Love: Misinformed And Misplaced
The first recorded letter we possess from Paul to the church in Corinth explores a diverse range of topics and issues. In his letter, Paul answers many of the Corinthians’ questions as well as offering sage wisdom at crucial junctures. He also discusses controversial matters such as the practice of spiritual gifts in the church and reminds them of the inestimable importance of the reality of the Christ’s resurrection. But perhaps the most well known part of this letter is Paul’s famous discourse on love. In this context – of questions, controversies, and quarrelling – Paul seeks to reorient the attention of his readers to the heart of all their problems: misinformed and misplaced love.
In spite of living almost 2000 years after Paul and the Corinthians we still face many of the same controversies, questions, and concerns – as well as more unique to our own age and culture – yet our most significant problem remains unchanged: we do not love as we should. This is particularly apparent in the manner we address many of the issues that face us. In light of the Corinthians’ sectarian spirit which predisposed them to show favouritism and malign those with whom they disagreed or disliked (cf. 1 Corinthians 3), and our propensity to follow in their footsteps, Paul exhorts them, and by extension us, to be a people possessed by love who “[believe] all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7 NRSV) of others.
Love That “Believes All Things”
The Greek words Paul uses here shed light on what he expects of Christians: “[Love (agapé)]… panta pisteuei.” Pisteuei, derived from pisteuen, carries an ethical sense denoting confidence (or trust) in the goodness of others, so we could legitimately translate Paul’s words here as: “Love… always trusts that others are acting with the best intentions.” Consequently the NIV translates Paul’s phrase as, “[Love]… always trusts.” This calling to, from a heart controlled by love, believe all things, or always trust, is chiefly a summons to develop a gracious attitude towards others, most notably, towards those with whom we disagree; its essence is: to believe the best of others. Calvin elaborates on this in his Commentary on First Corinthians,
“as we are naturally spiteful, we are, consequently, suspicious too, and take almost everything amiss. Love, on the other hand, calls us back to kindness, so that we think favourably and candidly of our neighbours…
…Love believeth all things not that the Christian knowingly and willingly allows himself to be imposed upon — not that he divests himself of prudence and judgment, that he may be the more easily taken advantage of — not that he unlearns the way of distinguishing black from white. What then? He requires here, as I have already said, simplicity and kindness in judging of things; and he declares that these are the invariable accompaniments of love. The consequence will be, that a Christian [person] will reckon it better to be imposed upon by [their] own kindness and easy temper, than to wrong [their] brother [or sister] by an unfriendly suspicion.”
Love always trusts that others are acting with the best intentions, it believes the best of them. Love seeks to judge people and situations in best possible light, to give them the benefit of the doubt.
However, Paul’s summons to believe the best of others is inseparably connected with his surrounding panta (always) ecphoneses: “[Love] always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:7 NIV). As well as trusting that others are acting with the best intentions, Paul calls us to act in their best interests, desire the best for them in the future, and to never give up on them. Consequently, Paul is asking far more of us than merely our begrudging acceptance of others but rather a persistent commitment to their well-being and flourishing, even of those with whom we disagree or simply do not like because they too are our neighbours or our Christian brothers and sisters. Therefore, what Paul has in view here is an entire transformation of self because, as Calvin has noted above, we are by nature suspicious of the good intentions of others; we are inclined to think worse rather than better of them. For example, in conversation do we consider what people are saying in the best possible light, or do we immediately interpret them negatively? When hearing news of others, whether great or small, do we “rejoice with those who rejoice [and] mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15 NIV), or are we envious of their success and relish in their disgrace? On social media, are we quick think well of our friends and acquaintances or do we jump at any chance to judge them? And harshly. Is our first instinct to give others, even those we perceive as enemies, the benefit of the doubt, or have we already judged them as guilty before hearing them out? Shouldn’t we rather extend to others the grace we would want extended to ourselves?
Love, On The Other Hand…
Are we so forgetful of God’s grace to us in Christ? Have we ascended so far above our fellow believers, and our neighbours, even our enemies, that we consider ourselves unassailable and therefore beyond reproach? If God responds to our faltering obedience with grace, and with a love that delights in our best intentions and efforts. And if he knows our many weaknesses and yet loves us all the same. If God always acts in our best interests, desires the best for us, and never gives up on us. Then surely it becomes our duty to act thusly with those with whom we come into contact whatever the medium. For this is how God has treated us, he has showered us with grace upon grace: “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32 NIV).
Our thoughts and actions towards other betray us for the cynics that we are. We would rather extend suspicion instead of grace, misanthropy in place of kindness. We are not, in any way, deserving of God’s grace and kindness. But still he loves us. And it is his love that will transform our distrustful hearts into hearts which seek to believe the best of others intentions, to give them the benefit of the doubt. His love enables us to freely and prodigiously share the love he has lavished upon us with others as we repent of our cynical attitudes and rest in God’s love towards us in Christ.
In an age that celebrates cynicism we should recall Calvin’s words, “Love, on the other hand, calls us back to kindness, so that we think favourably and candidly of our neighbours.” And consider afresh Paul’s summons in his discourse on love, “[Love] always trusts.”
A Caveat On Discernment
“To love at all,” observed C.S. Lewis, “is to be vulnerable” (The Four Loves, p111). It is to risk, as Calvin put it, being “imposed upon” – to be taken advantage of – and consequently to be made to look foolish in the eyes of others. However, as Calvin notes, love that always trusts that others are acting with the best intentions and chooses to believes the best of them – giving them the benefit of the doubt – does not divests itself of prudence and judgment, that it may be the more easily taken advantage of. Love wants to believe the best of others and trusts they are acting with good intentions, but love also takes the time to understand each situation and determine which course is the most loving and wise because “love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4 NIV); love doesn’t act rashly.
Often love and discernment are perceived as being pitted against one another, as though the more loving a person is the less discerning they must be. And vice versa. However, the reality is much different. Love is discerning but our natural cynicism easily masquerades as discernment. We must, therefore, with God’s help, endeavour to understand what is controlling our heart: love or cynicism? A heart controlled by love immediately wants to help but takes the time to listen and evaluate how it may be of service, whereas the heart controlled by cynicism immediately looks for an excuse. Consequently, in spite of our very best efforts to be loving as well as discerning, there will be times we are taken advantage of. We are only human and we can’t know every facet of a situation. In these circumstances it will be more to our benefit, and God’s glory, that we have, given our limited understanding, chosen the path of love because, in the end, “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8 NIV). As Calvin concludes,
“[Paul] requires here, as I have already said, simplicity and kindness in judging of things; and he declares that these are the invariable accompaniments of love. The consequence will be, that a Christian [person] will reckon it better to be imposed upon by [their] own kindness and easy temper, than to wrong [their] brother [or sister] by an unfriendly suspicion.”