Twenty-first in a series
1 Corinthians 13

And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)

Question #1: Why do I do what I do that is religious in nature?

That is an awkward question, isn’t it? Think about it.

You are a religious person. You are engaged in many religious practices. Why do you do them?

You go to church. You pray. You read the Bible. You give tithes and offerings. You do good things for people. I could go on with an enormous list of all the religious practices you and I carry on.

Why do you try to live the Ten Commandments? I know you. You have high ideals. You work at being a good person. I’m talking to you, a follower of Jesus, a Christian who has been born again by the Holy Spirit of God. Why do you do all the good things you do? I’ve been asking these questions of myself. Why do I do what I do that is religious in nature? Occasionally we need to sit back and introspect, asking ourselves some basic questions. And we need to answer them honestly!

Is it because I was taught to?

Some of us are the beneficiaries of godly home backgrounds. We have parents who taught us the things of the Christian faith. We have learned the teachings of the Scriptures from our childhood. Ingrained deeply into our lives is a sense of what is right and what is wrong. Some of us came to faith in Jesus Christ later in life, and we were taught by pastors and fellow Christian friends how to live the Christian life. Some of us would be quite uncomfortable leading nonreligious lives. Some of us are simply acculturated to be “good” people. In the process, we look down on those who aren’t quite so good. We can be self-righteous in our religious practices.

Do I do the things I do out of fear?

A lot of religion is motivated by fear. We can be scared of God. We can know that He is a God of love. We also know that He is a God of judgment. He takes seriously what we do. As a result, we can perform for His benefit. Religious activity may just save us from His wrath. No matter how convinced we are that salvation is by grace, not by works, there lurks beneath the surface this residual terror of the Divine.

The September 2, 2006, Los Angeles Times has a most interesting article on Chuck Smith, founder of worldwide Calvary Chapel movement, and his son Chuck Smith, Jr. That article points out the differences between father and son. I do not know how accurate the article is, but it notes that Chuck Smith, Sr., preaches much more about God’s judgment, wrath and the eternal physical punishment of hell, calling people to live their lives here in preparation to avoid eternal punishments of the afterlife; whereas Chuck Smith, Jr., reacting to this, has placed a much greater emphasis on God’s love and instructs us as to how we should live in this present world, not on a fear motivation.

Are our religious activities a kind of life insurance policy based on a fear motivation?

Or we can be scared of others. We don’t want people to look down on us. Many a religious act has been motivated by social pressure.

I had lunch one day with a businessman in another city. He described his money-raising method for a very worthy civic cause. He told how each year he hosted an exclusive dinner. Only those who had pledged a certain amount of money received invitations. Then he seated the guests at the dinner according to the amount of money they had given. That wouldn’t impress many of us. In his medium-sized community, it worked. The social pressure was enormous.

Do I do what I do because of guilt?

Guilt motivates many a religious activity. Throbbing in the subconscious is that knowledge that you and I are so blessed that we should do something for others. You know the feeling. You are walking through South Coast Plaza or Fashion Island during the Christmas season. There is the Salvation Army bell ringer. You do your best to avoid eye contact. Why? Those compassionate eyes trigger internal feelings of guilt. On one occasion, I was on my way to buy a camera, aware that there were some in Orange County who didn’t have the money to pay their heating bills. One of the least expensive ways to temporarily rid myself of guilt was to throw a dollar or two into the pot. The same thing applies religiously. Going to church, making the right religious sounds can ease the guilt.

Do I do what I do for the reward?

There are rewards. In fact, there are pretty big payoffs for doing what is right. You can get some of them in this life. You and I can be religious glory hounds. Many a great work has been motivated by reward. Jesus was frequently sickened by proud religious people. He watched them strut as they gave their big gifts. He called them hypocrites. He said they had their reward already. There would be none in heaven.

Let me ask you a question. Be honest in your response. Have you ever fantasized your own martyrdom? Wouldn’t people be impressed if you actually paid for some good deed with your life? Occasionally, one of those narcissistic thoughts has flown through my mind as I have read the stories of ancient martyrs. I’ll admit that, when I’ve fantasized these thoughts of what it would be like to sacrifice my life for the cause of Christ, I’ve done a double-take. My only regret is that I would not be around to see the glory I had received for my martyrdom.

And there is the reward in the life to come. A young man was giving his testimony one evening. All he talked about was the fact that Jesus had given him a one-way ticket to heaven. He had the promise of life to come. That’s right. That’s important. But is that all there is?

You may want to take these motivations and add others to them.

I ask you, “Why do you do what you do that is religious in nature?” Do you have an honest answer? Granted, we have a subtle mixture of reasons for doing what we do. Any one of these I mentioned in itself would be of questionable validity. Yet God can use these as part of a bigger mix to His glory.

Questions #2: Let me restate the question. It really boils down to this: What is my main motive for all the good that I do?

That’s what Paul was talking about in this thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. He twists himself out of character to make a point. Basically, Paul was a zealot. He was a theologian. He was a hard-driving workaholic. He was a man of logic. He was a man of good works. He was a man who concentrated on the importance of faith. He took truth very seriously.

Paul had started out his Christian life with bloody hands. He was determined to crush the early church, even to the point of participating in the killing of first-century Christians. His, then, was an instantaneous conversion, which he turned from being persecutor to being persecuted. You would expect Jesus to talk a lot about love. Love would be prominent in the writings of the apostle John. After all, he was a beloved disciple. But Paul? It seemed so alien to his temperament. Great theology? Yes! Strong calls to Christian action? Yes! He hardly seemed like the kind of person who would write one of the most exalted statements on love found in the Scriptures.

Why is it that Paul wrote this great love chapter? It is because he was led by the Holy Spirit to check out why you and I do our good works. He is doing some reality testing of our motives. This conceptualizer, who stresses grace, sees how concepts can be corrupted in practice. He is aware that we can be motivated to do the right thing or things for the wrong reasons. That is why he concentrates on love. He abruptly stops in the middle of solid doctrinal teaching to emphasize the importance of having the right motivation.

He momentarily puts aside his teaching about spiritual gifts and the Body of Christ functioning with many members. He will come back to this theme in 1 Corinthians 14. He makes this momentary shift in emphasis with these transitional words: “But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31).

Let’s take a look at what Paul has to say about motivation. He begins by giving a list. It’s a hyperbolic list. He exaggerates the highest religious practices you can do. He does not minimize their importance. He has spent most of 1 Corinthians 12 and will spend most of 1 Corinthians 14 emphasizing the importance of spiritual gifts. He lists what would be the perfect exemplification of religious prowess. He sets an exaggerated standard that would go beyond the abilities of any person in this sanctuary. He himself had actually come close to accomplishing all the things he lists. They were high priorities to him. Don’t let anybody tell you that Paul was minimizing the significance of these religious practices.

What he is doing is pausing briefly, as he underlines the importance of spiritual gifts, to remind us that the gift is not an end in itself.

He is reminding us that there is a difference between spiritual gifts and the fruits of the Spirit of God. The gifts are for this age. The “charismata” are transitory in nature. None of us has all of them. Those which we have we do not have forever. The “fruits” of the Holy Spirit are different. All of them are available to each of us. And they are qualities that endure. They are not gifts given to us. They are qualities that grow in our life. Remember how he mentions them in Galatians 5:22. He writes, “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

Here in 1 Corinthians 13, he singles out one of these spiritual fruits, noting its primary importance as a motivator of all our Christian conduct.

The motivator is love.

It was that quality which marked the life of Jesus as being different from status quo religious living. It was what troubled the Pharisees and Scribes, who couldn’t understand Jesus having a friendly relationship with sinners, actually going into their homes and eating with them. They tried to discredit Him. After all, why should a religious person waste his time or her time on bad people? Doesn’t God love good people and hate bad people? Love is what undergirded all the life and ministry of Jesus. This is what He was trying to illustrate in His parables, as He talked about the shepherd who went out of his way to find the lost sheep, a woman who sought diligently for a lost coin, a father who waited and waited for a lost prodigal son to come home. Jesus was trying to say what His critics couldn’t understand. God doesn’t love only those who are righteous. God’s heart is filled with love, not just for those who deserve it or have earned it by religious living.

God keeps on reaching out for those who are lost in a way that defies the cultural morality of any day. Society has its “good people” and its “bad people.” God is not particularly impressed with labels. Love is constant and enduring. His love is not dependent on how religious are your activities. What He wants is to have a relationship with you and to help you have a relationship with others – relationships that are undergirded by love.

Then the natural actions that emerge from that motivation have integrity. The good deed is more than an activity that is the product of education, fear, guilt or yearning for reward.

Paul writes, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels. . . .” There is a place in the church for people gifted in communication. Thank God for eloquent communicators of His Word. Thank God if you’re a good speaker. Thank God if you have the gift of learning human languages. Speech is important.

Not only is human speech important, there is also the gift of tongues. Paul had this gift. He could make ecstatic utterances. There are some here at St. Andrew’s who have this gift. It is a gift of God’s Holy Spirit.

He continues, “And if I have prophetic powers. . . .” This refers to the proclamation of God’s Word. God blesses certain individuals with the capacity to proclaim His Word. Study the Scriptures, and you will see that there are two kinds of prophecy. One is “foretelling.” This is predictive prophecy. An individual is gifted by God with the capacity to see into the future. The Old Testament prophets had this ability. However, a much more common gift is “forthtelling.” We need an increasing emphasis on prophetic utterances. We live in a day in which people need to hear the Word of the Lord. The Scriptures must be preached. Lives must be changed. Some have these prophetic powers.

He continues, “. . .and understand all mysteries and all knowledge. . . .” Some have special insights into spiritual secrets. They are students of the Word. Not only that, the Holy Spirit opens to them a depth of spiritual knowledge not as readily available to others. They seem to understand more than some of us who are neither quite as intelligent nor spiritually tuned. If you have all knowledge, you are a person to whom no matter is too deep. You are a gifted person.

Paul goes on to isolate another special gift. He writes, “. . .and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains. . . .” There is a gift of faith. Paul is not referring here to salvation faith. He is talking about those individuals who seem to have the special ability to trust God. Abraham was singled out as one who had such faith. Persons like George Mueller and Mother Teresa are great examples of faith. They have been able to trust God to accomplish large tasks with very limited resources.

One of these people I knew so well was Lillian Dickson. This tiny woman, widowed for the last years of her life, strode boldly through Taiwan founding hospitals, churches, leprosariums and orphanages. She had no money. She had great faith in Jesus Christ. Challenged by the parable of the “mustard seed,” Lillian Dickson had a marvelous ministry. Long past normal retirement age, she continued to prayerfully depend upon God to provide needed resources. Many other illustrations could be given describing large faith.

Paul continues, “If I give away all my possessions. . . .” You and I are called to give or to share with others the blessings which God has given to us. The Scriptures teach us to feed the hungry. Ours are to be lives of charity. That is part of our Christian responsibility. We cannot push aside the pressing needs of our world, tritely labeling them as “the social gospel.” This is God’s world. He is concerned with everyone in it. He calls us to give a cup of cold water in His name.

Then Paul says, “. . .and if I hand over my body. . . .” This could refer to two different things. Paul may be talking about the high honor it is to be the slave of Jesus Christ. In his day, some slaves were branded with a hot iron, even as we brand cattle in the Southwest. A white-hot branding iron would sear an identification mark on the slave. You and I are to be branded by Jesus Christ as His servants, His slaves. More likely, Paul was referring to the possibility of martyrdom. There is no higher honor than to go to the stake for Jesus Christ. Tradition records that all but one of His disciples died as martyrs. So did Paul.

Do you catch what Paul is doing here? He is listening to what any one of us would single out as one of the highest religious accomplishments. Then he swings right around and demands that you wait a moment. Even if it were possible for you to accomplish all of these grand spiritual feats – and who of us is capable of all of them – Paul wants to know why you are doing them. He’s doing a reality check of your motives.

So we come right back to the variation on the theme of our original question. We are dealing with motives. So I put a third question before us.

Question #3: Is my main motive really love?

Just what is love? Do you know any word that has been more abused? Many a seducer last night whispered these words, “I love you,” into the ears of a woman to whom he was physically attracted. Love. We all want to be loved. How tragic it is that so much of our love misses the mark of God’s definition. I have always been bothered by the word used in the King James Version. This word is “charity.” It always seemed to me that that is the wrong word for love. It implies almsgiving. It implies giving kindness to the sick and the poor. Paul didn’t intend that charity be placed above faith and hope. He is not singling out one virtue or one grace.

Do you want to know why the King James translators used the word charity? They used it because love then didn’t mean any more to some people than it does today. It had been so debased, used with such sexual connotation, that the word charity better expressed its meaning.

You’ve heard enough sermons to know that the Greek uses at least four words for love.

One is “eros.” This is sexual love. It is the desire to possess. From it we get the word erotic. That’s not the word Paul uses here. That’s not the motive that should drive us in our spiritual activity. We can distort our motivation; we can play a religious game of erotica. We can titillate our senses by using the right words, gratifying our pleasures by the right activities, being seen by the right people, doing the right things. To be viewed as “wonderful” is an erotic experience. That is not the word Paul used.

Second is the word “storge,” which means affection. It is that which exists between a mother and a child. It is that which characterizes families. It is the love that you have for your father, your mother, your brother or your sister. You may have your disagreements along the way; but if they are halfway decent people, they deserve your love. You deserve theirs. This is not the word that Paul used.

There is a third word, “philia.” It is a positive word. It describes a natural affinity one feels for a small circle of people who are of like mind and inclination. It means friendship. It involves a basic human loyalty of people who genuinely deserve each other. This is not the word Paul used.

He used a fourth word. You know it. The word is “agape.” This is the love of the undeserving. It’s a love that gives. It’s a love that goes the second and third mile. It’s a love freed from erotic impulse. It’s a love not only for those who deserve but also for those who don’t deserve it at all. It’s most classic expression was stated by Paul in Romans 5:8: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

Do you catch that? While we were undeserving, God took the initiative. That’s the kind of love about which we are talking. This stimulates in us the love of Christ that constrains us to do what we do. The love involves an act of the will, a decision. It’s a choice you and I are free to make or not to make.

Is this the main motivation behind your activities of a religious nature? You could find within the church at Corinth, as here at St. Andrew’s, believers with just about every spiritual gift there is. At Corinth, they were so spiritually gifted that they tore each other apart trying to figure out who had the best gift and whose word was coming most directly from the Lord.

I must make a confession. I want to be admired spiritually. Therefore, some of my religious activities are born out of spiritual pride, not “agape” love. How about you?

Paul does you and me the same favor he did to the church at Corinth. He becomes extremely blunt in defining this love. I read this definition at many of the wedding ceremonies I perform. Every time I go through this list, I find myself humbled. The reason I’m humbled is that, although I am called to be a person who manifests the basic motivating fruit of the spirit called love, I am actually a lousy lover. No, I don’t want to be too hard on myself. But I do have to be honest. Let’s take a look at this list. It weaves together both what love is and what love is not. Read my comments on each phrase and see if they help you. If not, why not make your own commentary on each phrase.

“Love is patient” – even when people bug me and complain about me, even when I’ve done my best.

“Love is kind” – sensitive to others in a way that genuinely wants the best for them.

“Love is not envious” – jealous, wanting what someone else has, refusing to express gratitude for all my blessings.

“Love is not boastful” – parading all my accomplishments, putting myself above others, as the most important person in the universe.

“Love is not arrogant” – elevating me and my concerns to a place of greater significance than your concerns.

“Love is not rude” – putting other people down or simply dehumanizing them by ignoring them.

“Love does not insist on its own way” – willing to get what is best for me at the price of others.

“Love is not irritable” – becoming too quickly angered with clerks and waitresses who don’t produce what I want when I want it but breathes deeply, waiting to know the facts, willing to see the other’s viewpoint. This is especially important in a marriage and all family living.

“Love is not resentful” – recording a list of the wrongs of others, a list that I periodically drag out to use punitively in putting them down or to use to build myself up, making me feel better.

“Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing” – luxuriating in that weird erotic feeling of enjoyment that comes from hearing something bad about somebody else, the very basis of scandal-sheet newspapers and TV specials that titillate us with the sensational activities of entertainment or political celebrities.

“Love rejoices in the truth” – taking great satisfaction when that which is right, authentic prevails; yearning to restore the fallen brother or sister while, at the same time, I live seeking God’s guidance for my life.

“Love bears all things” – protecting those who are unable to protect themselves, not defensively protecting myself.

“Love believes all things” – trusting others, even to the point of being willing to be deceived and hurt by others, vulnerable to their deceptive words.

“Love hopes all things” – wanting to believe that the best can happen without being naive in that belief.

“Love endures all things” – in that it is so steady, so strong, so lasting.

This agape love never ends! That’s a powerful statement, isn’t it?

Now, do you see why I have to admit that I’m a lousy lover? I’ve made a stab at each of these magnificent understandings. On some of them, my performance has been fairly good; but I have to admit I’m not all the way there. Are you?

You see, Paul was not for a moment minimizing the importance of these wonderful spiritual gifts of which he writes in 1 Corinthians 12 1 Corinthians 14. But he is showing that, when love is missing as the motive, the positive action actually becomes, if not a negative, at least only a fraction of the good that it otherwise could be.

Three key phrases underline this fact.

Phrase #1: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”

Do you catch what this is saying? As great a gift as it is to speak eloquently, our words are empty without a passionate agape love. This word strikes home to those of us who are preachers. I know some very gifted men and women who can move large congregations to tears. Behind the scenes, several I know are sullen, irritable geniuses. How pathetic. Wait a moment. How can I say this, “How pathetic,” about others? Although I cannot claim the same eloquence, I look in a mirror and see the reflection of myself and my own tendencies toward irritability, toward selfishness and toward pride. Is it possible, oh God, that the deep agape passion that drove me into the ministry is lost as I try to hold my own with the gifted persons who have stood in this pulpit and others in our Orange County community? The great eloquence is not that of polished speech. The one who would make the greatest contribution to his/her Lord is one who, instead of mastering his subject, is a love-motivated communicator who is mastered by his subject. Otherwise, it all becomes self-display.

The same can be said for the emptiness of ecstatic charismatic utterance. You may have the gift of speaking in tongues. That puts a heavy responsibility on you. You can take pride in the God-given gift, as did the Corinthians. You can elevate yourself above others of us who are not gifted in the same way. You can attach yourself to the specialness of your gift, forgetting that it is the love of Christ, the agape, the understanding, the sensitivity, the humility, that is the correct motivator. Eloquent preaching, ecstatic utterance, glorious liturgy can have the hollow sounds of noisy gongs or clanging cymbals. Many Corinthians worshiped Dionysus and Cybele. There was a lot of noise involved in all that pagan worship. Our ritual can be just as noisy, just as clanging, just as hollow in its sound.

Phrase #2: “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 do not have love, I am nothing.” I am nothing. I am useless. What I do avails me nothing. Think of that. I can speak with the very Word of God, both predicting the future and telling what God wants you to know in the present, and be nothing. Prophetic utterance can be futile without agape love. I can have tremendous insight into religious mysteries. I can be so proud of my theological system that I exhibit arrogance toward those who disagree.

I can have brilliant knowledge theologically, which is worth nothing without agape love. That is why some scholars are resented. They have superior minds. They make the rest of us feel stupid. There’s such a thing as intellectual snobbery. There is a cold detachment from other people. I am blessed with some beautiful friends, scholars who have much greater minds than mine. What I love about them is the agape that marks their association with me. They could quickly write me off for what I don’t know that they feel I should know. They don’t. There is true love; there is true friendship. Let me add quickly, a loving spirit is no substitute for the truth. Paul alerts young Timothy to discipline himself. This is no call for slushy, sentimental religion. This is a tough love that is willing to encounter another with truth – in a deep, unconditional, personal regard for that person as a human being as much created in the image of God as are you!

You may have a great faith so that you can actually pick up a mountain and remove it. If it is not motivated by agape love, you and I are nothing. Faith is great. You and I need more of it. Without this deep, motivating love, we can run around removing the wrong mountains, tragically mistaken individuals.

Phrase #3: “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” Many a politician gives away all he has. Like the ancient Roman emperors, you can provide bread and circuses. You can put on an ostentatious display of charity. You can have a choice of blowing the trumpet as you put your alms into the temple, as did the hypocrites of which Jesus spoke in Matthew 6; or you can quietly sell the field, as did Barnabas in Acts 4, and quietly bring what you have to the Lord. You can have your name put on a building. You can purchase an ambassadorship. What do you gain? Nothing, if what you want is the power, the prestige or the publicity. You can go to the stake, labeling yourself as a person of principle, a Christian martyr. If that is all you’re doing it for, you will get precisely what you want – the label.

This doesn’t mean that others don’t gain. They do. They may be the beneficiaries of our religious exercises. You and I are the losers if we have the wrong motives. Often it is the person with the greatest gifts who is the most vulnerable. You can start out with the right motives and suddenly switch to the wrong. Or, more subtly, our valid mixed motives can shift more and more away from agape to more superficial drives. It is so easy to kid ourselves, that is why we need this periodic introspection.

You see what Paul states so bluntly? “. . .But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (1 Corinthians 13:8-10).

He talks about the difference between a child and an adult. A child does not have the wisdom that comes with experience. The young person may be very intelligent. In some ways, I think I knew more when I was in college and in my first several years of ministry than I know now. What I didn’t know then was how much I didn’t know. Now I know how much I don’t know, and therefore I’m a wiser person.

You see, now I have come to the realization that I see through a mirror dimly. They made beautiful mirrors in Corinth, but they hadn’t perfected the art so as to remove distortion. Reflection was not perfect. It was only partial, as in our knowledge. There are absolute truths, but let’s be careful that we are not absolutists; for even the absolutes of God’s revelation to us are known by us in our humanness. Someday we will understand fully what we don’t now. So let us hold our convictions and carry ourselves with a more generative style of living, maturing into men and women who are not quite so brash, not quite so cocky, not quite so self-assured, knowing that, “Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Your spiritual gifts, as wonderful as they are, must be undergirded and energized by agape love if they are to be truly beneficial. It is the love of Jesus Christ that is to control us. It is His love that can motivate us. “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

The August 14, 2006, issue of Newsweek magazine featured a cover story titled, “Billy Graham In Twilight.” It went into detail describing his life, his ministry, and now his thinking as he is in his late eighties. What impressed me was his spirit of love, humility and graciousness toward others who disagreed with him. The article states:

Now more than half a century later, he is far from questioning the fundamentals of the faith. He is not saying Jesus is just another lifestyle choice, nor is he backtracking on essentials such as the Incarnation or the Atonement. But he is arguing that the Bible is open to interpretation, and fair-minded Christians may disagree or come to different conclusions about specific points. Like Saint Paul, he believes human beings on this side of paradise can grasp only so much. “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror,” Paul wrote, “then we shall see face to face.” Then believers shall see: not now, but then.

Why do I do what I do that is of a religious nature? What is the motivation for all the good I do? For God’s sake and for your sake and for my sake, I pray that that motive is love!


John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.

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About The Author

Dr. John A. Huffman Jr. served many years as pastor of the St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, California. Early in his ministerial career, Huffman served as an assistant under Norman Vincent Peale, pastor of Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. He has published several books, including “The Family You Want,” “Forgive Us Our Prayers,” and his memoir, “A Most Amazing Call.” He has served on the boards of several influential evangelical organizations, including Christianity Today, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, World Vision and the National Association of Evangelicals.

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