Happy Valentine’s Day!
While many will rely on Hallmark’s card writers to find the perfect words to say “I love you” today, some Christians might reach back to the famous “love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13 read at many weddings. Yet, the man who wrote these words would probably find it quite strange that these words are used at weddings!
Paul wasn’t talking about romantic or marital love between two individuals when he wrote them. You may be jolted a bit to find out what he was actually talking about when he wrote some of the most beautiful lines in all human writ:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 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. 3 If I give all I possess to the poorand give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
1 CORINTHIANS 13:1-8
Rodney Reeves in his great book Spirituality According to Paul reminds us that Paul wrote these famous words in the middle of his teaching on how the church should love one another and exercise its spiritual gifts for the benefit of one another. According to Reeves:
As far as Paul was concerned, true love isn’t found in marriage or in family, in words or in miracles, in knowledge or even in self-sacrifice. (See 1 Cor 13:1-3.) True love is found in Christ. Therefore true love is to be found in his body, the church . . . . He saw all things — yes, even love and marriage — through the lens of the new creation (137).
In Christ, God had broken into the love-sick world of sin and broken relationships, and created a new society, even a new humanity, centered in the church. All people who find themselves rescued out of the world and literally plunged into this new society by baptism, are called “members of Christ’s Body.” This central metaphor for the church needs to be given its full force. “If you are in Christ”, that is, his Body, “you are a new creation.” As glorious as this membership is, it also comes with significant responsibilities in terms of how we live and love others.
Most profoundly, perhaps, Paul teaches that human marriages between a husband and wife have now been superseded in importance by a new marriage arrangement — the marriage between Christ and his Bride, the church. This doesn’t devalue our marriages, but rather ratchets up their importance as each marriage is meant to be a billboard advertisement reflecting the kind of love Christ has for the church and God has for the world.
When we love our spouse through difficulties and choose to keep our vows even when feelings fade and sin threatens to destroy our sacred covenant, we show the world God’s undying, persevering love. On the other hand, when we break our vows, hold grudges, refuse to forgive and walk out on the relationship, we bear false witness to Christ’s covenant love. Sadly, many can’t bring themselves to believe in God’s unconditional love because they have never experienced that kind of love in a human relationship.
Reeves also emphasizes that our motivation for loving our spouse is changed by our commitment to loving Christ and his Bride, the church:
Husbands were to see their wives as members of the body of Christ — when they loved their wives, it was the same as Christ loving the church (Eph 5:25). Wives were to submit to their husbands as members of the church submitting to Christ (Eph 5:21). They didn’t do this to make their marriages better (even though that is often the case — I have noticed that I’m a lousy husband when I’ve lost my first love). Rather, husbands and wives are to love each other because they are brothers and sisters in Christ. We love because he first loved us. Christ and his church define the marriage relationship. In fact, that’s why Paul found sex outside of marriage so reprehensible: it polluted the body of Christ” (137).
In our individualistic world, its hard to grasp this deep corporate reality of being part of a people who are pledged to One Bridegroom, Christ. But this is the very thing that could bring deep relational healing and hope to many people this Valentine’s Day who are either lonely because they’ve never found “the one”, or those who are picking up the pieces of a shattered heart because they did find “the one” but the marriage didn’t last, and now they’re thinking about giving up on true love altogether.
Four pleas to four groups on this Valentine’s Day:
- To unmarrieds. Great news! If you’re “in Christ” you are married! Your first love is to Christ and his Church. May you seek fulfilling relationships within the family of faith, and find your deepest longings met by Christ. Despite what the culture says, one can live a fully satisfied life without sex and marriage if we’ll trust Christ to fill that hole. If you need proof, remember Jesus and Paul were both single!
- To brokenhearted. If you’ve experienced the pain of a failed marriage and are tempted to give up on “true love”, look not to your next Match.com date but to the agape love that can found within Christ and his church. Some may need to put dating on hold for a season, and put that time and emotional investment in building up Christ’s Body and loving her more deeply. Cherish your first love, Christ, for a season by loving and serving his bride.
- To marrieds. Take to heart the high calling of marriage. Your marriage is a billboard for all skeptics to read who don’t believe in Christ and all cynics to mock who don’t think life-long monogamous relationships are possible or desirable anymore. Your marriage, I’m tempted to say as a protestant, is as sacred as a sacrament, and worth fighting for with everything you’ve got! Instead of chocolates and flowers today, perhaps the greatest gift you can give to your spouse is a card saying, “I believe in us, and I’m willing to do anything necessary to improve our marriage — even the counseling we’ve been putting off.”
- To the Church. Stop idolizing marriage and the family (and unintentionally treating singleness as somehow incomplete or second-class), and start teaching that the primary devotion for all, marrieds and singles, is to Christ and his bride. When we begin to focus on deepening our love and devotion to Christ, we’ll find our families and marriages also improving as a result. But merely focus on the family, and we may actually miss Christ in the process. We place Jesus on the sidelines as a cheerleader for our family goals rather than the foundation stone upon which to build a healthy family in the first place.
Let’s take to heart Paul’s pastoral plea for all Christians this Valentine’s Day:
“I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2-3).