Valentine’s Day is a day for romance and special effort to express our feelings about someone. That typically means gifts of indulgent chocolates or sparkly jewelry, bouquets of red roses, and special dinners by candlelight.
But romantic love is largely about feelings, and feelings come and go. Also, very few people can afford to daily woo and wow their beloved with the aforementioned stereotypical expressions of love.
So, what are some other ways to express love? How can you make sure you’re still loving another when the romantic feelings aren’t strong or even there? Is there a sustainable way to love others, be it loving your sweetheart or people in general?
“…human love has to learn.”
Many books attempt to answer those questions, and all the good ones have roots in the Bible. While love is discussed and illustrated throughout Scripture, one passage is so famous as the quintessential exposition on love that even folks who don’t read the Bible know about it.
The famous words of 1 Corinthians 13 are more than eloquent poetry. They’re some of the most straightforward instructions and insights about genuine love ever written. And since this passage is often the reference point for books about love, I’m confident these verses will answer our questions.
So, open your Bible or click this link to 1 Corinthians 13 (it will open a new window), and let’s get back to the basics of love. Get ready to learn how to love better all year long!
Love Must Be the Motivation (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
Before going any further, let’s consider the larger context of this Scripture passage. It may surprise you that this chapter, while often quoted at weddings, was not originally written for sweethearts!
When Paul penned these great words, he was in the middle of instructing an unruly church on how to conduct their worship services more honorably! Believers in Corinth had embraced the Holy Spirit and all His gifts (enablements) designed to help them do God’s work, but they were quite immature and self-centered about their Spirit-endowed abilities. Like children boasting their own toys are better than anyone else’s, the Corinthians misused the spiritual gifts for their own self-serving purposes and were segregating into divisive cliques.
That’s why these opening verses refer to several spiritual gifts. Paul’s telling them that having all these great abilities is pointless if love—genuine care/consideration for others—isn’t the motivation.
Does this context of a church worship setting limit our ability to apply this to how we love our sweethearts, children, neighbors, or anyone else outside a church setting? No.
Summarizing examples into a general statement that is true in other settings provides us with a transcendent principle we can work with. And we’ve already summarized Paul’s “If I” examples into a more general statement: great deeds are pointless if love for others isn’t the motivation for them. And doing great things is not limited to a church setting.
With that principle in mind, can you see how these verses instruct us on how to love others? Let me provide some blunt examples. You don’t take a girl out on an elaborate and/or expensive date only because you hope/expect to be sexually rewarded afterwards!
“The best love ever is one that’s focused on the beloved and what’s best for them, to the point of sacrificing the lover’s own desires, if necessary. True love is others-oriented.”
Likewise, you don’t volunteer at a homeless shelter just so you can earn a badge or a bullet point on your resume. Admittedly, the self-rewarding gimmicks are useful to get people out of their self-centered worlds and into service for others. But if you never transition to giving of yourself (time, energy, etc.) because you genuinely care about others, your volunteering ends shortly after it served your purposes.
In neither example was there any genuine love. It’s amazing how discerning observers/recipients are about whether a generous or great deed was done because of altruistic love or self-serving motives. Yes, perhaps some good is accomplished, but the lack of true love tarnishes that good and shortens its lifespan far quicker than it had potential for.
How, then, do you know if your love is genuine and more altruistic instead of lustful and self-serving manipulation that’s erroneously called “love” far too often? This next section will help answer that.
What Genuine Love Is and Is Not (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)
This section of our text is so simple and straightforward, it’s easy to fool ourselves into thinking we fully understand and appreciate what it says and means. Most of the words here are extremely simple; nothing complex that requires dictionaries, commentaries, or knowledge of the Greek language or first-century historical settings.
It’s been my experience, though, that simple and familiar often causes us to miss the depth of what is being said. The best way around this problem is to approach the familiar with a new perspective.
Sometimes, thinking of synonyms for the original words helps, since rewording the statement with parallel terms can re-sensitize our dulled brains to the meaning and value. Other times, especially with state-of-being statements like we have here, stating the opposite helps us realize more fully what the original is saying.
In this case, let’s use the “opposite” approach. It will not only help us clarify the standard for what genuine love is but also reveal some clues about how we can express love in a variety of sustainable ways. (Besides, the many Bible translations already do the synonym tactic.)
If love is patient, then that means it’s not short-tempered. It’s not in a hurry, pushing the relationship into new levels before the sweetheart is ready or rushing the kids to grow up too fast, expecting more of them than is reasonable.
“If we desire to improve our ability to love, we’ve got to slow down our anger response time.”
What’s the opposite of kindness? (I’ll admit, I had to look up the word “kind” in a dictionary to figure out what would be opposite. See, I told you; sometimes the most simple and familiar is downright challenging when we must define or rephrase it!)
Words that define “kind” include “sympathetic” and “pleasant,” while other words connect back to “patient,” hinting at self-restraint out of consideration for someone else. So, now, we can identify what’s the opposite of kindness: being inconsiderate and apathetic, which basically means not caring about another person’s feelings or situation, etc. Love, then, won’t be any of those things. True love behaves in very considerate ways.
Paul says that love doesn’t envy. “Envy” isn’t used as much as “jealousy” is in modern language, so many Bible translations use them interchangeably. While “jealousy” has other definitions (yep, I looked them up), they share a common definition involving negative responses over someone else’s more favorable (real or perceived) situation. And we all know what that negative response is: an intense desire for us to have whatever it is they have, and/or for that person to not have it because we don’t believe they deserve it.
So, for love to not be envious or jealous means it doesn’t begrudge good life events happening to someone else. Surely, love of any kind wouldn’t do that, right? Unfortunately, couples have been torn apart because one partner got jealous of the other over their higher pay, successes, and promotions at work. (If you can think of other examples for any of these points, please share!)
Quality love, then, genuinely rejoices over another’s blessings. No greed or covetousness lurking inside at all.
Paul also describes love as not boasting or even being prideful. Instead of being arrogant, then, love lets others be the center of attention. Love gives credit where it’s due, recognizing (in detail, even) how others make your success possible.
Beware of the subtle ways pride disguises itself. Self-deprecating comments are not always due to humility but pride, because they’re just another attempt to draw attention to self by seeking affirmations from others.
Pride could also be behind your dominating the conversation, even when you’re not talking about yourself. If you’re always monologing around others, you may be guilty of pride. Show some love to those around you by letting them talk and even change the topic. Learn to ask open-ended questions to inspire others to talk, and avoid the temptation to turn whatever they say back into a theme where it’s all about you.
It’s hard to imagine love ever being rude, but the daily life of relationships creates plenty of opportunities. The NIV says, “Love does not dishonor others” (1 Cor. 13:5), and after reading many other translations of this verse, it’s clear this verse is addressing good old-fashioned manners and other similar behaviors.
“If you really want to take your love’s quality to the next level, always do better than the ever-devolving society’s current expectations!”
One of the biggest challenges in long-lasting relationships is in becoming too comfortable due to being too familiar. During first dates, we exhibit exemplary behavior and conform to society-approved manners. Why? Because we want to make a good impression that encourages our date to want to be around us in the future. Unfortunately, as we continue to be around that person, we become more comfortable, relaxing our behavior.
While relaxing and feeling free to be more our natural self is a good thing, there’s a lot about our natural self that needs improvement! No, I’m not saying you must never expel any bodily gasses in the presence of others, for example. But don’t be so familiar with their presence that you do such behaviors and never acknowledge them with a “sorry” or “excuse me.”
Even if you’re married and consider your marriage to be a life-time commitment “for better or worse,” please realize that impressions are still being made! Every day your spouse is seeing people who are presenting their best selves. So, don’t make it hard for them to stay impressed by you because of your sloppy looks, your lack of simple courtesies like “please” and “thank you,” and/or your personal behaviors that should be reserved for the bathroom or when absolutely alone (assuming they should be done at all).
When we subject others to our crude “natural self” behaviors and speaking habits, we dishonor them by treating them as invisible or as unworthy of being spared the assault on their senses (seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.) and dignity. This also includes less-than-honoring nicknames (“my old lady,” “brat,” etc.), and unwittingly (?) making someone else your “slave” by leaving them with the tasks you neglected to do.
True love always considers how others may be affected by personal behaviors and desires to respect those it loves by not subjecting them to offensive, demeaning actions. And if you really want to take your love’s quality to the next level, always do better than the ever-devolving society’s current expectations!
If you had to narrow down love’s description to one phrase, saying love is not self-seeking would be a great summary! Have you noticed so far how un-self-centered love is? The best love ever is one that’s focused on the beloved and what’s best for them, to the point of sacrificing the lover’s own desires, if necessary. True love is others-oriented.
This is where a lot of sexual love problems can be fixed. If your approach to your sexual relationship is about gratifying your own desire more than your partner’s, your love-making will always fall short of its potential.
But don’t limit this description to just the bedroom. As I’ve mentioned before, if your supposedly loving actions/good deeds of compassion for others are motivated by your own agenda instead of what is truly needed by the recipients, you’re not really loving anybody except yourself.
That’s not to say you cave in to every little whim uttered by the beloved. True love isn’t reactive; it’s responsive. Even better, it’s pro-active. It takes the time to seriously consider what is truly needed, what’s best for the long-term good of the loved one. It initiates this thinking beforehand, so that it avoids any guilt-inducing pressure from a beloved’s request, which may not be well thought-out.
Develop “an others-oriented love that has breadth of expressions and a long-range view of what’s best for the beloved that guides our short-range responses.”
When Paul says love is not angered easily, the emphasis is on both the anger and the ease. In fact, there may be more emphasis on the latter!
And that makes sense, because despite popular belief, it’s not a sin to be angry. Anger is a natural (God-given) emotion that tells us something’s not right. It’s what we do with that emotion, and in this case, how quickly we let that emotion well-up that’s the problem.
I’ll risk being overly simplistic by defining anger as a warning that something we hold dear (a standard, a belief, etc.) is being threatened/challenged. When that happens, our first impulse is to fight back.
If we desire to improve our ability to love, we’ve got to slow down our anger response time. Which means we’ve got to relax our hold on “standards and beliefs” that are really nothing more than our limited opinions. Learn the truth that not everybody thinks like you do. Not everybody likes the same things. And nobody grows up in the exact same setting—not even siblings raised in the same home, because our unique personalities and experiences will make the same setting different.
So, relax your expectations of others. Whittle down your anger-worthy standards and beliefs to only those absolute truths God has declared. Be willing to entertain another person’s opinions, carefully considering their perspective and comparing it objectively to a quality standard, instead of rejecting it immediately.
And when absolute truths and God’s standards are being attacked, we must learn how to respond with love. Get past that human-nature impulse to lash out in anger, and revisit all these descriptions of love to see how they should be applied to the situation. That will at least be a good starting point. (Feel free to contact me for more help.)
Love’s description of keeping no scorecard of wrongs goes hand-in-hand with not being angry. This basically means love forgives. It lets go of an imperfect past created by someone else’s actions, no longer demanding that past be made right. The best kind of love you can give to another is to overlook faults, especially little annoyances.
“Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past.”–Anonymous
We don’t enable bad behavior, but we’re not nitpicking and making a big deal out of what amounts to natural human limitations and shortcomings. You wouldn’t want the stress of anyone requiring absolute perfection of you, so don’t inflict that pressure on those you love.
In verse 6, Paul provides not only the negative description of love but also the positive. Still, we can unpack it some more.
“Iniquity” is a word used far more often in Christian circles than in the rest of society, but God’s Word says love gets no delight in it, so if you want to improve your love, you need to know what it means. Thankfully, it doesn’t require advanced theology degrees to figure out the meaning, at least in part, for Paul contrasted “iniquity” with “truth,” which love is thrilled with. Whatever “iniquity” might be, it’s not truth, and it’s something that love wants no part of.
The opposite of a truth is a lie, and that’s enough for us to work with here. But it’s also easy to conclude that “iniquity” has to do with sin, or wrongdoing. So, let’s work with these basic understandings.
A lot of people say, “A little white lie never hurt anybody.” But relationships are built upon trust, and trust is destroyed with every lie, fib, or any other kind of deception. Once that foundation of trust is compromised, the relationship structure will eventually collapse, unless the falsehoods are addressed and corrected.
Others think withholding the truth is a loving thing to do to spare the beloved from being hurt. At best, these folks are simply uneducated in how to lovingly speak the truth (Eph. 4:15). At worst, they’re selfishly avoiding challenging someone with helpful truth just because they don’t want to be personally inconvenienced or risk losing the friendship. Such preservation isn’t sparing the friend’s feelings; it’s sparing your own!
Increase your ability to love others by learning how to best share uncompromised truth without inflicting unnecessary hurt. Love handles truth like a surgeon’s knife that cuts away deadly cancer; life-saving surgery always hurts, but that pain is short-lived compared to the chronic pain and problems of an unaddressed situation. And show that you genuinely love and care for that person, wanting what’s best for them, by being willing to risk whatever benefit you get from the relationship.
Love also gets no pleasure in wrongdoing; it doesn’t find it entertaining. This includes gloating over someone else’s misfortune, as several Bible translators understand Paul’s description here.
It also means not telling jokes at anyone’s expense. Can you really say you love someone when you’re laughing at characteristics they can’t change or at embarrassing mistakes any person could make? If you just have to tell a joke, either make the characters extremely generic or make it about you.
Paul closes this section with four short descriptions of what love always does: protects, trusts, hopes, and perseveres. That means love never leaves the beloved vulnerable but stays mindful of what could harm them and defends them.
Always trusting means not being suspicious of those you love. Letting go of control is a key aspect of trust.
Hope is a natural twin to trust. Love doesn’t assume the worst but stays positive.
Love isn’t pessimistic, especially about the future, but when circumstances do start turning negative, love doesn’t give up easily. Bailing out of a relationship at the first sign of trouble is a sure sign of self-centeredness. Love works to resolve problems so the relationship can continue.
Love at its best is tenacious, committed to those being loved, regardless of how good or bad the setting or of how easy or hard it is. That’s why Paul says love never fails or ends (v.8), which brings us to the last section of this great Bible chapter.
Love’s Outlasting and Outstanding Nature (1 Corinthians 13:8-13)
Love has an eternal nature. Other things—even some great spiritual things, as Paul explains here—come and go. They serve a purpose, and when that purpose is completely met, they will come to an end. But love lives on.
Remember the context for this chapter? Paul was correcting a church that was hyper-focusing on spiritual gifts, with members claiming superiority over others based on which gift(s) a member was used in. Tools meant to help everyone were being treated as trophies to brag about. Instead of people being helped, they were being hurt. They needed to grow out of that childish thinking and behavior.
Like the ancient Corinthians, we too can confuse an outward expression of love with love itself. We may think the way we like to be loved is the only way to love. Or we believe that certain gifts or activities always indicate love and should, therefore, never change. We need to move beyond this limited understanding and subsequent actions.
Gifts and activities cease at some point. Literal things break or get lost or stolen. Activities are naturally time-limited. Does your love cease to exist just because the chocolates are now gone or the flowers wilted? Of course not.
One of the factors that makes love outlast and standout over everything else is that love adapts. And love adapts because love is always considering the beloved, whose needs and wants change.
While God’s love knows us perfectly from the start, human love has to learn. We mature out of the childish self-centered and myopic view of love and into an others-oriented love that has breadth of expressions and a long-range view of what’s best for the beloved that guides our short-range responses. Love is simply caring about others and doing actions that contribute to their wellbeing.
This is how God has loved us, and this is how we best love others—be it sweethearts or strangers. Start incorporating these characteristics into your love and see your ability to love improve!
Thanks for reading!
 I used The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2004), a paperback based on Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Ed.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. http://www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™