(the context of this post is not so much me having enlightened views on morality, but more me walking to school at 7 am in the morning feeling quite beaten up and a bit weary after starting a familiar slog – though the conclusion of this post is one that brought me cheer and lifted my spirits 🙂 )
“Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, keeps no record of wrongs; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
– 1 Cor 13:4-7
The above verses are terribly familiar to many of us, and are often read out at weddings as a wonderful encouragement or ‘blueprint’ of sorts for what True Love should look like. And that can sound good or look really good (in watercolor or through the wonders of calligraphy), but if we approach these verses as an inventory of what love must contain, of how our love should be, then we might have gotten it wrong.
A key failing of broad-based moral education is that we often attempt to instil selfless virtue through methods that are firmly rooted in self-centredness. We might tell children (or ourselves, or others):
“don’t lie, because you’ll get caught” – that’s Fear.
“don’t lie, because liars are bad, are untrustworthy, are scum.. you’re better than that!” – that’s Pride.
And all these messages are repeated over and over till they crumble the virtue into utility: we only obey for as long as it serves our interests.
So you see politicians, or pastors or priests, who appear deeply moral and radically giving, suddenly fall into scandal and shame. A morality driven by self-interest falls apart when it is no longer ‘useful’ to be honest or loving, or when we think that no one is watching.
And there are tell-tale signs to this ‘short-run’ morality that is only held together by Fear and Pride – we can often get impatient, or frustrated when we feel like we aren’t being ‘rewarded’ (by God, or by others), we can work ourselves to the bone and be drenched in weariness trying to earn our goodness instead of stopping when we should, and we can lapse into self-pity, and then into self-righteous action.
“I’m tired of being loving. I deserve a break. Just let me be selfish this once.“
But 1 Corinthians 13 presents a different path to becoming moral, or loving.
Firstly, love is personified so that we can grasp just how personal and relational it is. Love suffers long. Love does not parade itself. Love is not simply something that we ‘learn from scratch’ by trying and trying – it is something that we receive and experience in a deeply personal way. And we know this sort of because we’ve seen it take place in infants. A baby or a child grows up learning to love by being loved. We are instinctively saddened when we hear of families where children are abandoned or neglected, because even if we haven’t experienced it fully ourselves, we know that a child grows and matures best when s/he is being embraced, and surrounded by, and flooded with love.
And if we take a step further towards what Paul is saying, we find what we’ve always known: that love is also a person.
“Love suffers long” – My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?
“Love keeps no record of wrongs” – Father, forgive them.
“Love does not seek its own, but endures all things, bears all things, hopes all things”. And as he hung on the cross, tortured and humiliated, and naked, and powerless, just before he died, Jesus said: “I Did It. It is finished, it is completed, it is accomplished.”
The picture that these familiar verses truly paint is not that of a manual or a rule book to keep, but an invitation. This is who Love is. Come, come and meet Jesus.
And if we persist in living up to love as this perfect moral abstraction, it will either puff us up with Pride till we burst, or it will fill us with endless dread – when will I be found out?
But if we can just meet this Jesus – who says to us, Come, all you who are weary – then it defeats the old morality that we’ve built on pride (all I have is Christ!) and fear (there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!). Every day that I walk with Jesus, a little less fear, a little less pride.
Shall we pray for this, if we are struggling today to be moral, or to be loving? That we can come and meet with Jesus, and receive His love that is kind, that bears all things, and that brings us hope :—)