I was reading 1 Corinthians 13 yesterday, a passage quoted so often in weddings, even for people who don't believe in Jesus. The part that gets quoted isn't necessarily the whole chapter, just particularly vv. 4-8, the so-called "romantic" section that offers up truly one of the best definitions of love we know. yet the first three verses are so important for context because there in them Paul writes about what happens in the absence of love.
In 13:1 Paul says that if we can speak known languages ("tongues of men") or even unknown, mysterious languages ("tongues of angels"), but are without love, we are in essence a loud gong, a clanging cymbal. We are a bunch of noise with no substance.
For 13:2 Paul moves to prophetic power, immense knowledge, and great faith. These are very desirable for many, but without love, as Paul says we are nothing.
Finally in 13:3, Paul mentions sacrifice, first of possessions ("give away all I have") and then of self ("give my body to be burned"). Again, for the third time, Paul says that even in these, without love, we gain nothing.
All are challenging in their own right, but the third "list" gets to me the most because we live in a time where social action is so praised. For this generation, humanitarian aid and self-sacrifice are considered virtuous not only within the church, but by our culture at-large. Non-profits continue to grow, being eco-friendly is cool, doing benefit concerts are import to get the money from regular ol' folk to help support disaster relieve in Haiti. We are now expected in some sense to "give away all I have." The Onion, "America's Finest News Source," highlights this well in their article "Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Island Civilization Called 'Haiti'." The title itself gets the point across well.
The question is: Do we do these things out of some sort of pressure, whether from the media, society, or even the church or are they done out of love? Are they done out of the love we know comes from God because he first loved us (1 John 4:19)? Without love, even our greatest sacrifices of time, talents, treasures and even self are like dust.
John Piper in Let the Nations Be Glad provides great perspective on a definition of love that expands whatever notion we have in that love is "helping people toward God."
I have to ask this question as we plant a church in Chicago. Do I love the people of Chicago? Do I love the faces that stare off into oblivion as I walk down the street? Do I love the man who doesn't wish to say anything else to me except, "Can I get some money?" Do I love the Amanda and Roberto who live in my apartment building? Those in my neighborhood association? Do I love any of them in a way that is helping them toward God.
Are your thoughts, words, and deeds done in love? We must ask this continually as God's people. Paul sums it up well for us and I pray we take it to heart on this day, on Valentine's Day, and every day we walk with Jesus on this earth:
Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love -1 Cor. 16:13-14