For all I’m willing to make fun of the way the modern world uses 1 Corinthians 13 as a glorification of romantic love, I’m the first to admit that it’s a powerful passage. It’s one of those where you don’t even mind that you get the same homily on it every time. You know the one: “Replace ‘love’ with ‘a Christian.’ ‘A Christian is patient, a Christian is kind.’” Much like the Prodigal Father homily on the Prodigal Son Gospel or the “What kind of soil are you?” homily on the Parable of the Sower, it bears repeating. Paul’s description of love is a template of our lives. So it stands to reason that it can function as a pretty good examination of conscience, too.
Sin is, after all, a failure to love. We love ourselves more than God or more than our neighbors. We use people or ignore the call of Christ. So I think 1 Corinthians 13 is the perfect mirror to hold up before our lives, especially those of us who are fairly decent people. When we turn from the list of grave sins that we generally manage to avoid to this chapter on love, we begin to see just how far we have to go.
1 Corinthians 13: An Examination of Conscience
If I speak in human and angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
Are you talking just to hear yourself speak or are you really listening? Because your “wisdom” means nothing when it’s not meeting people in their suffering. All the brilliant words you’ve so carefully cultivated are platitudes and arrogance in the face of the anonymous souls you inflict them on, not caring to hear their story.
And if I have the gift of prophesy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge; if I have all faith so as to move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
It doesn’t matter how much you know about Jesus if you speak of him only to prove people wrong and not to draw their hearts closer to him. Faith is not a weapon, it’s a gift. Are you evangelizing to share your joy or to win? If you’re not preaching from a heart that overflows with love for Christ and his lost sheep, shut your mouth and pray for humility.
If I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing.
How often do you perform good deeds without advertising them? Tell yourself you’re just trying to encourage others to join in, if you must, but ask yourself: are you serving unique, unrepeatable children of God destined for eternal greatness? Or just congratulating yourself on the number of bodies you moved through the line? Selfish service is better than nothing, but not much.
Love is patient,
Not just waiting-for-you-to-be-less-awful patient but loving-you-just-as-you-are patient. It’s not a feeling. You can’t make yourself stop being impatient. But you can sure as heck throw your frustrations over your shoulder and carry them up to Calvary. Do you view people as problems to be solved (or avoided) or as children of God? Choose to live like the other is not an obstacle but the delight of Love himself.
Love isn’t nice, it’s kind. It corrects when necessary. It doesn’t value the love above the beloved. One who loves well takes risks to do what’s best for the other. How many times have you chosen cowardice rather than making things uncomfortable and possibly saving a life–or a soul?
It is not jealous,
Jealousy isn’t just a matter of wanting what the other person has but of resenting him for having it. When you get up to nurse the baby, do you want to smack your husband who gets to sleep on through? Are you bitter about your brother’s new job? Do you try to keep your friends apart for fear they’ll like each other more than they like you? Love seeks what’s best for the beloved–even when it is directly bad for you.
[love] is not pompous, it is not inflated,
Love just isn’t about you. Are you really interested in the girl you’re talking to before class or are you waiting for someone else to come along? Do you spend time with that guy because you’re trying to be a true friend or because you’re doing him a favor with your friendship? A Christian desire to be kind can easily be corrupted into a self-congratulatory kind of pity for losers. Don’t end the relationship–pray for your heart to be purified.
it is not rude,
Do you treat people not as they want to be treated but as they deserve to be treated? Just because a friend is cool with racist or sexual jokes doesn’t mean you have the right to act that way–love treats others with the dignity they deserve, even if they aren’t aware of it.
it does not seek its own interests,
You were made to give yourself to others. Human love means that we receive too, but never that we take. Where is the selfishness in the way you relate to your wife, your parents, your friends? How often do you treat cashiers and wait staff like they’re just there to serve you? That might be their job, but they’re people before they’re busboys and they deserve your respect and courtesy. You’ll be amazed at the graces that flow into your life when you start treating people–all people–like people.
it is not quick-tempered,
More than anything, my sin comes from my quick temper and my quick temper comes from a refusal to recognize other people’s perspectives. The more I love people–the more I see them as people and not as means to my end–the less likely I am to roll my eyes or get irrationally angry.
it does not brood over injury,
You don’t get to hold grudges. Jesus made that perfectly clear. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” remember? And while you might not be able to feel all better, forgiveness is a choice. You choose not to resent someone. And you choose not to replay your suffering in your mind, filled with “righteous” anger. Do you let love win or anger, suffering, fear, and sin?
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
I always found this rather odd until I realized how often I do it. I take a certain vindictive pleasure in the bad choices people make when if they had only listened to me, they’d be perfect just like I am! Do you weep for sinners and long for their joy and peace, or do you feel smug when you see how much better off you are without them? Love continues even if a relationship might need to end.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Think of all the abuse you’d tolerate from your baby–it’s infinite, isn’t it? There is nothing she can do to make you stop loving her, is there? We know how to love our little children this way, some of us: without limits. It fades once we start expecting things of them in return. Don’t. Love every person like they deserve it. Choose to believe that they’re good deep down.1 Trust that God will bring them the healing they need to be who they were made to be. Never let your obsession with yourself get in the way of loving without restraint. Even when you’re the one you’re trying to love.
Love never fails.
You will fail. You will be angry and selfish and judgmental and impatient. Our whole lives are an attempt to learn to love. But Love never fails. He never gives up on you and he will not allow you to give up on yourself. Take some time with this chapter and then take yourself to the foot of the cross, to the seat of mercy: the confessional. Ask Love to teach you to love. Pray that your love would be his love.
Love is not a feeling, my friends, it is a choice. It is willing the good of the other, choosing to treat him as Christ would. One of the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard was attributed to St. Ignatius Loyola:2 of every man we meet, we ought to say, “Jesus died for this man.” That’s what 1 Corinthians 13 is calling us to: a recognition when we encounter each person that Jesus Christ, God made man, like us in all things but sin, thought this person was worth dying for. Who are we to do less?
- This doesn’t mean enduring an emotionally or physically abusive relationship. The call to love means loving and protecting ourselves as well. Don’t let the demands of the Cross convince you to allow others to mistreat you. [↩]
- Googling it only really gets me my website where I’ve quoted it before, so who knows? [↩]