I love the author E. B. White. I grew up reading (and crying my way through) Charlotte’s Web. It remains one of my favorite stories of all time. Right now, I have a collection of White’s essays on my nightstand. That man can write. Boy, can he write. I read one essay he wrote about the hens on his farm. I don’t really care that much about hens, but the way White wrote about them made the experience of reading about them pure joy. I could have read about his hens all day.
White’s collection of essays is just that—a gathering of pieces that stand on their own, having no real connection to the other essays in the book. Charlotte’s Web, on the other hand, is a story. Each chapter connects to the others. They work together to convey a cohesive body of information.
First Corinthians is not a collection of essays, where each chapter is its own thing, independent of what comes before or what follows. It is a letter, and like Charlotte’s Web, is meant to be read as a cohesive work.
In my experience, we seldom read 1 Corinthians 13 in this way. More often than not, we lift it up out of its context and treat it like a stand-alone love poem suitable for weddings and cross-stitch. And it certainly works on that level. But when we consider this famous chapter of Scripture in its actual context, it reads less like a love song and more like a rebuke.
Let’s walk back a bit in the text. In chapters 10–12, Paul rebukes the Corinthian believers for not caring enough about each other’s consciences, for indifference to sexual immorality, for dressing in ways that would have been provocative in their culture, for gorging themselves at the Lord’s Supper while their poorer neighbors sit beside them hungry, for being confused about the value of various gifts and abilities. In other words, the Corinthian believers are struggling to live selflessly. They’re struggling to put each other’s needs and consciences above their own. They’re struggling to love one another.
Then comes 1 Corinthians 13. If I have the most amazing gifts and popularity, but no love, I’m just making noise. If I’m the smartest, most devout person in the room, but don’t have love, I’m nothing.
And what is love?
“Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, it is not boastful, it is not arrogant” (v. 4). Love is the opposite of what they’re being to one another.
I like reading this chapter in the context of what came before it, rather than as a stand-alone piece. Reading this chapter as a word of correction, rather than as a flowery love poem, gives it teeth. It raises the stakes. As you read, think of someone you struggle to love, maybe someone you look down on in some way, for some reason, and ask the Lord to search your heart through His Word and help you see where you fail to love.
After all, when we come to the end of this life, with all our struggles, pride, and resentments, those things will all fall away. Only love will remain. So why not receive these words from Paul as a correction, and practice the art of loving well now?
Written by Russ Ramsey