For many Christians, I Corinthians 13 is their favorite passage of scripture. And for good reason: it speaks to the very heart and soul of human existence. Paul paints a most moving, beautiful picture of love. Nothing else speaks as elegantly about love as these few words.
The sheer power of these words, however, presents a problem, for the word love is used so often in so many contexts that its meaning becomes fuzzy and unclear. The English word love means different things to different people; it also means different things to the same person at different times.
When the word love is mentioned in contemporary society most people most of the time think of sex. This intense emotional attraction which the Greeks called Eros, is vital to the continuation of the species. But Eros is only one small facet of the diamond of love. The love that is necessary for life is more than just a heart-throbbing emotion.
For instance, another facet is the love that binds friends and family together. The Greeks called this mutual sharing of friendship Philia and recognized it as a highly desirable form of human interaction. Deep friendships give color and melody to our lives.
Less often, we all feel at some point a twinge of love for the needy people around us. This love is more an act of the will rather than a flutter of emotion. It is that God-like love that was modeled so freely by Jesus. It is an unconditional love. This Godlike love seeks the best for the loved one. This love, the Greeks called Agape.
Of all these facets of love which is most important in marriage?
Some would say sex is the primary driving force of life and that all human motivations and needs resolve into the libido or sexual drive. Others would say that mother love, or friendship is the most basic human need. After all, these social loves are responsible for the cooperative spirit that has enabled the species to survive and prosper. Still, others would say that self-sacrificing love is the ultimate fulfillment of our basic needs.
The real answer is that our basic need for love encompasses all these—Eros, Philia, Agape. All of these levels of love to one degree or another, are means of touching others, of making contact. A husband and wife in an embrace, two friends chatting about their favorite book, a missionary working in a school for needy children—each expresses the basic human need to love and be loved.
In the 13th Chapter of I Corinthians, Paul does not try to define love; instead, he uses a variety of action verbs to illustrate what love does. Yes, love, (Agape) is not a feeling, it is something one does. As Paul tells us,
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (Corinthians 13: 4-7)
When love becomes a verb, it is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Our marriages will be enriched the more we incorporate I Corinthians 13 into our relationship. Then we can say with Paul:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.