What Love is Not.
A plethora of ethical and moral causes pulls at our hearts and consciences. Social media is full of it. Attempts to rescue endangered species, stop pipeline expansions, damn intolerances, tax polluters, and challenge our passive disinterest inundate the news. How do we determine which petitions and persuasions should take hold of us and move us to act? Some sound far-fetched but many sound so good. There is something within us that wants to be part of goodness winning over vice, of justice prevailing, of culture being reinvigorated or reinvented. We may even feel deep inside that our justification for living will never be truly realized until we have impacted our culture in a noteworthy way.
It is here that the Apostle Paul speaks across two millennia to address this contemporary issue: How do we love the culture around us—amid its myriad of issues—in a way that pleases God?
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels,” begins Paul in his well-known chapter on love, “but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 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 have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”
Why does this very famous ‘Love Chapter’ start with what love is not? Maybe because it is written specifically to Christians(!). Perhaps it is because one very subtle inclination is to make a spectacle of our love—an external statement for everyone around us to see. A motive of wanting to control others or be acclaimed by them replaces the motive of love. But the Apostle Paul is saying that these displays of ‘love’ are not really love. In fact, they are nothing more than a grating, irritating cacophony in God’s ears. God sees our hearts and He sees what’s going on deep inside. He recognizes that our sharp and loud voices, some of our bold projects, and many of our religious programmes have more to do with the opposite of love.
What is the opposite of love? Read it between the lines of the first three verses of I Corinthians 13. The opposite of love is fear—fear that moves us to try to control people and manipulate situations, our own selves, and sometimes even God. We can try to control others by speaking eloquently, by spouting all the most recent scientific, psychological, or social information on a subject. We can try to control others by launching campaigns, or by parading in front of others how compassionate we are. We can try to control ourselves by hiding the fear we have deep inside that we might not be of any worth. We can even try to control God with our good works, by thinking we can put Him in debt to us—to cause Him to do for us what we demand of Him. But it is all about fear.
One option is to demolish what many feel is the source of fear. Slogans like ‘No Fear’ champion the supremacy of human ability and achievement. The problem with this method of dealing with our innate fear is that in order to claim human supremacy, we must, by necessity, reject the supremacy of God. There is something connecting our fears with our ideas of a God who demands certain things. The basis for our morality then shifts from “God says…” to “I say…” in order to dismantle fear this way. But is this way of thinking consistent and livable?
The other option is to accept God for who He is and watch that create a change within us from the inside out. “God is love,” explains the Apostle John. “Whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God in him… There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (I John 4:16-18).
When we accept the truth that our innate fear is based on our intuitive knowledge of having sinned against God, we begin to step out of the shadow of fear; and when we remember Jesus’ debt-paying death on our behalf, we move from fear into the light of God’s expansive love. This is the necessary preamble to loving others. We must first accept God’s love for us God’s way: Jesus’ personal goodness projected onto us is the sole basis for God’s loving acceptance of us. Returning to this truth again and again is what drives fear away from its hold on our hearts. It is what restrains us from our gong-sounding, cymbal-clanging tendencies to be in control.
So when the tendency to be ruled by fear returns, when we are tempted to silence it by taking control of the situation and of others, let’s choose to rest in God instead. Kay Bruner, counselor and author, savors: “Fear says, ‘Don’t do it! You’ll be powerless!’ Love says, ‘You’re Beloved.’