I have been meditating on Christian love as I work my way through the book of 1 Corinthians. The Apostle Paul confronts the spiritual pride of the Corinthians by calling them to a Christian ethic of love. He reminds them that all of their ministry should be motivated by love. The King James Version uses the word charity throughout 1 Corinthians 13, probably because the translators were following the example of the Vulgate which used the Latin word caritas. My best guess is that Jerome avoided the more common word for love, amor, because he did not want its romantic conotations. However, we have a similar problem in English. The word love as used in modern English has a very broad range of meaning. We say, “I love pecan pie.” Or we breathlessly say, “I love you,” to a person with whom we are infatuated. We also use the word love to communicate niceness. When a person is nice we think they are loving. In each case we are using the English word love correctly, but we do not mean 1 Corinthians 13 self-sacrificing love. We may mean lust, or infatuation, or sentimentality, but we do not mean biblical love.
Thankfully, the Lord defines love for us in 1 Cor 13. The descriptions are full of verbs; love is active. It is never merely a sentiment or emotion, although it never lacks heart-felt emotion. The other clear characteristic is that love is self-sacrificing; it acts for the good of others. Paul describes love in a way that targets the selfishness of the Corinthians. The Corinthians were puffed up, tolerating sin, and behaving selfishly. Paul under inspiration tells the Corinthians that their wisdom and gifts have no eternal value if they lack love. We must remember this. Ministry toward others is never about our gifts, but about the good of others for the glory of God. Although 1 Corinthians 13 sets the bar higher than we can reach in our fallen state, it is nonetheless God’s standard for us and the biblical pattern for ministering to people.