Reading Time: 9 minutes

The two loves: a meditation on 1 Corinthians 13

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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The couple had only been married a few weeks when he came home from work to find her in tears.  “What’s wrong?” he asked, sure that he had done something for which he would now receive his just punishment.  “The dog ate the meal I cooked for you,” she sobbed.  Relieved, he said, “Oh, that’s alright, we’ll get another dog.”

That night, two slept in the doghouse, I would guess.

We want our families and relationships to be healthy and happy, but it’s not easy.  In fact, it may be harder than ever.  Tom Brokaw claims in his outstanding book, The Greatest Generation, that the World War II generation is in many ways the greatest in American history.  He has an entire section titled “Love, Marriage, and Commitment,” which begins, “The World War II generation shares so many common values: duty, honor, country, personal responsibility, and the marriage vow: ‘For better or for worse . . .’  It was the last generation in which, broadly speaking, marriage was a commitment and divorce was not an option. . . . Of all the new marriages in 1940, one in six ended in divorce.  By the late 1990s, that number was one in two.”

Clearly, our families and relationships need help—a foundation to build our homes on, strength when the storms come.  What blocks make that foundation secure?  In anticipation of Valentine’s Day, we’ll consider the most essential stones in that foundation.

What does “love” mean? (v. 1)

Aldous Huxley said, “Of all the worn-out, dog-eared words in the English language, surely love is the worst.”  He’s right, of course.  We “love” ketchup on our hot dogs, we “love” the Cowboys (at least when they win), some of us “love” the latest blockbuster enough to wait in line, and we “love” our Lord and our family.  Surely, not all in the same way.

What does God’s word mean when it speaks of “love” as a “most excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31), the one indispensable block in the foundation of your family and relationships?

There are four different Greek words which we translate by the single English word, “love.”  Agape is the Greek word in our text.  Simply put, agape is gift-love.  It is love given because I want to give it, not because I need to give it.  Agape is given regardless of what you do with my gift.  It is selfless, sacrificial, gift-love.

The other three words are all need-love—love we give because we need to, and we need to be loved.

  • Storge is not found in the Greek New Testament, but was common in Paul’s culture.  Storge is “affection.”  It is the need to give affection, as with a parent to a child.  However, when storge is refused, it stops giving.  If you give to your family or friends out of affection for them, but stop giving when they refuse you or your gift, you are not acting from agape but storge.
  • Philia is friendship.  It is the need for relationship.  As with storge, when philia is refused, it stops giving as well.  If someone refuses a relationship with you, so you refuse a relationship with them, you are not acting from agape but philia.
  • Eros is desire.  It is the need for emotional experience and gratification.  It can be sexual, but is more than sexuality.  As with storge and philia, when eros is refused, it changes from into something else—hatred, apathy, etc.  When this happens, you are not acting from agape but eros.

As you can see, storge, philia, and eros are all need-loves.  They are given because we need to give them, and because we need them to be received and reciprocated.  Only agape is gift-love, given because we want to give it, regardless of the way it is received.

Only gift-love is constant and consistent.  And so gift-love is the only foundational stone upon which our families and relationships can be built, our “more excellent way.”

Why does gift-love matter? (vs. 1-3)

Now, why is this kind of love so foundational to our relationships, and our own spiritual lives?  Paul tells us, in the most beautiful chapter in all the word of God.

Suppose that in this day of controversies in the church someone were to ask, “What is the chief distinguishing characteristic of the Christian who is right with God?”  “What is the hallmark which proves that we are right with the Father?”  Let’s think about some of the answers we might hear.

Someone would immediately reply, “The authenticating mark of the true believer lies in the arena of religious experience, and the more dramatic and emotional the better.”  And of course we are to worship God with our hearts as well as our heads.  But Paul says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal” (v. 1)—the kind of gong used in heathen worship and funerals.  My heavenly tongues become heathen noise, without agape.  Gift-love is more foundational to our relationships than religious experiences.

Others would quickly say, “Truth, orthodoxy, correct belief, loyalty to the doctrines of Scripture.”  And of course revelation is sacred and vital.  But Paul says, “If I have the gift of prophecy” (the prophet was the wisest man in Judaism) “and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge” (the philosopher was the wisest man in the Greek world), “but have not love, I am nothing” (literally zero; v. 2a).  Gift-love is more foundational to our relationships than correct theology.

Still others would answer us, “The authentic mark of the true church is faith, because we are justified by faith.”  And of course we must have faith to receive God’s grace, and to please him.  But Paul says, “If I have a faith that can move mountains” (a common proverb for the kind of faith which produces the greatest miracle you can imagine), “but have not love, I am nothing” (v. 2b).  Gift-love is more foundational to our relationships than faith.

And very practical people will reply, “The authentic mark of the true church is in the realm of service, deeds done in the name of Christ.”  Of course personal, practical ministry is vital.  But Paul says, “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames” (as did an Indian priest in Athens, a well-known act to Paul’s readers; v. 3), but have not love, I gain nothing.”  Gift-love is more foundational to our relationships than service.

Those who build houses in Southern California have discovered that buildings only survive earthquakes when they are bolted several feet down into solid rock.  Otherwise, they simply slide off their foundation and collapse.  In the same way, God’s word teaches us to bolt our families and relationships deeply to gift-love.  Then, whenever earthquakes shake us or storms beat against us, we stand firm.  But only then.

Are you giving gift-love? (vs. 4-13)

So, are you giving need-love or gift-love to your family, to those with whom you have relationships today?  How do you know?  God’s word is extremely clear in this regard.  Paul gives us a check-list by which we can evaluate ourselves this morning.  See how you’re doing.

Would your family or significant relationships say today that you practice gift-love?  Here’s how to know:

  • To be “patient” is to be understanding of people and accepting of their limitations and faults.
  • To be “kind” is to be gracious to them, always seeking to encourage and not to hurt.
  • To “keep no record of wrongs” is to pardon others, to refuse to punish them even though I could.
  • To “rejoice with the truth” is to be truthful always, even when it is hard and it hurts.
  • To “protect” is to help them when they hurt, no matter why they hurt.
  • To “trust” is to believe the best about them.
  • To “hope” is to refuse to give up on them.
  • To “persevere” is to bear everything with triumphant fortitude.
Or would they say that you practice need-love?  Giving affection, or friendship, or emotional love primarily for yourself?  So that your love changes if theirs changes?  Here’s how to know:

  • “Envy” means to wish for what others have, so much so that I wish they didn’t have it.
  • To “boast” is to seek constantly to impress others with what I possess or accomplish.
  • To be “proud” is to assume that I deserve to be honored and served.
  • To be “rude” is not to care whose feelings I hurt, or what others think of what I say.
  • To be “self-seeking” means to insist upon my rights at all times, to insist that I be treated fairly always.
  • To be “easily angered” means to make anger my first reaction when I am upset.

The only foundation for your family, your relationships, is gift-love, for it “never fails” (v. 8).  Even when preaching, religious experiences, and spiritual knowledge are done, and we see God face to face, gift-love remains.  If you want your family, your relationships to last, to stand strong, build them on gift-love.  This is the truth of God.


And it is the gift of God.  Jesus gave us gift-love when he died for us, every one of us, regardless of our response to his gift.  And he gave us the most powerful symbol of gift-love in the Supper we now prepare to receive.  His body, his blood, given to us.  His gift-love, for us.  How can we respond to gift-love, except to give unconditional, sacrificial love ourselves, in return?

Cassie Bernall was a 17-year-old high school junior in Littleton, Colorado.  While on their murderous rampage, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold asked her, “Do you believe in God?”  She counted the cost, then said, “Yes, I believe in Jesus.”  And they killed her for
her faith.

According to the Boston Globe, on the night of her death, Cassie’s brother Chris found a poem Cassie had written just two days prior to her death.  It read:

Now I have given up on everything else
I have found it to be the only way
To really know Christ and to experience
The mighty power that brought
Him back to life again, and to find
Out what it means to suffer and to
Die with him.  So, whatever it takes
I will be one who lives in the fresh
Newness of life of those who are
Alive from the dead.

She accepted Jesus’ gift-love, and gave it in turn to him, and to the world.  And at her memorial service, more than seventy-five teenagers made first-time commitments to Christ.

Like Cassie, will you accept Jesus’ gift-love?  With whom will you give it?