problems. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth.

    B. Love rejoices with the truth.

That’s the contrast. Love rejoices when truth wins out, not evil. As Christians we are to love the truth at all costs. We should speak the truth in love. Scripture leaves no room for a watered-down Christian love that accepts and believes anything without regard for Biblical truth. True love does not divorce itself from tough moral choices.

Let me give you a couple real life examples to show you what I mean. Both of these examples come from previous churches. A young couple comes into my office and wants to get married. One is a Christian, and the other is not. I try to share Christ with the non-believer, but he has no interest in Christianity. The Bible forbids mixed marriages between Christians and non-Christians, and so I tell them I cannot perform the ceremony. They tell me I am unloving. They ask how can I judge them like that? But it would be wrong for me to marry them. How can I lovingly unite them in marriage against God’s revealed will in his Word?

A young man expresses a desire to join church. He says there is an issue in his life, however, which might be a problem for us, and he feels he should be open about it rather than keep it hidden. He goes on to share with me that he is a practicing homosexual and sees nothing wrong with it. Is that a problem for church membership?

I tell him I respect him for being honest and up front about this issue in his life. We look at the Scriptures together to see what God says about homosexuality. In both the Old Testament and the New Testament we find repeated condemnation of homosexual practice and lifestyle. We see that God offers forgiveness and restoration to the sinner who repents.

He is not interested. I tell him he is welcome to continue attending church, and I encourage him to do so. I offer him my friendship, but explain that he is not ready to join church until he has dealt with this issue Biblically in his life. He tells me I am unloving. He says I am judgmental. But how can I lovingly approve a lifestyle which God in his Word condemns?

We must love the truth at all costs. We must love people, but not soft-peddle sin. Balancing truth and love is never easy. It often involves confrontation, and most of us don’t like that. But sometimes truly loving someone requires loving confrontation. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. Where does this characteristic of love fit on your list of strengths and weaknesses?

IV. Four things love always does (verse 7)

Paul has described love in positive terms – what love is. He has described love in negative terms – what love is not. He has described love with a contrasting statement. And now finally he tells us four things that love always does. Look at verse 7: “Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:7) Let’s look at each of these briefly.

    A. Love always protects.

First, love always protects. The word Paul uses here is related to the Greek word for “roof.” It means “to protect by covering over,” just as a roof provides a protective covering from the elements. Protection is a natural byproduct of love. A pastor protects the church he loves. The good shepherd protects the sheep. A parent naturally protects his or her children. Some children complain that their parents are over-protective. Paul calls it love.

    B. Love always trusts.

Secondly, love always trusts. The word here means to trust or believe in, to commit yourself to someone or something. Now love is not stupid or naïve. I don’t think I saw those words anywhere on Paul’s list. It does not believe an obvious lie or blindly put its trust in untrustworthy people. But love chooses to believe the best about people until proven otherwise. And love certainly trusts God who is always completely trustworthy.

    C. Love always hopes.
Thirdly, love always hopes. Love is unabashedly optimistic. Love does not dwell on the problems of the past, but looks forward to the future with confidence and grace.

    D. Love always perseveres.

And finally, love always perseveres. Love never stops loving. It continues in the face of rejection and opposition. It bears up under insult and injury. Love perseveres because it is unconditional. It chooses to love people in spite of themselves. Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. And Paul says that without this kind of love, we are nothing.

CONCLUSION: So, how did your list come out? I hope you kept a balance of strengths and weaknesses on your list. Take a moment now and circle the three areas on your strengths list where you feel you are the strongest. Next, circle the three areas on your weaknesses list where you feel you need the most growth.

What do you do with your list now? Praise God for your strengths, and ask him to help you with your weaknesses. It’s that easy. The qualities Paul has described here are really the fruit of the Holy Spirit in your life. It is only as you yield to God and his Spirit asking him to change you that he will make you into a more loving person.

Someone has suggested taking your own name and plugging it into verses 4-7 wherever you see the word love to see how you measure up. Try it! If you’re like me, you won’t get very far before you get discouraged and say, “Yeah, right! If only that were me!”

I think a better suggestion is to take Jesus’ name and plug it in wherever you see the word love. “Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind. He does not envy, he does not boast, he is not proud. He is not rude, he is not self-seeking, he is not easily angered, he keeps no record of wrongs. Jesus does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. He always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

Jesus is the only one who truly fulfills this beautiful picture of love. He is the prism that breaks love down into its constituent parts so that we can see it more clearly. He is the perfect rainbow of love. Rather than get discouraged over your own shortcomings, cast yourself upon Christ who is perfect love. Meditate on the beauty of his character. And let God do his work in your life, transforming you ever more into the likeness of Christ by the power of his Spirit. That is the secret to growing in love.

© Ray Fowler

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