Hanging on When You Feel Like Giving Up
Hanging on When You Feel Like Giving Up
Helen Hayes, a stage actress of another decade, was talking about charm when she said, "Charm is that thing which, if you have it, you don't need much else, and if you don't have it, not much else matters." I think the apostle Paul might have used those words in talking about love—agape love. I think he would have said that love is that thing which if a Christian has it, she doesn't need much else, but if she doesn't have it, not much else matters. Certainly that's what he's saying in the first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13. Paul says that apart from love all of our ministry, all of our service, all of our sacrifice accomplishes nothing, makes us nothing, and gains us nothing when we stand at the judgment seat of Christ. Reading the New Testament you discover that love is not optional. It's not a matter for the agenda to be voted up or down. It is essential in the Christian's life. Love is that thing which, if you have it, you don't need much else. If you don't have it, not much else matters.
If not much else matters than love, than we must ask the question, what is love? The love Paul speaks of is certainly not the love of Hollywood; it's not even the love of strong emotions. In 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Paul defines love by describing love. He shows us what love is by showing us what love does. He dresses love up in a business suit, in a dress, or in jeans, and we see it in action. He says, for example, that love is very patient and it's very kind. I take it that's the headline for the list that follows. Then he gives us eight things that are negative, things that love doesn't do. Love does not envy, he says. It does not look at other people's gifts and talents and abilities and envy them. Love believes that God gives us what we need to be the kind of people he wants us to be. On the other hand, love doesn't boast; it doesn't parade its gifts before others. Love is not proud. Love leads to good manners. Love isn't rude; it doesn't unnecessarily make other people feel uncomfortable. Love is not selfish, he says. It's not always asking, "What's in it for me?" It's not always looking out for number one. Love is not easily angered. Love isn't irritable; it's nice to be around. Love doesn't keep a record of wrongs done against it. It refuses to pay back slights for slights and injuries for injuries. It doesn't delight in evil. It is never gladdened when somebody else goes wrong. It takes no delight in other people's failures. Instead, Paul says, love always rejoices in the truth.
Love bears things for others.
You'll notice when Paul says that love always rejoices in the truth, he has turned a corner. He has given us eight things that love does not do. Now he's going to give us five things that love does do. Love always rejoices wherever truth abounds. And then he says that love always protects. At least, that's the way the NIV puts it. Other translations say that love bears all things. You wonder how translators could differ that much, but the word that's used here, stego, is a semantic marker for a wide field of meaning, which means it can be used a lot of ways. It can be translated as love bears all things. There are pictures that go with stego. The word is used for a ship plowing the Mediterranean that suddenly comes against a great storm. The waves rise high like mountains and pound upon that ship. One moment it's in a valley and the next moment it's on a crest, but it bears the storm; it makes it through to the other side. The word is also used for a roof that stands up against the rains and doesn't leak. It bears the force of the weather. The word is used of soldiers guarding a fortress. The enemy comes against the fortress throwing everything they have to get the soldiers to retreat, but the soldiers stand. They bear the weight of the attack. That's the word stego. It can mean to bear up under the weight of opposition. People do all kinds of things that will make you want to leave them, to give in. But love stays. It's as steady in its staying power as the love of Christ is for those who God has brought to himself.
When I first began to follow Christ, I was in my teens. My cousin and I joined a Presbyterian church youth group. The people who supervised the group were a couple, Marion and Vera Barnes. Marion was in New York to study at Columbia University to get a Ph.D. in chemistry, and Vera had come to New York to study nursing at Presbyterian Hospital. That's where they met. In that young marriage they decided that they wanted to do something together, so they became the sponsors of our youth group. I think my cousin and I had crossed the line from non-faith to faith, but we hadn't been completely sanctified. I mean, there was a badness in us. We'd get to those youth groups, and we were disruptive, to say the least. There were times after which Vera Barnes, bless her heart, would leave weeping, and we were the cause of her tears. Even worse, this didn't bother us very much. In fact, I remember Marion saying to us, "You guys are the scum of the earth," and he was right. But this couple stayed in it. Over two years they stayed with that group, and I was better for it. In the years that followed, I wrote letters of apology for what we did, and when I was a student at seminary I visited them. Marion's grandson came here to Gordon-Conwell and graduated two years ago. He told me, "You know, my grandfather said I ought to come to Gordon-Conwell because you're here." I appreciated this so much, because I thought that really showed forgiveness. Marion and Vera bore us with love, and I thank God for them. Love does that.
Love protects others.
Another translation of stego is "protect." Love protects. You can see that. The ship that does not sink in the storm protects its cargo. The roof that does not give in to the wind and rain protects the inhabitants of the house. The soldiers that stand up against attack protect the fortress and the people in the fortress. So this same word is translated love "protects." And it does, doesn't it? One of the wonderful things about people who love you is that they do not deliberately expose you to things that will hurt you. They do their best to protect you.
Roberston McQuilken was a missionary to Japan and for many years president of Columbia Biblical University in Columbia, South Carolina. Dr. McQuilken and his wife kept a plaque in their living room that read, The Absent Are Safe Here. Sometimes when people would be visiting in their home and the conversation would turn raw and negative, Robertson would look silently up at the plaque causing the others to look up at it. The Absent Are Safe Here. And the conversation would change. It's wonderful to be in a fellowship of people who will keep your reputation safe, even when you're not present.
Have you ever experienced the close intimacy and healing that comes with a group of people with whom you are completely safe? I experienced it when I was a professor at Dallas Seminary. There were four of us in the faculty who were together probably three or four times a week to eat lunch. It was great fellowship. We laughed. That's as close to love as you can get—real laughter. Barth was right when he said that laughter approximates holiness. I mean real laughter, healthy laughter, not the derisive laughter that's always putting somebody down. We laughed. We expressed our concerns, our doubts. We talked to each other about anything that was bothering us, knowing that the others would listen. I was absolutely sure that they would never quote me in a wrong way, and if they ever did quote me, they'd always put it in the best light. I grew in that fellowship given to protection.
Awhile ago I read a quote by Dinah Mulock Craik, a novelist and poet of the nineteenth century. She said, "Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts or measure words, but pouring them all out just as they are, chaff and grain together, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep the wheat that is worthwhile, and with a breath of kindness blow the rest away." In a fellowship where there is love, people do anything they can to protect the other person.
Love trusts others.
Paul says that love not only protects, but love also trusts. I'm enough of a cynic to think that if you take this as your life verse, and you take it at face value, you're going to be in all kinds of trouble. I mean, if you trust everybody you meet, there's going to be a line of confident people at your door trying to sell you a Brooklyn Bridge. There are people out there who will lie to you, who will be delighted to deceive you, who will take advantage of you. It's true that love is often a bit naïve. But it always trusts?
You can tell that when Paul talks about this kind of love, it is not objective. It does not depend on what resides in the person you're dealing with. Rather, it's subjective; it has to do with what you are yourself. More importantly, as a Christian it has to do with how you see other people, in the light of God's working in their lives. Paul treated the Corinthians this way. The church in Corinth was split. They were angry enough with each other to take one another to court. Many of them flirted with idolatry. Sexual looseness was something Paul had to rebuke. They got to the Lord's Table and they made an orgy out of it. Doctrinally, they weren't even sure about the Resurrection. You think, Look, Paul. Let me give you just a bit of pastoral wisdom. Don't trust these people. It's a bad crowd. But Paul did trust them, in a way.
Look at how he starts the letter. He begins by saying that he's writing to the church of God in Corinth. Strange place for the church of God to be.
To those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, together with all of those everywhere who call on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. I always thank God for you because of the grace given you in Christ Jesus, for in him you have been enriched in every way, in all your speaking, in all your knowledge, because our testimony about Jesus Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore, you don't lack any spiritual gift. As you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed, he will keep you to the end so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord is faithful.
What Paul could trust was that these folks, as weak and difficult as they were, had a work of God going on in their lives. Whatever else he saw, he could be sure that if God was at work, God would keep that work going until they stood before Jesus Christ. That perspective does help when you look at a brother or sister who is not quite there. Realize that God's not finished with them yet. They're people who are under construction. Like a road with a detour, they had a rough spot. But God's moving them to be the kind of people he wants them to be, and you can treat them that way. In the South they have a proverb that says, "You call a dog a bad name, he'll live down to it; call him a good name, he may live up to it." But the good name has to be the name that God is giving them. They are Christians. They are Christ's followers. They're indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
C. S. Lewis has a passage in his essay The Weight of Glory that I am in a weak way paraphrasing. He says that there are no ordinary Christians. These people with whom you eat, with whom you pray, with whom you play, these folks that are in your church or your family or neighborhood—none are ordinary Christians. I mean, take the person who irritates you most, the person who's always talking loudly, the person with bad breath or bad manners. You know that kind of person. Lewis said that if you could see what that person will be like when God gets through with them, you'd be tempted to worship them. There are no ordinary Christians. These are people who are made to be with God for eternity. You can respond to people that way. You can believe that God is doing a work in their lives that will be ultimately magnificent. And in that sense, you can trust what God's doing in their lives.
How would you like to be around folks like that? The kind of folks who bear with you, give you the benefit of the doubt, who when you're down work to pick you up. Don't you like to be around folks who bear all things for you, protect you at all times, and trust in God's good work in your life? Those are people who you love to be with, and those are the people who love to be with you, as you display Christ's love to each other.
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.