One day several weeks ago, I was having a frustrating day at work. When I had a break, I opened my Bible to my favorite passage, my go-to chapter when I need to calm down or get perspective: 1 Corinthians 13, the Love Chapter – the one a lot of people like to quote at weddings. It wasn’t working to calm me down that day though, so I tried to focus harder and re-read the passage. All of a sudden I had a terrible realization, one that has never occurred to me over dozens of readings: I was a failure at love. I’m not talking about romantic love, but that all-encompassing definition that is laid out in 1 Corinthians. I suppose I had always assumed that knowing the definition (and it’s a long one) meant that I knew how to love. According to the Bible, I hadn’t even begun.
Paul the apostle starts his diatribe of love by saying this: it doesn’t matter how much I know or what I can do, whether I am a prophet or even if I know everything there is to know. “I may give away everything I have, and I may even give my body as an offering to be burned. But I gain nothing if I do not have love.” What a statement. Paul says, if you go to the bank and withdraw every last penny, put your house on the market and sell your car and take all the money from that, take everything out of your wardrobe and include the clothes you’re wearing, and take every last can of food out of your cupboards, and give the entire thing away, it doesn’t matter that you did that if you don’t have love.
I can really relate to this. I know that just doing things for people doesn’t mean you care about them; sometimes it’s easy to give material things instead of giving yourself. But knowing that and living it are two different things. I used to never be involved in charities and once I started, it became addictive. How could I view that as a bad thing?
Last summer I helped the Washington, PA Habitat for Humanity. Last Christmas I organized a food and toy drive for Operation Gratitude in Greensburg, PA. Earlier this month I put together a blanket collection for the homeless living on the streets of Pittsburgh in the dead of winter. But every time I get in the car, there is a genuine possibility that I may yell at somebody in anger on the road, since that is an area of struggle for me. Or if I am tired, I may be short-tempered with my family and friends. Or if my mood is off, I may snap at a stranger at the grocery store. All day, every day, without thinking about it, I act without love. So what do my blankets and canned goods matter?
Of all the times God has hit me across the face with something I need to change, this may have been the toughest. I have always thought of myself as a nice, friendly person. But according to Paul, I was turned around. I had to do something, and quick.
I figured it was too big of a job to tackle all the attributes of love that Paul lists at once. There’s too much to remember if you’re really committed to doing it right. So I wrote out each of Paul’s 14 characteristics of love on a separate piece of paper and focused on one per day. Let me tell you, it isn’t easy. But if you’re only focusing on one thing all day – that is, as far as personal character goals are concerned – you become very aware of how you’re doing in that area. And God will start testing you right away. The good news is, if you’re committed and paying attention, you start to notice a change almost instantly!
So here is my challenge to you. Tackle every single attribute of love, listed below. Different Bible translations words these slightly differently but with the same meaning, so I am giving you the wording that I hope makes each point most clear.
Do them one at a time and be fully committed. See how you do, and ask God to help you – trust me, you’ll need Him to save you from your own attitude! And don’t quit if you mess up, just keep going. You will mess up. You’re only human.
Finally, always remember what Paul says at the end of the list: love never fails. “So these three things continue forever: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.” Love has to be the greatest, because by definition, it already includes faith and hope (see below).
Paul’s Characteristics of Love:
- Does not envy
- Does not boast
- Is not proud
- Does not dishonor others
- Does not want its own way
- Not easily angered
- Keeps no record of past wrongs
- Is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth
- Accepts everything
- Always trusts
- Always hopes
- Always perseveres