One of the most well-known sections about love in the Bible is the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. It is so famous, even called the chapter of love. In the traditions of Christianity, therefore, people read this portion during the church wedding.
And of course, it is not only for the marriage couples but for everyone who is supposed to go through the life path. It is one of the best reminders for our understanding and misunderstanding about love.
Love of Agape
If we read the King James Bible, unlike the other modern translations, we notice that this version does not use the word love, but charity. It might be a bit confusing since the meaning of charity has a different implication in the present days. The contemporary dictionary defines it as follows:
Charity: An organization set up to provide help and raise money for those in need, the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.Oxford’s English dictionaries
Only when we check the archaic usage, we can find the definition as a sort of universal sense of love.
In the King James Bible, published in 1611, why did the translators use charity, instead of love, specifically in this section? It is the translation of the Greek word, agape, the type of love attributed to God, whereas they also used love as the translation for agape in other parts of the King James Bible. Specifically, in this thirteenth chapter, however, the translators deliberately used charity. Why is that so?
I guess it is because the translators thought this thirteenth chapter of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians is critical for the definition of love; therefore, they wanted to emphasize the differences among several types of love. What it means in this chapter is agape, but none of the following types of love:
- Storge: empathy bond
- Philia: friend bond
- Eros: romantic love
While the translators used the word charity to reinforce the meaning of agape, there could still be misunderstandings on the definition of agape itself. What do you mean by saying God’s love? As God’s love, it is not easy for us to comprehend it entirely unless and until the exceptional, religious, existential experience takes place in us, such as repentance and atonement, etc. Thus, Paul enumerated them per category.
What is Not Love
The chapter starts as follows:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.1 Corinthians 13:1-2
We often seek the signs, miracles, knowledge, and wisdom, believing that the more we have these things, the more we get closer to God; therefore, the more we can love as God loves us. We tend to behave this way when we understand the miraculous acts of Jesus superficially. Once we possess the same power as Jesus, we mistakenly believe that we can be like Him and our love could be like His love.
Paul says, however, it is wrong. Even if our faith can remove mountains, just like Jesus ceased the storm because of His faith, Paul tells us that such a faithful person is nothing. If we see Jesus this way, wanting to be like Him this way, we will miss the point. The result would be many false contentious prophets mushrooming everywhere. They are only proud of their miracles and the like, and yet full of themselves. They can never be aware of the love of agape – how God loves us and why Jesus Christ loves us.
Perhaps, they would defend themselves, answering to Paul that they are not proud of themselves. They are even willing to sacrifice themselves for the poor to the extent that they can die for them, just like Jesus did on the Crucifixion. Still, Paul tells us they are wrong.
And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.1 Corinthians 13:3
Even though they are willing to sacrifice themselves, giving their bodies to be burned, as long as their focus is on themselves, which is far from agape. The more they seek agape this way, the farther they get away from agape. It is not what we should seek and possess selfishly for our own sake. Self-sacrifice is often the manifestation of our self-indulgence, self-absorption, or self-pity. We are still full of ourselves. And, we can never get out of it.
What is Love
After pointing out the possible misunderstandings, Paul tells us what agape would be genuinely like.
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.1 Corinthians 13:4-7
These attributes are more like the constellation of selflessness and self-forgetfulness. It is the complete opposite of the full of themselves or ourselves. It is a sort of paradox: Agape is out there only when we stop seeking it for our own sake, even including our very effort of stop seeking agape to seek agape. For, it is God’s love, not ours at all.
God is out there only when we stop seeking Him for our own sake, even including our very effort to stop seeking Him to seek Him. For, God is everything, and we are nothing. And it is even far from our superficial understanding that God is everything, and we are nothing. It should be our religious, existential experience saved from the complete devastation and repentance that we are nothing and God alone is.
It is what Meister Eckart calls true obedience:
When we go out of ourselves through obedience and strip ourselves of what is ours, then God must enter into us; for when someone wills nothing for themselves, then God must will on their behalf just as he does for himself.Selected Writings by Meister Eckhart
Nothing is ours at all. Everything is God’s beyond all limitations and earthly things. Only then, we can see agape is what it never fails. And it is never partial. Paul tells us:
Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.1 Corinthians 13:8-10
With agape, we finally see how God loves us and why Jesus Christ loves us. We used to be so children in seeking what we believed as something godly. We thought we could possess it. We thought we could love everything, everyone, and God, just like God loves everything, everyone, and Himself. The truth is, however, we are nothing, and God alone is.
Only when we realize this truth, not as superficial knowledge, but through devastating repentance, probably we would be no longer childish. Thus, Paul tells us:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.1 Corinthians 13:11-12
Only when we see we are nothing, and nobody, but God alone is, then the dark glass suddenly falls. We no longer see things through it. We no longer love everything, everyone, and God through it. We are not the ones to see and love, but God does on our behalf. All things are visible because God alone is. Agape is out there beyond all limitations even, beyond faith and hope. Agape alone is. That is, God alone is. Thus, Paul tells us at the end:
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.1 Corinthians 13:13
For, God is agape (ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν).
He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.1 John 4:8
Image by Joshua Lindsey