If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing(1 Corinthians 13:3, ESV).
Most of us are pretty familiar with 1 Corinthians 13 at least from all the weddings we’ve attended, if not from time spent in the Word. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1–2).
That’s right. Even if we’re amazingly gifted, even if we’re incredibly knowledgeable, even if we could hardly seem more vertically aligned with God . . . if we don’t have love, what else matters?
But verse 3 takes an interesting turn. It goes completely in the opposite direction. All the “if” statements from the first two verses—about being an eloquent speaker, about being a spiritual giant—feel like a natural contrast with “love” already. But what about verse 3? “Give away all I have”? “Deliver up my body to be burned”? How can I possibly empty my wallet for people in need, or surrender all my desires to serve others, if I don’t love them? Isn’t this level of giving and serving the very definition of love?
Where’s the contrast that makes this verse make sense?
Here it is: We tend to equate love almost entirely with affection (with giving and serving). But according to Paul, love is equal parts affection and truth. It’s both of these things put together. All truth and no love may be brutality, but all love and no truth is hypocrisy. We need both. Not just a balance between the two, but treating each one of them as being crucial to the whole. Otherwise, we’re playing games with people, and nobody needs that kind of love.
Two of Paul’s later how-to statements are really helpful in applying this.
- Love “does not act unbecomingly” (verse 5, NASB). There’s a reason why one of the more uncharitable nicknames given to Christians is “Bible thumpers.” Being aggressive, belligerent, and obnoxious with the Scripture is never loving. Nothing good comes from telling people to open wide while we jam truth down their throat. Love is gracious. It isn’t rude. The warning against acting “unbecomingly” is a prescriptive against love becoming all truth and no affection. But watch for the countering phrase, coming next in verse 5 . . .
- Love “does not seek its own.” Truth will sometimes compel us to confront someone and say something they don’t want to hear. And typically, the way we want that conversation to go is for the other person not to blow up in our face and reject us. But for truth to be loving, we can’t walk away having softened it and watered it down and said only half of it. Love is not concerned with what happens to me, but with graciously speaking truth because of how much I love you.
Just as you can’t really be loving without having generous, sacrificial affection for another, you can’t really be loving if speaking truth has no place in the relationship. Love is fully both, not just a balance. Only then is it truly love.
This post originally appeared on Dr. James MacDonald’s daily devotional Our Journey and was republished with permission.
James MacDonald (D. Min. Phoenix Seminary) is the founding senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel, leads the church-planting ministry of Harvest Bible Fellowship, teaches the practical application of God’s Word on the Walk in the Word radio and television programs, and is a gifted author and speaker. You can find out more about James and his ministries at WalkintheWord.org.