Love Unrestrained - A Biblical Review of the Doctrine of Love
What does the Bible reveal about the doctrine of "love"?
The Christian doctrine of "love", as portrayed in the Bible, is much deeper and more overwhelming than those four letters make it seem. By constraining the doctrine of "love" to our modern worldview, we've limited the effectiveness of the greatest doctrine of all. With a refreshing look at some biblical passages, the chains binding our understanding of "love" can be broken, giving us a greater appreciation for the love that was shown for us at Calvary!
Love re-defined, or de-refined?
What is love? (Obligatory: "Baby don't hurt me...")
Everyone has a different opinion on what love is. For some, the concept of love may be tainted by the failure of someone who should have loved, but didn't. For the hopeless romantics in the audience, a feeling of fluttering inside from their first kiss resurfaces. For those of us who constantly have music playing in their brain, a '90s pop song comes to mind.
Love means a lot of things to a lot of different people. And therein lies the problem. We live in a time where customization is king - specialty coffee houses will serve their signature drink with low-fat milk, "half-caf", and no foam. That mean's it's not their specialty drink - it's a modified version. In the same way, we Christians have unnecessarily customized the doctrine of "love".
In the same way, we Christians have unnecessarily customized the doctrine of "love".
As an example, those of us who are married - think back to your wedding day... What passage was preached over? When the minister opened the Word of God to commence your marriage ceremony, to which chapter and verse did he turn?
I wager: he spoke from 1 Corinthians 13. He may have spent a brief stint in Ephesians 5, perhaps touching a bit in Genesis 2, but undoubtedly 1 Corinthians 13 showed up at some point in the ceremony. Colloquially referred to as "The Love Passage", it is immediately recognizable to most Christians, but seldom preached over, except near Valentine's Day. Before we get too deep into discussing 1 Corinthians 13, let's review it...
1 Corinthians 13
If I speak in tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, 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. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see in only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Only part of the story...
You may ask me: "BT, why did you include the second half of 1 Corinthians 13? The love passage stops at 'Love never fails' in verse 8."
To the casual reader, it seems like Paul has really gone "off his rocker" after verse 8. He starts to ramble about mirrors and children and prophecies. Prison really gets to your head after a while...
Except that's not true at all! The second half of 1 Corinthians 13 is where the true story about love shows up! But before we get to the exciting part, we need to go back and figure out where we went wrong with the first half...
Refining = Changing
When oil is extracted from the ground, it is in a very raw, unusable state. The oil must be processed or "refined". When oil is refined, it is broken into constituent components, some which go into manufacturing of plastics, some of which go into powering the vehicles we operate, among dozens of other uses. During this refining process, the nature of the oil is changed. The oil, in its original state, no longer exists.
Let's take a look at one of the byproducts - gasoline. When you're refueling your vehicle, would you describe to someone that you're putting oil in your car? Of course not - putting oil in your car is a very different thing than putting gasoline in your car. If you put raw oil in the gas tank, your car would quickly become a very large paperweight. Gasoline is made from oil, but gasoline is not oil. When we refine something, we change it.
The same happens with our interpretation of the Bible. When we read the Bible and pass the words through our "lenses" of understanding, it can be easy to allow the filters of our own life experiences affect the meaning of the words. Just as polarized sunglasses block out some of the light from the sun, if our lenses are polarized, we can miss the meaning of the text, and understand it in our own way.
When we refine the words of the Bible, we change them. That doesn't make them useless - gasoline (refined oil) is still useful - a refined understanding of 1 Corinthians 13 isn't useless, but it doesn't give us the purest understanding. But to get a full understanding of it, we have to de-refine our understanding of the Bible.
When we refine something, we change it.
What does it say?
So we've talked about the possibility that misunderstandings can occur, but what does the Bible actually say? I want to bring attention to one word in particular which is repeated multiple times: love.
In the original Greek writing of 1 Corinthians 13, the word "love" is written agape. There are three words for "love" in Greek, and agape is typically used to represent the purest form of love, the love that God showed for Man, and the love that Man cultivates toward God through the process of sanctification.
Now, many readers here may contend: "BT, I love my spouse with the purest form of love, so why isn't this passage applicable to our relationship?" I'm not saying that this passage isn't a good model of what to do in your marriage - by all means, do it!
What I am saying is this: interpreting "love" to apply to a marriage is not the way the passage was written. It's a refined reading of the passage, it's gasoline. Gasoline is useful, but gasoline is not raw oil. Raw oil is unrefined. In order to get raw oil from our reading of 1 Corinthians 13, we have to de-refine it. We have to read it the way that it's meant to be read.
What else does the Bible say?
"BT! How dare you level such an accusation against the Word of God?! What other sources do you have to show for yourself?"
In Ephesians 5, Paul again uses the verb "love" to command husbands to love their wives. BUT <-- don't miss this "but" --> this time it's conjugated differently. The Greek is actually written "agapato". There's a target for the "love", there's a recipient of the agape. The Bible does not say "Husbands love." It says "Husbands love your wives."
In the body of 1 Corinthians 13 and in the passages preceding it, there is no target. There is no recipient. It is merely the doctrine of pure, raw love - the love shown when Jesus commanded the adulteress to leave behind her life of sin when her accusers had fled - the love poured out in water and blood when his side was pierced at Calvary - the colossal outpouring of forgiveness, grace, and mercy that rushed from Heaven's gate the moment that the veil was torn. It is agape.
The rest of the story...
The second half of 1 Corinthians 13 is very clearly different than the first half. It is evident that something has changed when Paul reaches verse 8. Often, we interpret the change as a change in subject. BUT <-- another important "but" --> that's not how Paul writes. If you read through Paul's letters from front to back, laying aside all preconceived notions about what they should say, it is possible to pick up on a writing style that is not imminently evident from what is typically taught in churches today.
Paul often uses analogies or discussions on related topics to reinforce a concept or clarify a particularly confusing passage. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul is doing something similar.
If we read agape to mean the purest form of love between God and man, then the beginning of 1 Corinthians 13, verse 8 reads: "The purest form of love between God and man never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away."
Paul is still talking about love - now, he's talking about its permanence. Paul is trying to portray that - those things we think are important and last through time - when they're gone, love will still remain. Agape is infinitely permanent.
The end of the story...
Paul closes 1 Corinthians 13 with perhaps the best part of the entire passage. Paul has dedicated an entire chapter to discussing love, and he's about to shatter our preconceived notions about it. In verses 9 through 12, Paul transitions to a discussion on our inability to comprehend what true love really is. He writes: "For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully know."
Our understanding of love, our understanding of agape, is (right now) only as clear as someone looking through a mirror (in Biblical times, mirrors were not as clear as they are today). Imagine the difference between a Polaroid picture of a vacation spot and actually being there. The Polaroid picture can't even begin to portray the true majesty of being there in that moment.
The same goes for our understanding of love, of agape. When completeness comes (at Christ's return), our understanding of agape will go from 2-dimensional picture to a 3-dimensional full-view. But even limiting it to 3 dimensions is inappropriate - when we are exposed to God's pure love for us in heaven, our understanding of agape will be infinitely greater.
At the end of the story, I think Paul puts it best: "The greatest of these is love." When everything else falls out from under us, agape remains. When everyone has deserted us, agape is there to bring us to our feet. Agape is the unending rush of a river that is as wide as the east is from the west, deeper than the depths of the oceans, and with every passing moment, the outpouring of agape is roaring out of the gates of heaven, to be rained down upon us.