Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. 1 Corinthians 13.4-8.
“Whatever else I might have,” says Paul at the start of this chapter, “if I don’t have love, I have nothing”; and then he proceeds to describe the kind of love he is talking about. It is, of course, agape love — the highest of loves, the love that the Father and the Son have for each other (John 15.10) and for me (1 John 4.9), and the love that I as a Christian am to have for other Christians (John 13.34-35).
First, this kind of love is “patient”; but “to be patient” does not really catch the meaning of the verb macrothumei. It has nothing to do with remaining calm and tranquil in an airport when my flight is delayed for five hours. It is nothing to do with keeping my longing for my next holiday abroad in check. For it is a word that is only ever used in relation to people, never to situations. It is from makros meaning “long” and thumos meaning “wrath”, and it describes the composure of someone who endures and holds out for a long, long time before giving way to any kind of anger or upset, particularly where wrong has been done to them and the anger is fully deserved. In the old hymn “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven”, God is described as “slow to chide and quick to bless”, and “slow to chide” captures the meaning of macrothumei perfectly. It is a quality seen most perfectly in Jesus who “was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53.7). “Charity suffereth long” is how the KJV translates these opening words of 1 Corinthians 13.4; and I have to ask myself how long I “suffer” those who anger me before I let my anger show. How is my agape today? My slowness to chide is one of the tests of my love.
Another test of my love is my “kindness”. “Love is kind,” says Paul; and the word he uses is chresteuetai. It is a verb rooted in chrestos meaning “useful”, and it describes someone who serves others graciously and without resentment or reluctance, someone who is obliging, always willing to help. It is, again, a quality I see so perfectly in Jesus as he gave himself in ministry to the sick and the oppressed and the rejected, as he took children in his arms and blessed them, as he washed his disciples feet, and as he went to the cross, bearing my sins and the sins of the world. Origen called this aspect of love “sweetness”. How is my agape today? How sweet is my service of others?
Those are the positives; next come the negatives! Love doesn’t envy, doesn’t boast and is not proud. The Message has: “Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head”. And love is not rude. Aschemonei is to behave in a tactless, unseemly, or unbecoming manner. It speaks of a lack of grace and charm and good manners.
Then there is … But no, I will save the rest for tomorrow. There is more than enough here already to challenge me and call me to repentance today. I think in particular of all the times when I am in just too much of a hurry to have time for someone who is wanting to talk to me … and I let my impatience show. The times when I’m dismissive and curt … when I am so full of myself that I have no interest in anyone else. When I look down on others. When I’m everything that Paul here tells me “love is not”.
How is my agape today? Not at all well, I’m afraid.
Lord have mercy.