1 Corinthians 13
A couple weeks ago I gave a sermon on the topic of sexual immorality which led to some pretty strong and varied reactions. Some people appreciated confronting the topic of pornography from the pulpit while others claimed it was.
I want you to know that whenever I preach my intention is never to be intentionally shocking or vulgar, but simply to present what scripture teaches. None of the criticism I received was that I used harsh language or was in theological error and I ran the sermon past a few people and they agreed. However, while I did present the Gospel as the answer to the problem, one criticism that did touch home was that I may have presented the problem without giving many practical solutions.
One person said, “Ok, so everything is dark, but what’s the solution? Where’s the hope?” Of course, as I said, our ultimate hope is in Christ. The only way to be free from the burden of sin and to escape the trap of sexual immorality is to admit we are sinners, fall down at the cross, and ask for forgiveness and help from God. But there is a very practical, applicable, useful tool to help with the problem of an out of control, sinful, sexually immoral appetite: marriage.
Open up to 1 Corinthians 7:1-5.
[I want to say up front that though I used a bunch of sources, I help for this sermon from one of John MacArthur’s messages called “Marriage, Divorce, and Singleness”]
“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Marriage in Corinth
We’ve already covered a few times the state of the culture in the city of Corinth. And the Corinthian church needed some instruction as to how they should handle living there. We can sympathize, right? Sin, it seems, has corrupted everything! And so, a believer, wanting to honour Jesus, flee sin, and be obedient to God, is often tempted to just throw everything out. They feel tempted so they figure that they will just get rid of everything. Move to the country, turn off the internet, break the TV, avoid the theatre, don’t date, don’t go to the mall, never talk to anyone except Christians… just avoid everything.
Some Christians in Corinth thought the same thing and some of them decided that the solution to avoiding the sin of sexual immorality at least would be that Christians should simply avoid marriage altogether. Corinth was a mess of immorality of all kinds, but what the city was most famous for, even in the pagan world, was how messed up they were sexually, and this affected the state of marriage too.
Weddings in ancient Greece actually looked a lot like they do today. A lot of our traditions come from them. Rich people had ceremonies, wore rings, had veils, carried flowers, even had cake.
Slaves, of which there were many in the Corinthian church, weren’t even allowed to get married, but if they did find someone they wanted to be with they could ask their owner if they could have a “tent partner” to be with sometimes. But they couldn’t commit to one another because there was no guarantee one of them wouldn’t be sold and have to leave.
In the general culture, the divorce rate was high and morality was very low. Like today, sleeping around, adultery, cheating, and serial monogamy was common. A normal citizen could even buy a wife if they wanted to. There was even, around biblical times, a sort of women’s liberation things that started, which tried to switch it around so that the women would do all the same things to the men. It was a real mess.
And so there were some big questions about what Christians should do. Keep in mind that those being saved and joining the church were coming from this culture completely. They didn’t grow up with the judeo-Christian ethic like we did – but came from a totally corrupted culture. And it was natural for them, seeking to want to be good Christians, to think that simply avoiding sex and marriage altogether would be best.
So here we see them sending a question to the Apostle Paul to ask what Jesus has to say on the subject. See verse 1: “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’” That was their solution. They had a lot of situations. They had single Christians who wanted to get married but weren’t sure if that was a good idea, Christians married to unsaved spouses and weren’t sure what to do, married people who had a bunch of sinful habits they didn’t know what to do with, divorced people who didn’t know if they were allowed to get remarried, and a whole bunch of dads with angry daughters who were being told they weren’t allowed to get married at all. There was a lot of mixed teachings about this. Everything from “There should be no marriage but just free love and sex for everyone” to “no one should ever get married or have sex ever” – and that continues today among cults and different religions, even in those claiming Christianity. So, Paul, what does Jesus say we’re supposed to do?!
Paul’s answers take each of the groups in turn. He takes on the married people first, so let’s do that. I want to talk to the single people too, but since Paul talks to the married people first, that’s how we’re going to take it.
To the Married
Celibacy and singleness is ok with the Bible and ok with God. It frees you for greater missions in God’s kingdom and allows you to remain focused on serving Him and others. The Bible presents singleness as something to be honoured and godly. But, for most people, since sexual temptation is a real problem, the solution is to get married. Singleness is good unless it leads you into sexual sin. For most people, trying to avoid sexual sin is going to be really hard, because marriage is intended to be the norm. Marriage is a gift given to us by God to be a tool to help us grow closer to Him, learn about ourselves, become a better disciple, practice all the things the Bible says about serving, forgiving, self-control, etc… but it’s also the primary way that we are to deal with sexual temptation.
John MacArthur gives 6 reasons the Bible says God gave us marriage. Procreation, Pleasure, Purity, Provision, Partnership and Picture.
God gave us marriage so that we could Procreate, literally to make babies and carry on the species. He also gave us marriage for Pleasure, because it’s an amazing experience to be with another person for life. He gave us marriage so we could Provide for someone else, living as a servant to them, and so we could have a Partner that helps take care of us. And, God gave us marriage because, as we see all through the Bible, it is a Picture of Christ and the church.
The one we are talking about today is that God gave us marriage so we could pursue Purity and be more godly as we channel our sexual appetite into the right place. Fighting our natural appetites, continually sinning, and feeling guilty and shameful all the time is not a great life, so God allows us to fulfil that appetite in a pure and godly way in marriage.
However, just like those in ancient Corinth, we all today carry sexual baggage into our marriages. Histories with sexual partners, pornography habits, romantic fantasy’s we’ve concocted, and whatever else we have going on in our brains. And both are sinners. Even if we come into the marriage completely virginal, having never seen or read anything bad, we are still sinners and that’s going to cause problems – and it does, right?
The partners have different appetites and both get frustrated. One has expectations of the other that make them feel uncomfortable or simply can’t be done. One accuses the other of being too aggressive while the other is accused of being cold and unloving. What is supposed to be a gift from God, and the means by which we escape the trap of sexual immorality, ends up being a wedge that comes between the Christian husband and wife. Which leads to anger, hurt feelings, loneliness, temptation, thoughts of divorce… and more.
What is the solution for a Christian who has committed their life to Jesus? I believe that a big part of the solution is to have a proper, Biblical understanding of sex within marriage – and how to have good sex. Our pornographic culture has corrupted sex in every possible way, and much of that thinking has seeped into our own, and so 1 Corinthians 7 gives a mini-marriage seminar.
The Power of Sex
What does the Bible say here? Well, first it frames the sexual union as a tool to escape temptation. “…because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” Marriage is good for many things. We learn a lot being married, but another way it is good is that it gives us an outlet for our sexual energies. Most people, except those gifted with the ability to be single and celibate, will find it almost impossible to avoid sexual temptation. Not only because of our inward drives but because sexual enticement is everywhere in the culture.
So it is natural for your spouse to have a sexual appetite and for them to want to have sex with you. That’s normal and good. To be sexually desirous of your spouse, and for your spouse to desire you, is a good thing. And so God says, “Since there is so much sexual immorality within you and around you, have my blessing to have sex with each other!”
Now, some people read these verses and think God says “my spouse has to do whatever I want, whenever I want it!” Nope, that’s selfish and sinful. Remember, your marriage is a picture of Jesus and the church. When has Jesus ever forced Himself on you or made you do anything? When has He made you feel He was abusive or made you feel bad about yourself? Or, for that matter, ever withheld his love because you haven’t earned it? Never. He is always inviting, loving, and seeking the best for His bride.
I know far too many married couples for which sex isn’t a joy but something that divides them. They love their spouse, serve them, enjoy them, but when it comes to the bedroom there’s a disconnect there and it drives a wedge between them and creates a lot of resentment and temptation.
One problem is that people aren’t introspective enough to be able to express how they are really feeling inside. Vulgar, simple, unhelpful, ungodly language has replaced mutual honesty and self-reflection to the point where not only is our spouse confused and upset by what we say, but even we don’t even know how we feel!
Forgive the phrase, but in my experience the most, the average person is able to come up with, especially guys, to describe their feelings is the phrase, “I’m horny. I want sex.” That’s the best they can do. Why? Because it’s what culture has taught them. Sex is an impulse to be acted upon, a means and end unto itself. We want sex so we should have sex. That’s far, far, far too simplistic and even wrong.
When the Bible says, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.” it’s saying that a husband or wife has the right to expect to fulfil their sexual appetite with their spouse. Now, I’m not saying that it’s a no-holds-barred, do anything they want, free-for-all in the bedroom. We’ll talk about that in a minute. The idea here is that it is normal, right and godly for a husband or wife to want to have sex with their spouse, and it is abnormal, wrong, and ungodly for a husband or wife to “deprive” one another. It’s sin.
But we need to do better at expressing ourselves in this. I want you to do better in this so that you can be closer to your spouse and so that they will understand more of what is happening inside of you. The accusation is often, “My spouse always wants sex! It’s too much! There must be something wrong with them.” But more often than not, it’s not the act of sex that they want – and even they don’t really realize it.
What they really are is lonely, angry, tempted, stressed out, sad, confused or afraid. They feel unattractive, unimportant, unaccepted – and being intimate with their spouse is a very good way to repair that. Sex is reparative in that way.
You might think, “Well, shouldn’t they be praying about that? Why do I have to have sex with them to make them feel less lonely or sad or unimportant? Can’t I just read them a Bible verse and tell them to do their devos?”
Look at verse 5 and see how the Bible connects sexuality to spirituality, especially prayer. “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
The implication here is that if the marriage is being deprived of sexual intimacy then not only will the couple’s relationship with each other suffer, but so will their relationship with God! Effectively it says, “Don’t stop having sex. Don’t deprive one another. Not because the act of sex is so important, but because sexual temptation is real and that depravation will put a wedge between your spouse and God! Sure, maybe you stop for a short time of mourning or fasting or some other special spiritual occasion, but then get back together quick because Satan is right there waiting to tempt you both. And you know that you lack self-control in this area – that’s why you are married! To deprive yourself or your spouse of sex is spiritually dangerous.”
So, my hope here is that each of you do better in expressing yourselves in this, and learn more about yourself. Say you have a hard day at work or at home, things just went wrong, and nothing’s working out. You feel a tug towards sexual temptation? Why? Because it will make you feel better. So when you finally see your spouse again, do you say, “Hey, honey, let’s go have sex?” No. What you should do in that moment is share your heart “I had an awful day today. Let me tell you about it. I’m frustrated, angry, tired and grumpy. I’m all twisted up inside.” What would be a natural response from a loving spouse? Comfort, right? A hug, an affirmation that they are good at their job… but another natural response is physical intimacy.
In 2 Samuel 12:24 David and Bathsheba’s son had just died and they were both in mourning and it says, “Then David comforted his wife, Bathsheba, and went in to her and lay with her…” David sought comfort in God and then, part of the way he comforted his wife was to hold her close and be intimate with her. Sex brings comfort to people.
If our spouse feels lonely, stressed out, unimportant, or unattractive… then not only do you talk to them, affirm them, pray with them, and be with them – but also to make the choice to be physically intimate, to have sex with them, as a way to comfort and help them. Sex relieves tension, release pleasure chemicals, builds intimacy, and is an escape from the stresses of life. It’s a powerful tool to help your spouse deal with what they are going through and wipe away a lot of the cobwebs that have gathered in their soul. Offering sex to your spouse is an amazing spiritual gift to them.
And then, after being together, they will often have more confidence, energy, and joy. By removing the burden of sexual temptation, and connecting with them physically, you will have taken a huge weight off of their soul. And, in equal measure, denying them, depriving them, places a huge weight on their soul. You are sinning against them and setting them, and yourself, your marriage and your family, up for failure. It is literally your duty to take care of one another in this way so you can be free from the distractions of temptation that lead to sin.
Good Marital Sex
Now, I don’t want to leave off there, but want you to turn with me to 1 Corinthians 13, which many people call “The Love Chapter”. Contextually this comes while Paul is talking about how Christians can serve one another in church, but it readily applies to how we can serve each other in marriage as well. And, I would argue, it makes an excellent outline for how Christians should approach marital sex. What does good sex look like?
A lot of questions come to pastors about this: Can I do this or that? Is this or that allowed? He or she likes this but I don’t, do I have to? Those are good questions, but let’s look briefly at 1 Corinthians 13 as an outline for what good, godly, joyful, pleasurable, Christian sex looks like. Go to verse 4. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Let’s go through those together looking at it through the lens of marital sex.
“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
Let’s go through those together looking at it through the lens of marital sex.
“Love is patient.” Good marital sex is patient. That means that you take your time, wait for your spouse to be ready, and not try to whatever you want out of it as fast as you can. Usually, one of the spouses takes longer to get “in the mood” than the other – often the woman, but not always. This means that you don’t jump right to intercourse, but spend the day sending love notes, take time to talk, do some wooing, hugging, kissing, and whatever else they like that shows love and gets their motor going. Sometimes this means being very patient while your spouse works through some physical or emotional issues too.
By the way, the other side is choosing to be receptive to this. If you are the spouse that takes a while to get warmed up, then you’ll need to choose to be receptive to their advances. Allow yourself to start you thinking of your spouse, let yourself be wooed, get rid of some distractions, and open yourself up to the other person. You’ll enjoy it a lot more if you do.
“Love is… kind”. Good marital sex shows kindness. There is no desire to hurt or subject or degrade. Kindness takes the initiative to respond to the other person’s needs. What makes them happy, comfortable, feel pleasure. We do this when we have people over to our homes, right? “What do you take in your coffee? Is the room at the right temperature for you? Can I get you a pillow? Would you like the comfortable chair?” We should have the same type of thoughts of kindness when being intimate with our spouse.
“Love… does not envy”. In other words, we are not jealous that someone else, or even our spouse, is seeming to have a better time than us. We aren’t trying to get out of our husband or wife that which we had in a previous relationship or we’ve seen in fantasies.
All of these, by the way, are the opposite of what culture and pornography teach. Remember how I said that people are using pornography as their sex education? They are learning the literal opposite of how God designed sex to work best. Pornographic sex isn’t patient – it’s immediate. There is no relationship, no wooing, no love. Everyone is ready to go 100% of the time. Pornographic sex is not kind. It’s violent and selfish. Pornographic sex is built on envy – it’s adultery with the eyes, wanting that which others have, comparing ourselves to an unrealistic ideal.
“Love does not… boast; it is not arrogant or rude”. Pornographic sex is full of arrogant, selfish boasting, turning sex into competition and conquest. Good, godly, joyful, sex isn’t trying to compete, but to mutually lift each other up! Trying to outdo each other in how you can serve and please one another. Just think of the euphemisms that culture has used to describe the act of sex. We go from “making love” to “hump” to “bump” to “knock” to “hit” to “smash”; each more selfish and more rude. Love isn’t rude, seeking to humiliate or offend, it is mean to uplift.
“Love… does not insist on its own way.” Good marital sex isn’t about getting whatever pleasure we can get out of our spouse, using them as a sexual object to fulfil our fantasies. It is exactly the opposite. Good sex is focused on the other person’s desires, comfort, and enjoyment. That’s one thing that the Bible means when it says, “For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” Sure, we share our likes and dislikes, but if both parties are more concerned for the other than they are for themselves – then they will not only enjoy themselves more, but will be practicing humility and service which honours God.
“Love… is not irritable or resentful.” A lot of husbands and wives carry a lot of anger in their hearts toward their mate because of what happens in the bedroom. They are mad because they aren’t “getting enough” or because it’s “too much”. They get irritated and resent their spouse for the occasional, playful sexual touch outside the bedroom – a quick kiss, a pat on the butt – and instead of enjoying it, they get upset. If that’s happening to you, you really need to talk to your spouse about it because the issue isn’t the kiss, the hug, or the pat – it’s something deeper. There’s some anger, bitterness, hurt feelings, fear, resentment that goes way deeper.
Along with this comes the sin of using sex as a reward or a weapon. Sex between spouses is NEVER to be a reward for good behaviour and denial is ESPECIALLY never used as a weapon! Both of those are sin and will lead to spiritual danger. If you have ever tried to manipulate your spouse with sex, you are in sin. If you have ever said the words, “Fine, just do it, I’ll just lie here.” or “Fine, if you won’t do it for me, I’ll do it myself!”, I can’t tell you how terribly hurtful that was to hear. That was you sinning against your spouse. Good sex cannot have irritation or resentment in it. You need to be honest with each other, how you feel, what’s going on inside, work out that underlying problem, and then come together having forgiven one another!
“Love… does not rejoice at wrongdoing.” Most other translations say, “Keeps no record of wrongs.” If you are keeping track of how long it’s been, how many times, and how long it lasted, so you can throw that back in their face – then you are in sin. If you are holding bitterness in your heart and then giving your spouse the cold shoulder, you are in sin. If you are using your spouse’s rejection as an excuse to get your sexual fulfilment from other people – by looking where you shouldn’t or building a close relationship with someone you’re not married to – then you are in sin. You can’t use your spouses’ “record of wrongs” as your excuse to sin. It will destroy your love for them, and your ability to be intimate with them.
“Love… rejoices with the truth.” Good marital sex has its foundation in the truth! We tell the truth about how we are feeling, what we like and dislike, our fears and desires, and what’s on our hearts – and it builds intimacy and improves the sexual relationship. Before marriage we are honest about our sexual history and the baggage we are bringing in there, and then during the marriage we are honest about when we make mistakes and fall to sexual sin.
Another side of truthfulness is the sin of pretending when you are with your spouse. Either pretending they are someone else – which is adultery – or simply pretending you are feeling something you are not. Making sounds and looking a certain way because you think that’s what you are supposed to do for your “performance”. Teaching yourself to be someone you are not, or asking your spouse to be something they are not, will damage your soul and break your intimacy! Some people tell you to pretend and fantasize to make your sex better, but you can’t pretend and be truthful at the same time – and that pretending will cause bitterness and confusion and lead to a fractured relationship and bad sex.
“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Good sex comes from love. Love comes from feeling safe, protected, trusted, hopeful, anticipating, and full of the knowledge that the person you are with is committed to you, never going to leave, will endure anything with you, and will persevere with you to the end – no matter what happens in life or in the bedroom. You can’t have real love if you think the other person will let you down, distrusts you, or will leave you. That’s why marital love, built on the covenant of marriage, is so much better than casual hookups. It’s infinitely deeper.
I know this is a lot to chew on today, but I really want you to think about this. We’ll talk about single and unmarried folks next week, but married people, have you been honest with yourself and your spouse about sex in marriage? Are you doing your duty to help each other flee sexual sin? Are you truly “making love” or is there a wall between you, even while you are in bed together? Talk to each other. Go read 1 Corinthians 7 and 13 and talk about it together – humbly, openly, prayerfully. I want each of you to be free from this temptation, and for you to have all the enjoyment that God wants to give you in sex – without sin getting in the way. It’s His gift to us, but it sometimes takes a lot of work. I encourage you to do that work this week.
The Right Way vs The Bosses Way
I remember listening to an old southern Baptist preacher that told the story of a time his daddy was driving him to his first job at the age of 7 years old. His father gave him this advice: “Son, there are three ways to do things in this life: The right way, the wrong way, and the bosses way. Now which way are you going to do things?”
That’s a great question, especially today – what with truth being a relative term these days. What’s your answer? Most people, I think, would say “the right way.” At the time that was my answer too, and it turns out to be the wrong answer. If you’ve had a job where you’ve had to work under a superior for any length of time, you eventually realize that even though you want to do things “the right way”, it usually only causes trouble. The right answer is “the bosses way”.
When your boss says to go do something, and to do it this way, deciding to do it “the right way” usually means that you think that you know better than the boss, better than the training, better than the other employees around you. You decide to do it differently than the boss expects, and that’s where the trouble comes.
I know… in a world where everyone is told they are unique, special, snowflakes that can think outside the box and achieve anything they dream… it seems counter-intuitive. But the truth is that they jobs where you get treated like a unique, special, snowflake are very few and far between. Most jobs still expect you to do it “the bosses way”. He’s the one that hired you, trained you, and who signs your pay cheque. He’s the one that sees the big picture. Theoretically, that’s why he’s the boss.
That’s how it works in the Christian faith too. God is the boss. In the words of Isaiah 45:18:
“For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): ‘I am the LORD, and there is no other.’”
And God made Jesus the Boss. Philippians 2:9-11:
“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus is the foundation upon which our life is built, the “founder and perfecter of our faith”, and is the one “seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2) He is the one “who is to judge the living and the dead” (2 Tim 4:1). He is the Immanuel, God with Us, our Saviour, Redeemer, Friend and King. He’s the boss.
In the mystery that we call the “Trinity” we see three persons with one nature. They have the same substance, but unique identities. One God, three persons. We baptize in the name of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. In verses like Romans 8:9-11 we read about the distinctions and unity of the Trinity:
“You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.”
They are one authority in three Persons.
The Authority of Scripture
Why am I telling you this? Because this Supreme Authority took the time to write a book.
Paul spoke of the Scriptures this way:
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” (2 Tim 3:16)
Peter said it this way:
“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21)
Zechariah said that God “spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old.” (Luke 1:70) King David said, “The Spirit of the Lord speaks by me; his word is on my tongue. The God of Israel has spoken…” (2 Sam 23:2-3) Jesus said to His Apostles:
“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 16:12-15)
He had already confirmed the authority of the Old Testament – which was the Bible of the early church, and here He was talking about the writing of the New Testament.
The Bible that we read every week (hopefully every day) is so much more than an historical document, a moral guide, a list of suggestions to help our lives. It is a book written by our King and our Saviour, in the power of the Holy Spirit of God, carried through faithful servants, to tell us everything we need to know about everything that truly matters.
And one thing that truly matters to God (and to all humanity) is Love. So God told us how to get it right.
What is Love?
There’s a lot of talk about “love” – but how many people really know what love is? We all seem to know what love is, and even agree that love is important. Almost every movie, book, or song ever written has had some kind of reference to love in it. But what are we talking about? Let’s use Valentine’s Day as an example.
Say you go out for a nice Valentine’s Day dinner and a movie. You’re driving your car the restaurant and your significant other is sitting next to you. At the next stoplight look them deeply in the eye and say “I love you so much.” To set the romantic mood you turn on the radio and on comes your favourite song on the radio. “Wow, I love this song!”, you say. As you’re pulling into the restaurant parking your date says, “I can’t believe we got reservations here: I love this restaurant!”
You get to your table, order your food, and they bring out some bread sticks to munch on before the meal. “Wow”, you say, “I love these bread sticks.” You’re date gets up to use the washroom and you take a minute to look at your phone. You notice a text from your mom inviting you over for Easter dinner. You text her back: “Thanks Mom! I love you!”
Finally your food comes, you bow your head to say grace and begin “Dear God, thank you for this food and the hands that prepared it… God, we love you so much Amen.”
Wow! I love my wife, and bread sticks. I love God and the Hobbit movie. I love my mom and my iPhone. Really? Is that even possible? No one would argue with me, and we use the exact same word all the time – but they obviously have different meanings. How can we get so much mileage out of this one word?
I think part of the reason is that we are lazy and grab onto the easiest word in our vocabulary. If we were trying to be more accurate, we’d probably saw we love our moms, but that we enjoy our iPhone and delight in the song. It’s like the word “awesome” today: it’s defined as “inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear”, and people use it to describe everything from Niagara Falls to the whip-cream on their Frappuccino.
Another reason, I think because most of us don’t know what we’re talking about. Love, for many people, is primarily a feeling, something difficult to define, hard to pin down. That’s why a lot of sins are committed in the name of love. “I can’t help how I feel” is the ultimate excuse for doing something selfish or immoral. “How dare you tell me that my feelings are wrong!”
“I felt it needed to be done” is a way of saying, “I knew it was wrong, or unkind, or none of my business, but my feelings told me to do something – so I went along with that.”
Love as a Choice and a Feeling
I want to push back on that idea. I believe love can be defined, because scripture – the Word of God – defines it for us. But first, let me say this: the idea that love is not at all an emotion or feeling is wrong too. The popular saying, “Love is a choice, not a feeling”, is admirable and well meaning – because it’s mean to take us away from merely acting on feeling alone, but it’s not quite true. Feelings certainly play a part in our definition of Love. Love is both a feeling and a choice.
For example, when God saved us from sin, it wasn’t merely a clinical choice based on the strict definition of love. He felt for us. He didn’t begrudgingly say, “Well, since I am a loving God, then I guess I have to do something about this…” Scripture says, “For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16). He feels love for us, and acted on that feeling. It was the right, loving, perfect action… but it was also motivated by feeling.
The Old Testament describes the love of God the way a parent loves their child:
“The Lᴏʀᴅ will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)
I’ve done all that with my kids. I’ve rejoiced over them, held them when they need comfort, and been excited for them. My choice to do that came from my feelings of love for them. God’s love is also described in the way a husband loves his bride:
“As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5).
That’s much more than a choice – that’s heart-felt emotion.
Even when disciplining his people God has amazingly sentimental, emotional outpourings for his people. In Hosea 11:8 He says:
“How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?…. My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”
I know this feeling. The child needs to be disciplined, but you don’t want to, even though you know it’s the right thing. In that case, the feelings are in conflict, and a choice has to be made – which action shows the most love. God loves us with a passionate, emotional love..
Even our love for God is meant to be expressed through both feelings and choice.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…” (Matthew 22:37)
That incorporates our whole being. More than just our “mind” agreeing to love God, our Creator and our Saviour, because He deserves it… but also with our heart and our soul, the seats of our emotion. Sometimes we feel like showing our love for God and the decision to worship Him comes easily. Sometimes we don’t feel like it, so we have to decide to pray, read His word and worship Him. That’s normal.
Feelings and choice work together. Just like in marriage or friendship. Sometimes it comes easily because we feel love for the person, other times we don’t feel like it, but we choose to anyway. Or, sometimes we feel like we’re starting to love someone else… and we choose not to act on that feeling because we have made a previous choice of commitment to another. Feelings and choice.
When Peter writes to the church he says, “Love one another earnestly from a pure heart…” (1 Peter 1:22) and “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) That describes a community that is held together by much more than the mere choice to love one another. That’s a heart-felt, emotion. Something that we are meant to be given by God, but also that we need to cultivate through the choices we make to be with each other and carry one another’s burdens.
For example, when we meet the practical needs of others, and tithe to God, it says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” (2 Corinthians 9:7) In that we see not only the decision to love, but also the feeling of love expressed towards others. It’s both a choice and a feeling.
Perhaps the greatest example of this dichotomy is when Jesus tells us to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44). We certainly won’t feel like loving our enemies … but as we choose to love them… put ourselves in their shoes, see their sin and rebellion in the light of the revelation of our own sin and rebellion, and as God changes our heart from hard to soft, selfish to compassionate, we will begin to feel a love for our enemies.
Some love starts as a feeling and guides our choices… other love starts as a choice and guides our feelings.
The Parameters of Love
But God has spent time in scripture defining the parameters of love – the boundaries – the rules of love. Now, even saying that would cause some people to recoil.
“Parameters and rules” on “Love”? How can there be boundaries on love? Well, there has to be. If love is a Choice and a Feeling, then we all have to agree that there is great potential for us to mess it up. We all make bad choices, right? And our feelings are often a mess, right? We’re all selfish, messed up, sinful people, who need divine guidance to learn how to love. As Jeremiah 17:9 says:
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
We read of the Apostle Paul’s own internal war between his feelings, his knowledge of God, and his choices:
“…I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:14-25)
Outside of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we are hopelessly unable to control our feelings and our choices. So God sets parameters on love in the Bible.
The greatest example of the parameters of love is in 1 Corinthians 13:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
This isn’t the only place where love is defined – for example, sacrificial love isn’t explicitly mentioned in here, yet Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). There’s lots of other places in scripture that teach us about how we are to love, but 1 Corinthians 13 is a great example of the kids of boundaries that God has put on the feelings we have and choices we make based on Love. And so, to close today, I want to go through what God says about love:
Love Is Greater Than
In the first group of verses, from 1-3, we see that God has said that Love has a high priority. In verse 1 we see that the feeling and actions of love are greater than any amount of spiritual experience or prophetic speech. It says, it doesn’t matter how ecstatically spiritual we feel, or how many godly words or songs come out of our mouth, if we are not full of love for God and others, then we’re just making noise. God rejects worship and words that are not spoken in love – maybe only by the choice to love at first… but eventually also by feeling. They go hand in hand – faith and love, truth and love, worship and love, prayer and love, evangelism and love – or they don’t go at all.
Verse 2 says that no matter how connected we are to God, no matter how much Bible we know, no matter how intelligent or wise or godly we think we are, if it’s not guided by love, then it’s absolutely pointless. Some people choose to live in the head and not the heart. They’ve been hurt or let down when they’ve loved someone, or they’re not mature enough to know how to deal with their feelings, so they shut them off and live in their head. They do all the right things, make the “loving choice”, but are not guided by feelings of love. They have all the right answers, but no idea how to convey them in a loving way. They have all the faith, but no idea how to walk alongside people who are struggling with theirs. They spout platitudes and solutions, but without a heart for the person. And God says that they are “nothing”.
Verse 3 says that the inward feelings and choice to love is even greater than the outward expression of it. We can reject consumerism, corporatism, elitism, and join the 99% movement, but it can be motivated by fear or anger or jealousy. We can give away everything we have, live like Mother Theresa or Ghandi, and it is meaningless unless it is motivated by love. We can walk into the fires like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego (Dan 3), but even that amazingly faithful action loses its meaning if it is not motivated by love. Love cannot be measured by actions alone.
And then, in verse 4, we see a rapid succession of things that describe of love is – and it forms the parameters of Love. Each one is an attribute of God – as is each of these descriptors. Jesus embodies all of these qualities, both now and when He walked the earth. And through the help of His Holy Spirit we can do the same. When we give our hearts to God, he changes them so we can have new feelings and make better
Love is “patient and kind”, it is “is not irritable or resentful”. Another word used is “long-suffering”, slow to anger, and “gentle”, “considerate”. I think of how Jesus, for three straight years kept explaining the same things over and over to His disciples. A person will try to excuse their short-temper and the verbal abuse they bring upon their family because they’re tired or sore. A parent will try to excuse the critical, hurtful words they bring on their children, saying that they are just trying to “toughen them up” because they love them. Or trying to hurry someone up so that you can get to the thing you want to do more. “C’mon! I’ve got places to be! I want to watch my show! You’re too slow!” they shout at the one they “love”. But Love is “patient and kind.”
“Love does not envy, it does not boast; it is not proud.” These are all tied to the opposite of love, which is selfishness. Jesus was the embodiment of humility and self-sacrifice. He avoided those who would try to put him on a pedestal and always pointed back to God.
“Envy” is more than just wanting what someone else has, but actually believes that the other person shouldn’t have it. “It should be mine, not theirs.” Love prioritizes others and is happy because of the other person’s happiness. “Boasting” is building ourselves up, love gives praise away. “Pride” makes us put ourselves first, love puts others first.
How we view and share our possessions can be an act of love, or an act of sin. When we come to someone’s house and constantly mention how much more comfortable and rich and better-off they are than we, we are being unloving to them. When we invite people over to brag about our new stuff, or get it so that we can look better than others – we are being unloving.
Love “is not rude” and “does not insist on its own way” seems pretty straightforward. Love doesn’t act disgracefully, shamefully or crudely. The only other time this word is used when men are told not to publicly disgrace young women by treating them like objects (1 Cor 7:36). This certainly eliminates every form of sexual exploitation. And it also eliminates parents begin overbearing in their children’s marriages – which they say is “done out of love”, or trying to get into a friends personal, private affairs with the excuse that you are “doing it in love”. Love isn’t shameful, and doesn’t butt its way in.
Love “does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” certainly points us to the parameters, the boundary markers, of Love. Helping people follow God’s standards of right and wrong, and live within His declaration of Truth, is loving. To allow someone to stumble into evil, and then rejoice in their folly, is not loving. It reminds me of Galatians 6:1 which says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” or, Proverbs 9:8, “Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you.” or Psalm 141:5, “Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness…” or Proverbs 27:6, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend…”
The loving thing to do is to keep people from wrongdoing and to rejoice with them when they live in truth. The unloving thing to do is to allow them to break God’s law and then mock them their folly. Remembering that “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”, sometimes the most loving thing to do is to whack a person back into the arms of God.
Let’s close with the final group of words: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Love protects others when the bullets are flying. Love defends someone’s honour. Love steps in and helps where the hurt is – that’s what it means to “bear all things” – to willingly take upon ourselves someone else’s burden.
Love isn’t naïve, but it does assume the best of others. It gives people the benefit of the doubt, and doesn’t judge without knowing the situation first. Love isn’t racist or sexist or chauvinist or feminist. Love seeks the best for all, knowing that it means making ourselves less, even servants, of others.
And love looks forward, not backwards. They know the mistakes of the past, but are willing to trust that God can do amazing things in the future. Sure, we learn from our mistakes, and we don’t have to keep making the same ones in some kind of a naïve, idiotic, dreamland, but we always leave the door open for reconciliation, renewal, and resolution.
Love never ends because Jesus’ love never ends.
with confidence we draw near to Your throne of Grace,
that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16)
“We are yours, as you have said,
O Lord of Hosts,
and you have made us your treasured possession
and have spared us.” (Malachi 3:17)
Lord, in your word you showed us the most excellent way.
We have sought to speak in the tongues of men and angels –
using technology to spread our voice and our desires far and wide, Read the rest of this entry »