You may think you’re hot stuff because you speak eloquently, or you may be smarter than anyone else around. Your list of accomplishments may be a mile long. You may be oozing with talents that amaze all your friends. You may pride yourself on being a good, moral person who always does the right thing. But none of that stuff amounts to a hill of beans if you don’t have love. So says the famous love chapter in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13. For all that stuff is going to come crashing down someday. It will all be forgotten or lost. The only thing that stands the test of time is love. So, if you’re going to strive for something in your life, don’t go for that which will one day fade or fail, rust or rot. Go for the one thing that is endures forever: Love.
Now, there’s a special word that’s used for love in this passage. It’s not the same word in New Testament Greek that is used for the love you have for a friend, or the love you have for a romantic partner. It’s agape love, the love of God. Love without expectations. Love without an agenda. Love without conditions. Perfect love. It’s the kind of love most people long for, but few experience.
For typically, the love we express for one another has more to do with us than it does the other person. We love another because of the way they make us feel about ourselves. (It’s pretty hard to love someone who does nothing for you.) And so, our love isn’t exactly pure. Our own needs and wants, our own woundedness and brokenness get in the way. That’s why it’s pert near impossible for us to be patient and kind all the time with one another. That’s why we get jealous. It’s why pride gets the best of us. We get defensive, and self-protective. Sometimes we do things that are downright crazy. Because we’re not perfect. And so, our love is less than perfect.
But the love of God transcends all that. The love of God is pure, complete… perfect. So, does that mean that agape love is God’s thing, but it can never be ours? Is agape love like “The Impossible Dream” for us, something we are compelled to strive for, knowing darn good and well that we’ll never really achieve it? Before we can answer that question, let’s consider the human experience of love.
The most basic way of experiencing love is on a feeling level. It’s the way you’re drawn to someone you find attractive. It’s the mushy feeling you get inside when you think about that special person who means the world to you. Or it may be the way you ache inside when you see someone who needs your help. It’s a heart thing. It’s something that you feel. You can’t fake it. Either you feel it or you don’t. And for a lot of people, that’s what love is… that’s all love is. It’s a feeling. But the thing is, you may feel loving one day, but not the next. Feelings come and go. If love is a feeling, it’s a very shallow form of love.
A deeper way to experience love is not about feeling; it’s about doing. It’s doing loving stuff for one another. We serve one another. We help the one who needs us, whether they deserve it or not. We show compassion toward our friends and even our enemies. We act in loving ways, whether we’re feeling the love or not.
Have you experienced that kind of loving in your life? Have you ever been in a situation where you knew you were truly loving in an agape kind of way? If you ever have, chances are your experience was hard to sustain over the long haul. The agape love of God was flowing through you in a very real way, you experienced it for a moment, and then it was gone. If you look at the kind of love we hear described in 1 Corinthians 13 as something you aspire to, then, that’s as good as it gets. If you really work at it, every so often, you might catch a glimpse of it.
But there is yet an even deeper way of experiencing the love of God. Deeper than feelings, and even deeper than the act of loving itself. And that is to know God’s love, not as feeling, and not as doing, but as being. Perhaps this may sound a little far-out, but hang in there with me. It’s a line of thinking that takes you from a childish understanding toward growing into a mature understanding of love. It's the sort of thing Paul is talking about in verse 11 when he says that when he was child he thought like a child and behaved like a child, but when he became an adult he put an end to his childish ways.
It’s not quite as easy to put your finger on love as being as it is love as feelings, or love as actions. It’s a mystical way of experiencing God’s love. It’s the love that knits us to God. And it’s the love that knits us to one another in the Body of Christ.
So often, we tend to think of God as the other. God is there, and we are here. God reaches out to us in love, and we receive that love. Then we try as best we can to love God and other people in response to the love we receive from God. And that works.
But consider the possibility that God is not the other. Consider the possibility that we are a part of God and God is a part of us. I like the way John puts it in his first letter, where he says, God is love. And although no one has ever seen God, when we love one another, God lives in us and God’s love is perfected in us.
What if we allowed God to be God in our lives? What if we recognized the unity we have with the God of love? What if we didn’t have to work so hard at acting in loving ways, but we allowed the love that is already within us to be? What if we didn’t just feel love, or do love, but what if we are love? We wouldn’t have to think about whether we will choose to love at any given moment. We love because we are deeply connected with the One who is Love. We love because God is in us and we are in God. Love is who we are. It’s the essence of God that has been at the core of our being since creation – the essence of God that is Love.
Could that be what it means to be created in the image of God? Could it be Love? Could that be what 1 Corinthians 13 is about? It’s not about whipping ourselves into shape and becoming different people, people who are more loving. But it’s about becoming who we already are, people created in the image of the God who is Love.
We look in a mirror and we fail to see ourselves the way God created us to be, we fail to see the image of God looking back at us. So much gets in the way. In church we say it’s our sinfulness that's the problem. Yet that doesn’t mean it’s everything about us that is wrong or bad. It’s just our very human limitations that are inescapable: our hurts, our confusion, our misplaced priorities, our brokenness -- all the stuff that obscures the God of love within us.
But let there be no mistake. You were created in the image of God. And if you look closely in the mirror, although that image may appear dimly, nonethless it’s there. Someday, Paul says, we’ll see that image clearly, without the impediments that obscure it in this lifetime. We’ll be able to look in the mirror and see what we were created for in the beginning, and what will remain of us for eternity: Love.