So how do we love the truth and love our neighbor too? The answer is found in a careful study of 1 Corinthians 13, but within the context of chapter 12.
Around 2006, a man named Tim Jenison began to take an interest in the Dutch painter, Vermeer. As a scientist, he wondered how Vermeer could paint so photo-realistically, before the invention of the camera. David Hockney posited that Vermeer probably used some 17thcentury technology to perfect his form and color.
Tim Jenison created a kind of laboratory similar to the one used by Vermeer. It’s a room known as a camera obscura. There’s a natural phenomenon that happens when you’re in a dark room and you put a lens in a small hole, leading into another room. Light reflects off the wall and objects and projects them through the lens onto the wall of the camera obscura.
However, due to the rudimentary and crude lens quality at that time, light often refracted when passing through it. As such, despite Vermeer’s ingenuity, many of his lines curl oh-so-slightly when they should go straight, and many of his colors are just a tad off.
When I read I Cor. 13:12, I think of Vermeer’s lens.
“For now we see through a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Tainted by Sin – Not Perfect
As humans, everything we do is tainted by sin. Romans 3:23 For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. The idea that every aspect of man’s life is tainted by sin is known as the Noetic effects of Sin. Nothing in this world is perfect or flawless.
Even our ability to observe is not flawless. Because all we do and think as humans is inherently flawed, we need to look at human virtues a different way.
The Noetic Effects of Sin
The ‘Love Chapter’ is About Much More than Married Love
Before we go further, I want to explain that 1 Cor. 13 is not about marriage-love specifically, though it’s often been interpreted as the main purpose for this chapter. My issue with interpreting it in that way has more to do with shortchanging the passage and limiting its effect.
In 1 Cor. 12:31, Paul encourages his readers to desire the higher gifts, but that he would show a more excellent way—Divine Love as described in 1 Cor. 13.
Sin Limits our Ability to Perceive
Before we begin, we need to look at how sin limits our ability to perceive genuine love as described by Paul in this passage.
In Pointilism, Impressionist painters used the points of their brush to dab dots onto a painting, instead of using broad brushstrokes. Up close, this looks like, well, a bunch of dots. But when you zoom out a bit to examine the totality of the painting, it looks pretty amazing! Church, we see some of the dots of the world, but we don’t see the whole painting. Only God sees that.
If we start with 1 Cor. 13:8-12, we get the context for why Love is the greatest gift. If we accept that our sin limits our ability to perceive perfectly, we can accept the statement that our knowledge is incomplete. But then, one way or another, we are united with The Perfect, which in the Greek is ‘Teleo’ denoting completion. Phil. 1:6
Christian Maturity and the Need for Sanctification
In a sense, all Christians are like lego castles, needing every part to be perfect or complete. Sanctification is kind of like God adding legos to us as time goes on. He won’t finish that work of sanctification until we die or He comes again.
When God completes his work in us, we cease to be part of ourselves and become the ‘whole version’. The ‘partial passing away’ is our sin nature passing away. Paul describes that as ‘putting away childish things’ or human maturity.
Why Love is Superior – It’s Real and It Will Last
Paul says, there is something that IS real and this is the better way than relying on our incomplete knowledge of an incomplete world: Love, which according to 1 Cor. 13:4-7, is patient, kind, not boastful, humble, not self-seeking, forgiving, truthful, enduring, hopeful, and enduring. Love never ends. It is the only thing that will last between the old creation and the new one.
I find it interesting that in summarizing the entire law of the Old Testament, Jesus tells his disciples that the two most important laws are “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself. The key word in both of these verses, is love – Agape love.
Seeking Knowledge Apart From God, Useless
Before Paul was a Christian, he was renowned for his knowledge of the Old Testament law, but what did that do for him? Paul knew the law, but he didn’t know the Lawgiver.
In 1 Cor. 8:1, Paul leads off with, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” He doesn’t say this to disparage knowledge. Rather, he is saying that the exercise of seeking knowledge is useless in the absence of God.
In I Cor. 13:1-3, Paul explains that nothing we can do, say, know, or give up is of value without Love.
Love, a Powerful Weapon Against the Darkness of this World
Our weapon against the principalities of darkness is the Sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:12), which is the Word of God. And how does Christ summarize the Old Testament Law? Love the Lord your God with everything you are and love your neighbor as yourself.
Love Inspires Knowledge and Wisdom
Consider James 3: 14-18. The world’s wisdom results in bitter jealousy and selfish ambition. But God’s wisdom is synonymous with the list of qualities in I Cor. 13—pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason etc.
I think TS Eliot captures this the most fully in Four Quartets.
“The dove descending breaks the air
with flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.”
As we can see, all men are either refined by the fire of sanctification or burned in the eternal flame of Hell. When you know the two options, one seems much more desirable than the other. So, Church, love God with everything. Love your neighbor as yourself.
How to Love Your Neighbor — ‘The Empty Fort Strategy’
In 200 AD, a Chinese General, Zhuge Liang, faced a terrible prospect. Just after a major battle with one army, another army with over 150,000 men marched on his castle! With only 2500 men to defend him, he chose to open the doors to his castle, rather than attempt to fight. Given Liang’s battlefield prowess, the enemy figured that Liang must have set up an ambush. Rather than risk embarrassement and defeat, the Wu general decided not to attack.
Of course, the battles we, as Christians, fight aren’t like General Liang’s–against flesh and blood enemies. They are fought against rulers, powers, and world forces of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Eph. 6:12
At one point, I was extremely passionate about shining the light of Reformed theology on all those who disagreed. I lost quite a few friends in the process. It seems that making peace is a much more satisfying way to live.
My Dad said he used to be very similar.
But he told me that he came to a crossroads and the decision was left up to him, as it is left up to everyone. Would we rather be known as a Church of truth or a Church of love?
Love in Truth, Speak the Truth in Love
I try and often fail to choose love. It’s an easy way to fail. But I’ve learned that the quickest way to awaken someone to the reality of their situation is to love them.
How will people of the world see us when they approach our castles? Are they going to fear us and avoid us or feel welcomed in?
Our goal as a church should be to love and be truthful, or as Paul says in Ephesians 4:15 to speak the truth in love. So, Church, let us love in truth; let us speak the truth in love.