Most things on planet earth eventually change. We might even say that change is one of the certainties of the physical world: With time, inanimate objects like craggy mountains erode and cliffs crumble, rivers become cavernous gorges, oceans warm and icebergs melt. For Canadians, even the penny and the paper dollar have gone the way of the dodo bird. Which brings us to the animate world: viruses mutate, species alter their life cycle patterns or become extinct, pop cultures morph, and social norms evolve. Try as we might, we cannot avoid change.
So when we hear the closing line of I Corinthians 13 in its description of love we are brought to an abrupt and surprising halt. “Love,” says the inspired author, “always perseveres.” Never changes? Never dims, dwindles or declines? Is unfailingly, incessantly, and unceasingly constant? Who of us could ever achieve this magnitude of love?
You and I can with the stipulation of one little caveat: To learn to love with infinite perseverance and constancy we must enlist ourselves in Christ’s School of Love. We won’t find this academy listed in any register of ivy-league schools. We cannot complete it in four years like an undergraduate degree—it extends into eternity. We cannot access it by through a Masters of Divinity programme (could we ever master divinity?). We won’t even be able to find it referenced in the Bible under this name. But if we look closely that’s where we’ll find hints of it.
The curriculum works something like some contemporary education structures which utilize an upward spiral approach to learning: topics are covered in increasing gradations, revisited and reexamined over and over again in more depth, building a broader, higher, more thorough learning than the once-over approach could ever accomplish. It will take a determined student a lifetime and more to master its lessons.
Lesson 1: We are all plagued by our natural bent to fickleness and inconstancy. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, “ bemoans the prophet Isaiah, “each of us has turned to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). The discerning student of love sooner or later comes to recognize that a primeval selfishness within us obstructs our best intentions to love long and well.
Lesson 2: God loves with infinite perseverance. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us,” breathes the Apostle John in wonder (I John 3:1). Jesus confirms the sentiment saying of those who accept His love, “…no one can snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28).
Lesson 3: When God’s Spirit indwells a person, persevering love begins to develop. “May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope,” invokes the Apostle Paul, “encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word…May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance” (II Thessalonians 2:16,17; 3:5).
Lesson 4: The path to persevering love is generally through suffering. “…(W)e know that suffering,” explains Paul, “produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5:3-5). John adds, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (I John 3:16-28).
Lesson 5: The end result of persevering love is Life. “Blessed is the man who perseveres…” instructs the Apostle James, “because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
Are we students of love? Do we put ourselves under Jesus as His fledgling novices and apprentices? If so, Jesus is delighted to teach us everything He is as an infinitely persevering love-giver. Without doubt, we will fail repeatedly (read ‘daily’, even ‘hourly’) to love as Jesus envisions us loving, and we must return repeatedly to lesson one. But then we will also revisit the heartwarming lesson two, God’s great love for us. This gives us courage to step back into lessons three and four with our eyes set on the glories of lesson five. That is how the process works. It’s about grace and mercy, humility and determination. It’s about the love of God.