As a youth pastor, you’ve read the commentaries, attended the conferences, maybe even gone to seminary. You work to make your teaching expository, relevant, and engaging. You take risks in ministry and trust that God is going to provide. You sacrifice your time and resources for the body of Christ. But according to the apostle Paul, all of those “good” things can still be done from an unloving heart.
Youth pastors seeking to equip and disciple students and leaders are fueled by the good news that Jesus’ love for us is the same love available for others. It is not our great works that please the Lord. Rather, it is Christ’s love, in and through us, that transforms our actions into glorious deeds done unto the Lord. So we can look for opportunities in our own lives—even in our failures of love—to help our students see a small glimmer of Christ’s love at work in us.
In this vein, 1 Corinthians 13 is such a punch in the gut to my prideful heart.
“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” (1 Cor. 13:1-3).
Paul is comparing a Christ follower’s actions, when lacking love, with annoying sounds in God’s ears. He’s saying that even right actions are useless and gain nothing without love. This means that all those times that I have given myself a pass because of how truthful, faithful, or self-sacrificing I have been, I have actually been doubling down on my own sin. Instead of overlooking my unloving nature, because I was “speaking truth,” or “being faithful,” or “sacrificing for God,” God wants me to determine the fruitfulness—or lack thereof— of my actions through the measure of my love.
This emphasis of Paul’s causes us to ask, what is love? (baby don’t hurt me, no more—sorry, couldn’t help myself.) Cue 1 Corinthians 13:4a, “Love is patient and kind.”
If we follow Paul’s teaching, impatient or unkind truth, faith, and self-sacrifice is obnoxious (clanging symbols), and adds no value. Why? Paul tells us because it is unloving.
Let me give you an example. A couple weeks ago my wife, Jenny, and I were out on a date. During the car ride she was opening up about things going on in her life, a particular trial she was facing. When she finished talking, I immediately jumped in and told her the wrong things she was believing, what right things she needed to believe, and how she should go about that. Let me tell you, to my wife I sounded like a noisy gong, and I assure you I gained nothing from my “great truth speaking.” Why? My response was impatient. My response was unkind, arrogant, and rude. My response treated her vulnerability as if it were a problem to be solved, or something broken that needs to be fixed. In reality, she is an image-bearer of the one true God who needs the love of Christ, not solving or fixing. You would think after 12 years of marriage I would have learned to walk in the love of Christ towards my wife, but we never arrive—not until we stand before the King with new bodies glorifying him together for all eternity. Thankfully, and graciously, Jenny responded in love to me and forgave me, and we had a fantastic time together.
Paul goes on, “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” (1 Cor. 13:4b).
It is as if Paul knows my vices, and how I want to follow Jesus and keep my prideful schemes at the same time. One by one, Paul’s teaching of what is loving reveals how unloving I often am. “It is not irritable.” Man, I owe my kids an apology.
In a recent podcast for pastors entitled, “You’re Not Crazy,” hosts Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry make this claim, “A church can unsay by its culture what it says by its doctrine, and not even realize it. And that is truly insane.” I think this is what Paul is after when he is teaching the church at Corinth. It is not just the church that can do this, but Christian homes as well. Parents who are unloving to each other, their kids, and their neighbors, will unsay by their culture what they proclaim to believe.
From home, to work, to church, to social media, we may speak with great truth, have great faith, and make impressive sacrifices. But if these things are not done with love as defined by Paul and exemplified in the life of Christ, then our works are fruitless, nothing but annoying clanging. If you’re not sure whether you are being loving or not, spend some time with 1 Corinthians 13 and ask God to reveal it to you.
If unloving truth, faith, and self-sacrifice are fruitless, imagine how fruitful they are when done in the love we have received in Christ. If having all knowledge, discerning all mysteries and speaking eloquently without love is a clanging symbol, then might it be true that when we speak the truth in love it is a beautiful orchestra in the ears of our God? When we speak the truth patiently and kindly, God actually enjoys listening to that soundtrack. If having great faith without love results in us being “nothing,” then might it be that a loving faith reveals we are “something” truly great? And if unloving self-sacrifice profits us nothing, might it be that when we lovingly sacrifice, God is storing up for us a great reward in heaven? I believe he is.
Paul’s teaching to the church at Corinth is to discern the fruitfulness of their lives with the question, “is it loving?” Paul defines this love in 1 Corithinians 13, and Jesus exemplified it through his whole life.
“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.”
Here is an original poem to sum it up:
If it ain’t lovin, it’s in vain.
If it ain’t lovin, you ain’t nothing.
If it ain’t lovin, you don’t gain.
Only Jesus’ lovin makes us sane.