What is love? It’s a question I’ve been asking for many years, and every time I get the scriptural answer, I find myself wishing I hadn’t asked and pretending I didn’t hear it. Many people cite 1 Corinthians Chapter 13 as their favorite piece of scripture, but whenever I hear it I get a sinking feeling in my stomach.
If it is jealous, it is not love.
If it is arrogantly confident, it is not love.
If it is puffed up with flattery and gifts and drama, it is not love.
If it interrupts and gives advice that wasn’t asked for or tells offensive jokes, it is not love.
If the phrase, “What’s in it for me?” is uttered or thought silently, it is not love.
If it involves verbal or physical violence, it is not love.
If it holds a grudge and nurses resentment, it is not love.
If it takes any pleasure in someone else’s misfortune or unhealthy behavior, keep looking, because it’s not love.
I’m hard pressed to find any relationship in my life that didn’t reflect one or more of these characteristics that are not love, either on my side or theirs. And yet, I say I love my family members, my significant others, or members of my beloved spiritual communities. It is a disconnect that leaves me feeling disillusioned and discontent.
Saint Paul uses a lot of words to describe what love is not, but only two words to describe what love is – patient and kind. Perhaps this is because before we can live lives based on authentic love, we must rid ourselves of everything that is not love. That’s such a tall order, and that’s why this oft-quoted New Testament passage is one I struggle to embrace.
It reminds me that I am a hypocrite, surrounded by hypocrites.
And that’s a great place to start to love, because love rejoices with the truth – the whole truth. And the whole truth is that whatever hypocrisy we may exhibit is part of a spiritual journey, a natural growth process. Love is patient and kind, not harsh and judging.
Love bears all things, even the unpleasant truth about our attitudes and behaviors.
Love believes all things – the truth and the illusions – because love knows only the truth will prevail.
Love hopes all things. It is not afraid to hope that the addict will stop using, that estranged family members will be reconciled, that a job will be found, that there can be world peace.
Love endures all things: grief, heartbreak, illness, uncertainty, pain, loss.
Love bears, believes, hopes and endures all things – all with patience and kindness. What an uncommon way to live.
It seems to me that most of us just survive, clawing our way through life with varying degrees of jealousy, arrogance, self-importance, rudeness, individualism, reactive anger, resentment, guilt-tripping, and spitefulness. As Thoreau put it, most men live lives of quiet desperation.
If this is making your blood pressure go up a bit in protest, perhaps you can relate to the hometown crowd in Nazareth whom Jesus addressed in today’s gospel passage. They were ready to throw Him off a cliff after He dared to question the attitudes of the “chosen people.”
Much like the ancient Hebrews, I have tried to sweep the unpleasant characteristics that Paul enumerates under the rug and focus on the appearance of a life blessed by God. I’ve nurtured my faith life and shared it with others. I’ve made sacrifices and done “the right thing” most of the time. Paul says those things may be well and good, but without love, I’ll be empty, and I know this to be true. I’ve felt it. It’s the God-shaped hole in my heart. The love-shaped heart.
When we are spiritual infants, we fill that hole with whatever gives short-term relief – it’s a survival reflex, in some cases biological, emotional and psychological. As we grow spiritually, we begin to fill it with prayer, learning about faith, and serving others, but even this does not fill the void completely. Love is the fruit of spiritual maturity, and in order find it, we have to let go of everything that is not love. We have to put aside childish things if we want to thrive rather than merely survive. We have to be willing to let go of the illusions we’ve outgrown.
I’ve mentioned before that my attempts to fix myself make things worse. This epistle reminds me to bear up my shortcomings to God, believe He will love me in spite of them, hope He will replace them with patience, kindness and integrity, and endure the waiting and the fear of loss. “When the perfect comes, the partial will pass away,” Paul says. This process of letting go of old notions of love and being transformed is a grieving process. Most of us would rather hold onto what little pseudo-love and security we think we have than release it all to God and wait for the fullness of love. This requires willingness, courage and strength.
I need to have faith that letting go of jealousy, arrogance, self-importance, rudeness, individualism, reactive anger, resentment, guilt-tripping, and spitefulness will not leave me empty. Actually, when I allow God to clear away some of the clutter, I begin to see that patience, kindness and integrity were in me all along, buried under outdated childhood coping skills. I guess this is what they mean when they say that if I am searching for love outside myself, I’m looking in the wrong place.
As I was meditating and writing this reflection, I thought of a song (Alanis Morissette, of course!) that embodies Paul’s spiritual message in an admittedly secular way. Enjoy!