It cannot be by mistake that Paul wrote the passage about the necessity of love in the middle of his explanation of spiritual gifts and their place in the body. I like the way that my NIV has the chapters sub-divided in 1 Corinthians; the passage on love starts with 1 Cor. 12:31b, "And now I will show you the most excellent way." It is a good reminder that the passage on love comes imbedded in a passage about the unity of the body of Christ and the importance of the variety of spiritual gifts. In the NASB 1 Corinthians 12:31 reads, "But earestly desire the greater gifts. And I show you still a more excellent way." The NLT says 'So you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts. But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all."
There must be a reason that Paul sandwiched this passage about love into a larger conversation about diversity in the body of Christ and the necessity for the variety of gifts. He had just finished explaining that different gifts and roles in the church are like different parts of our physical bodies - all interconnected and necessary with those parts that look less exciting really deserving the greater praise. Paul seems to be appealing to the church in Corinth not to try to judge value or significance based upon the roles served in the church, and that regardless of the impressiveness or sacrifice of the gift, that without the perfection of love the sum total is nothing. Any gift plus love equals righteousness but any gift, no matter how great, without love is nothing.
When we start talking about love it is easy to be shallow, as ironic as that sounds. Sometimes I think it reads like a list and if we don't boast and we are appropriately compassionate when we see others hurting, then somehow we have passed the 'love' test. Obviously love is not a list of does and don'ts. I don't think that the list that Paul gives is exhaustive. I think he was trying to show that love is all encompassing and completely empty of man's sinful nature. Love is perfect. Anywhere that perfection exists, love is there. Love has no sin.
A call to live a life of love is nothing less than a call to live a life of perfection. But specifically Paul seems to speak of this most important quality in the companionship of the spiritual gifts. Some spiritual gifts seems to 'channel' love more easily. A gift of healing, for example, might seem to be imbedded with love - unseparable. But then I think of one of the most popular T.V. shows on television today about an irrascible doctor who seems concerned with everything but loving his patients, his staff members, his family. Other gifts seem to be more disposed to devalue the importance of love - gifts of discernment or wisdom or prophecy without love are fruitless. Perhaps that is why Paul gives the examples that he does,
Though I speak with the tongue of men and of angels and have not love then I am just making noise. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and understand mysteries and have inconceivable faith but I have no love then I am nothing. And if I give everything I have, every act of selflessness even to the point of death, but have no love I have gained nothing." The church at Corinth was arguing over spiritual gifts and it was like Paul was saying to them, "Stop, your arguing is pointless because you are all part of the body, and besides who cares if you are amazingly generous or think you have tremendous insight to the scriptures, if you are behaving unlovingly toward each other then your gifts are all wasted and don't matter at all!!!"
Furthermore, I would suggest that Paul is specifically speaking to the church in Corinth about how they were treating each other. It would hardly seem to matter to non-believers what spiritual gifts a member of the body of Christ claimed as their own. Those issues only matter inside the body. I can imagine Paul's letter being read and the addressees listening to his list about love and thinking of exactly the specific instances in which they were not acting lovingly toward each other. "Love is patient" (so we shouldn't fuss at each other when we don't 'get' some truth immediately?) love is kind (not vindictive), it doesn't envy (or covet another's gift), it is not proud (assuming my gift is greater than another's), it is not self-seeking (looking to have my accomplishments recognized), it keeps no record of wrongs (you mean, everytime someone else fails I am not supposed to hold it against them or justify my own poor behavior by theirs?) - instead love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things and never runs out.
Sometimes in Christian communities we seem to be concerned about living the Christian life for the approval of others. Maybe it is a martyr complex or a desire to be found blameless in the eyes of a superior or a friend. Maybe a need for self-remonstration; an assuaging of guilt. But these all all inwardly focused and concerned with the effect of the action, not with the betterment of the object of the 'love' itself. In this line of reasoning I would separate 'acts of kindness' from true love. As mentioned before, there are things that we know we should do and so we do them - to satisfy the should; not because we are genuinely concerned with what is best for the object of the act. I think this is a very dangerous bandage because it looks so much like the real thing - like bandaids that are the color of skin so they are less noticeable to others. My acts of kindness can cover over the broken-ness in my soul and maybe then, from teh outside others cannot see how damaged I am inside. I am not in any way implying that acts of kindness are 'wrong' or that God cannot use them to genuinely benefit the receiver, but that according to Paul even if we were to give away everything we owned - including our bodies but did it outside of love then the result for us is empty and meaningless. I think these acts of kindness bottom out or souls. They cheapen our intentions and make worthless all our efforts and eventually we become discouraged and bitter that all the acts we have so 'sacrificially' done are leaving us unfulfilled and unsatisfied. We are unsatisfied because without love they profit us nothing.
I am in no way implying that all this soul searching guarantees immediate results - far from it. Our sinful flesh is by very nature self-seeking. And I think that even trying to be 'loving' can become an 'act of kindess'. (Again, I am not negating the ability God has to use these acts, but simply stating that we don't find genuine lasting satisfaction in such acts.) In really considering and praying over 1 Cor. 13 and what it needs to mean to my life, I am not even praying that God will make me loving as though I will lay aside 31 years of selfishness in one grand gesture and be pure in motive ever after. What I am praying this week, this month, this semester is that God will teach me to see my actions and motives for what they really are and to consider with heart-breaking honesty whether I am weilding my spiritual gift pointlessly for lack of love and whether the moments that i label 'love' are in fact genuinely concerned with the best for someone besides myself. When I hug that problem student in the morning am I really open for God to call me further into service to someone that grates on me? When I correct a student am I genuinely concerned for their well-being and maturity or am I trying to produce the end result of control? It shreds my gut to think of the number of times I have carried out the right action for the wrong reason (and of course the number of times I have committed the WRONG action for lack of thought!)
Anyway, I am still thinking through all of this. It is baffling, this concept of love. And, as my mother pointed out - you cannot imagine what all-forgiving love is until you have experienced it, and sometimes that experience does not preceed our call to perfection - and love is perfect. I don't know if I am getting any better at it. I can only pray that in seeking love I will find it. I think it is what God wants for me.