Impossible Love

Gary Wilkerson

Seeking His Most Excellent Way

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). This an incredible vision of the church working together as one, yet just as Paul finished extolling these awesome gifts, he added, “And I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Paul explained, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). What exactly did Paul mean with this bold statement?

The whole world is familiar with one passage from this chapter, yet even in the church we mostly get it wrong.

Every day, a passage from 1 Corinthians 13 is heard by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people around the world as it is recited at weddings. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

This is unconditional love. We see it as sweet and tender, and we tend to romanticize it, elevating it to the aspiration of a noble heart. Yet in doing so, we miss the significance of this urgent chapter. Paul is showing us the true meaning of agape, God’s perfect love. As he states, agape transcends even the Holy Spirit’s supernatural gifts. It is more than society ascribes to love, more than Shakespeare’s portrayal of it and more than the Beatles song “All You Need Is Love.” In fact, this chapter states the opposite of how most of us think about love.

Agape isn’t based on what it receives. It is more than unconditional; it is sacrificial. This may sound strange to say, but 1 Corinthians 13’s love is actually a problem for us. That’s because the vast majority of us don’t practice it as Paul describes.

You see, in this chapter, God is commanding us to love as he loves. That is heart-wrenching to consider because such love is beyond us. It is an impossible love, yet Paul wants to show us how this “most excellent way” is possible for us to live out powerfully.

First Corinthians 13 shows us our spiritual poverty; it is meant to break our hearts.

As I read this chapter, I see how little I love with agape. Paul says love is patient; so, Lord, how many ways am I impatient? Love is kind; oh, Lord, how many ways am I unkind? Love bears all things, not some but all, and love is never ending. “Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:8).

This most excellent way is clearly an impossible way. To understand it, we have to understand the relationship of God’s law and his gospel. Now, we don’t normally think of the law and the gospel as going hand in hand, but they are one thing. We usually point to the Old Testament – Exodus, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Leviticus – and say, “There is the law.” Then we turn to the New Testament – the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes – and say, “That is the gospel.” No, God’s commands are embedded in both.

The fact is that Jesus never disparaged or did away with the law. In fact, he said he came to fulfill it. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17). Moreover, the law is at the center of both Testaments. Peter points to God’s command to live holy. “But as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct”  (1 Peter 1:15).

Likewise, the gospel appears in both Testaments. Ezekiel 36:26 is just one of many references to the good news: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Clearly, God’s law is central to the gospel in our lives.

The law functions in our lives in four ways.

The law first commands and directs us. It tells us, “Here’s what you have to do,” and in every way its commands are good. “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). This includes the way of love spelled out in 1 Corinthians 13. Paul’s instructions about perfect love are not just tips or suggestions; they’re commands.

If we don’t have patience in showing love, Paul says, then we have done nothing. We have failed at God’s law, and James says that if we fail at just one point of the law, we have failed all of it. “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). We may show patience nine times out of 10, but on the one occasion we blow our cool, we’ve fallen short of God’s law.

Second, the law informs us. One of the best-known passages about this is in Micah. “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

Third, the law awakens us. When we’re shown God’s commands, we recognize our utter failure to keep them. Paul claims, “Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (Romans 7:7). In short, the law is like a speed-limit sign. You may not know you’re breaking the law as you drive 70 miles an hour until a road sign tells you the speed limit is 50.

Fourth, the law reveals. It exposes not only our failure at God’s commands but our need for a savior and redeemer. The law drives our consciences to confess, “Lord, I see your commands, and I am utterly broken by my failure.”

This is when the law has done its work. Once we are driven to our knees, the gospel points us to an empowering grace. His good news powers our steps to love perfectly even as he loves.

What the law requires, Christ delivers.

First Corinthians 13 may entice us to great aspirations, but our failures leave us flat on our face. No one, however, has kept God’s law in totality. No one except Jesus.

Have you ever wondered why Christ lived on earth for 33 years? One reason was to lead a spotless, righteous life of perfect love. We don’t hear much about this aspect of Christ’s spotless life, just that it provided the perfect sacrifice on the cross. However, Jesus’ perfect life has everything to do with 1 Corinthians 13. After he bore the curse of sin we inherited from Adam, he then imputed his own righteousness to us.

Therefore, we no longer walk in our own failed righteousness but in his perfect righteousness. We are empowered to walk in perfect love even though we aren’t perfect beings. How? Christ’s righteousness sparks in us the desire to love people as he does. That is how you and I are empowered to love impossibly.

Even when we fail at loving others, we no longer try to redouble our efforts as we once did, failing again and again. Instead, we’re driven to Jesus, crying, “Lord, impute your righteousness to me. Work your agape in me, otherwise I can’t love as you do.”

Here is a sad truth: The more we try loving each other in our own strength, the more we end up hating one another.

The more we reduce agape to church programs, the hollower those programs become. Trying to love others through our own strength and strategies falls short. I may be as eloquent as the world’s best speechmaker, but “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). The church needs agape.

Even our spiritual gifts won’t last. “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away” (1 Corinthians 13:8). Only the impact of Jesus’s love on people will never fade away, and our mission to love with agape is never-ending.

Embedded in Paul’s letter here is an important question. That is, if you could move mountains and perform miracles, would you still devote your energy to loving people as Jesus does? If you were the world’s greatest preacher, would you still hunger to love others with Christ’s love? If you knew all of life’s great mysteries, would you pour all your energy into leading seminars, or would you prioritize loving people beyond your earthly capacity to love?

The entirety of our calling is bound up in God’s law because his law is bound up in the gospel. “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Galatians 5:14). We are commanded to do one thing: love. Now, add to that three words from 1 Corinthians 13:8: “Love never ends.”

His calling to love remains ever before us. Let us therefore seek his righteousness, that we may love perfectly. His commands require no less. Amen.