Chuck Robertson: Tough Love

It is difficult, frustrating, sometimes seemingly impossible, and yet it might be - quite possibly - the most important and influential work you or I can do.

I am talking about love. Now don’t write me off immediately by assuming what’s coming next. I am indeed talking about love, but not the sweet, sentimental thing that warms our hearts and makes us feel safe and comfortable; not the fiery, passionate thing that sweeps us off our feet and leaves us wide-eyed and breathless; not the idealistic, seemingly spiritual thing that sounds so good and helps us feel a tad bit more self-satisfied.

No, love as Paul is talking about here is not any of those things. Or at the very least, it is more than those things.

No doubt you’ve heard before that love is a verb - something you do. It is what you choose to say, and how you choose to act, or react. And because of that, love - real love - is indeed difficult, frustrating, sometimes seemingly impossible. In short, what I’m talking about here, and what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 13, is tough love.

Now, you may be forgiven for thinking that this passage, quite possibly the most familiar in all of the Apostle’s letters, is somehow meant for couples. After all, the one time we usually hear it read is during a wedding. And no wonder! At first glance, it’s beautiful, it’s poetic, it’s uplifting. But be a scriptural detective and take another look at where this passage fits within the larger context of the letter. Believe me, you won’t find a whole lot of love in the dozen chapters leading up to this passage.

Instead, what you will unearth through a broader reading of 1 Corinthians 1-12 is one example after another of divisions, conflicts, and just plain old selfishness among the followers of Jesus. Again and again, Paul uses various analogies to point out what these Christians can be, what they are called to be: siblings in a household, fellow workers in the fields, connected stones that form a holy temple, various parts of a human body knit together and operating as one.

This is the goal, he says, this is the dream for God’s people. For twelve chapters, Paul offers everything he can think of to entice and persuade these followers of Christ to break out of their divided, conflicted, selfish patterns. Oh, they talked a good talk, Paul admits, but there was a noticeable disconnect between their professed spirituality and their lack of concern for one another or others around them.

I still recall a conversation from my seminary days, one that I have shared many times since. I was working in a local restaurant to earn some much-needed money. While signing up for my shifts, I was urged by a longtime worker to make sure I didn’t get scheduled for Sunday lunchtimes. Curious about the warning, I asked him why. His response was unexpected, “Because the people coming from church are demanding, ungrateful, and leave lousy tips.” What a sad statement! Even more sad, as I would learn for myself there, he wasn’t wrong.

Paul would understand this disconnect all too well, and he has an answer to it. At the end of the 12th chapter of his letter to the Corinthian Christians, almost as an afterthought, Paul pauses in his case-by-case approach and points to “a still more excellent way.”

He then goes on with a poetic preamble, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Love is what is needed, Paul asserts. And when it’s missing, all the other impressive, spiritual stuff is just noise.

What follows then is a strikingly practical outline of what is needed. “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”

Wow, that’s quite a list. But note what this list shows us. St. Augustine, the renowned theologian from North Africa who wrote Confessions and The City of God, when asked what love looks like responded, “It has hands to help others, feet to hasten to the poor and needy. It has eyes to see misery, need, and want, and ears to hear human sighs and sorrows. That is what love looks like.”

You see, it’s not simply that love is a verb; it’s a very practical verb. These are do-able steps Paul gives us; these are intentional, practical choices to effect positive results in the lives of others around us. Love builds up; but it does so through the choices we make for what we say and how we act, with others foremost in mind - not just daily, but countless times each day!

Love is not dependent on emotion. It doesn’t matter what we are feeling in those moments; what matters is what we do. C.S. Lewis, the 20th-century Anglican layperson and author who gave us The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, and Mere Christianity, put it quite succinctly when he said, “Don’t waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did.” This is exactly what Paul is getting at, and again, it’s not easy. It’s tough. Fifty years ago, on the first live satellite broadcast across the globe, The Beatles sang “All You Need Is Love” and then, of course, they broke up. Love, after all, is hard work.

And this is where grace comes in… God’s grace and lots of prayer. A wise mentor once told me that at the start of each day, he would pray:

“O God, by the power of your Spirit,

help me today to be patient,

help me to be kind,

help me not to be envious of others,

or boastful, or arrogant, or rude,

help me not to be irritable,

or to resent others, or to keep a record of wrongs,

help me to bear all the struggles that come my way,

to believe and hope and endure, no matter what,

help me never to give up.

O God, by the power of your Spirit,

open my eyes to see you in all those I encounter,

open my ears to hear you in all those I meet,

help me to be love today.”

At the close of each day, that same mentor said, he prayerfully reflected on any moments when he did not show love in these real and practical ways. Then the next morning, he would start again, “Pray, love, repeat.” This is much like something Paul mentions earlier in 1 Corinthians, practicing a kind of athletic self-discipline. What is required is a building up of spiritual muscle-memory, so that over time the way of love personified in Jesus of Nazareth, a way of love that is intentional and practical, becomes, well, natural.

Does it work, though? Back in 2018, in February, I was wrapping up a three-week visit to churches and church leaders in several African nations. On my last night in Nairobi, I received a call asking whether it would be possible for my boss, Bishop Michael Curry, to preach at the royal wedding in Windsor that May. The answer, of course, was yes and, fast-forwarding three months, he preached a thirteen-and-a-half-minute sermon in which he used the word love some sixty times. Almost two billion people saw or heard that message. And one of the most important questions that came out of that experience was, “Yeah, but does this love thing really work?” As my boss would reply every time, “It’s the only thing that really works.”

When we begin to take this love thing seriously, taking up the challenge of ongoing, intentional, practical love, we will find that it gives birth to real peace… a peace that, as Paul puts it, “passes all understanding.” We will stop being childish, demanding that the world revolve around us, around me, and instead begin to see things clearly as those who are mature. No longer will those around us be strangers, rivals, enemies in our eyes - but no, they will appear to us as they truly are: like us, imperfect, struggling, but always God’s beloved children. The nineteenth-century Russian philosopher and novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote, “To love others means to see them as God intended them.” Yes, to choose to love on a daily, intentional, practical basis, is to be truly and gradually transformed.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu once noted, “Our ordinary acts of love and hope point to the extraordinary promise that every human life is of inestimable value.” My friends, there’s nothing easy about choosing to love. But by God’s grace and our ongoing choices, we can truly love in intentional, practical, ordinary ways. And in doing so, we can transform our world and be transformed in the process. Thanks be to God!

Let us pray.

O Gracious God, you created all that is, seen and unseen, and yet care deeply for each one of us with a love that is lavish in nature and limitless in scope. Help us by your Spirit to see ourselves and others around us as you do, and to share, in ways both practical and real, that lavish, limitless love. In the name of Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us. Amen.