More than twenty-five years ago, Mike and I took our first steps down the aisle and into our future.
We could see the horizon there — a timeline stretching straight from our vows to where the dark sky stretches down to meet the end of all things. The way ahead seemed kind and unhurried, with no cracks or caverns to cross, no mysteries to solve in the world or in each other.
Time has taught us other truths.
The Apostle Paul also learned that the way forward can be filled with doubt, and we catch a glimpse of it in his great struggle in prayer at the beginning of Colossians 2. He aches for the people of this church to “reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of…Christ.”
But to get to these riches of knowledge — to attain this deep assurance without doubt — Paul knows they’ll need something important, and it isn’t training or wisdom or righteousness.
So he prays for this key component first:
“…that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love…”
It’s an odd prayer, asking that these followers of Jesus be ultimately lifted toward assurance and understanding not through learning, but through love for each other and for God. We have already glimpsed Paul’s passion for this love in scripture — it’s the same kind of love (Greek word agape) he writes about in one of the Bible’s most famous chapters, I Corinthians 13:
If I have not love, I am nothing. If I have not love, I gain nothing. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Now faith, hope and love abide, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
When we read these verses, it sounds like love is the magic potion that makes all actions righteous — that love is the highest virtue to strive for on its own lofty merits.
But we know that cannot be. For we know that it is without faith that we cannot please God (Hebrews 11:6), and that it is trust in the grace of Christ that saves us, not any work, including our love (Ephesians 2:8-9, Galatians 2:16). We see that our hope in God is what will not put us to shame in the end (Romans 5:5).
No, love does not offer us salvation. It is not intrinsically better or more true than hope or faith.
The reason for love’s greatness can be found in the central, conclusive paragraph of Paul’s famous essay.
Love never ends.
It is greatest because it lasts the longest. When passion or belief or hope play out, love remains. It is grace that saves us, but love that sustains us.
Love runs farther than hope. It keeps us moving forward longer than our trust in results, farther than that patient ache that things will get better. Love focuses on hearts, not just the harvest. It brushes us off and stands us back on our feet in the field when hope is deferred and makes the heart sick (Proverbs 13:12).
Love pushes on past faith. Our trust in God or people we love can stumble. Duty that rises from belief alone can run us off course, because we are broken — we only know in part. If our thoughts change, so can our promises. But Jesus’ words “If you love me, you’ll keep my commands” are not a threat, just a truth. Only love inspires lasting obedience.
The shocking truth about love is that it’s not something about others, it’s something about us.
1 Corinthians 13 does not say that without love I do nothing or accomplish nothing.
It’s not that my acts won’t affect people or help them or change them.
It’s not that God doesn’t use them, or even that He doesn’t care about them.
Without love, all the doing only hurts me.
I am nothing. I gain nothing.
I have dug through 25 years of marriage and ministry to discover this treasure.
Without love, I am the one who loses all things.
I am the one who becomes small. Without love, I can’t sustain the times when my faith fails, or my hope in my husband or children or church falters, or my willingness to serve flickers out. My vows become clanging in my ears, my calling is a noisy cymbal. I surrender my body to the flames of my bitterness and burn for no reason at all.
To sustain anything — our marriage, our friendships, our ministry, our families, our service, our understanding, our faith — we must pray that our hearts would be encouraged — that they would be stitched together with love. We must find our joy not in what we do but in the faces and broken hearts that are the reason why.
We must press on past hope and faith to find the love that endures there, urging us forward, the greatest of these.