This is a dialogue with Professor Ben Witherington about my book The Message of Love
336 pages $12.49 paperback on Amazon or £12.99 paperback IVP UK or £9.99 ebook
BEN: It seems to me that 1 Cor. 13 is perhaps the most abused text in the Bible when it comes to love. The passage is not about marriage or marital love, but rather about the manner in which all Christians should use their grace gifts. It does not say that love is a gift, rather elsewhere in Gal. 5 it is called part of the fruit of the internal working of the Spirit. It’s clearly not a discussion of eros, not least because Paul is addressing all Christians in Corinth in all kinds of circumstances and relationships. And of course the operative term here is agape, which is to say its about God given love, the sort of God has and gives to us to share.
I quite agree with what you say about this sort of love being the mark of the Christian, or at least it should be. All gifts should be exercised in love, including, perhaps especially when we wield the sword of truth. Without love, spiritual gifts become just an ego display of Christian immaturity. How many times have we seen very gifted Christians who are so immature, they don’t know how to exercise their gifts in ways that comport with self-sacrificial love? I’ve found this, sadly, often shows up with Christian musicians, of which I am one.
What in your view is the relationship between love and forgiveness? I like the quote about unforgiveness being like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. Over time, I’ve discovered that forgiveness is as important for the giver as for the receiver. If one doesn’t forgive, a root of bitterness grows in one’s soul. Forgiveness is not optional. But sadly, forgiveness offered is one thing, forgiveness received is another. In a sense that situation is like unrequited love. And there is nothing normal or natural about such forgiveness. It’s a God given ability.
I wonder if you think it’s true that the opposite of active love in some situations is not hate, but rather indifference and inaction as a result. On p. 218 you say love is the believer’s defense against evil. How so? Unpack that idea for us. You rightly note that the Greek actual says ‘love never falls’, often translated ‘love never fails’ but are these one and the same? Sometimes even the best godly love does not accomplish its aim, surely. Right?
PATRICK: There’s a lot in that question Ben. Maybe if I say a bit about the text first, then something on love and forgiveness.
In the book, rather than a warm comforting poem to love, I call 1 Corinthians 13 a ‘searing searchlight’ whose light exposes the Corinthians’ (and our) failures to love. Yes, love is described in inspiring and beautiful terms, but the ‘way of love’ is set against the ‘way of unlove’ with the aim of calling the Corinthians to self-examination and repentance. If we don’t read the text that way then we’ve missed hearing its call for followers of Jesus to embrace the difficult discipline of love.
And this is no optional extra – those extraordinarily stark illustrations at the beginning of the chapter reiterate the point that without love anything a Christian says or does is of zero value. Without love, however gifted an individual, however ‘successful’ a ministry, or however ‘impactful’ a church – it’s all utterly worthless. In our pragmatic culture that values results, those are radical words that we need to hear again and again.
The quote about unforgiveness being like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die is so true isn’t it? I see love as a choice and forgiveness is a good illustration. We can choose the way of resentment, bitterness, hatred but that leads to ‘self-imprisonment’. Or we can choose the way of not letting wrongs of others define us, of letting the past go, of moving towards forgiveness and possible reconciliation (which depends on the other responding). This leads to freedom.
Of course it’s easier to say this than do it. It’s a process that can take years and will be different for each person. I don’t think forgiveness can be forced on someone. And it certainly is not to dismiss deep hurt caused by others, that needs to heard and acknowledged. And if #metoo and experiences like Bill Hybels in Willow Creek have taught us anything, it is that forgiveness does not mean hiding sin.