Soon after I graduated from seminary one of my first ministries was as an assistant pastor of First Baptist Church in Medford, Oregon. During those three years I attended a number of ordination exams. In our denomination, ordination exams are about the same as the baseballs at Fenway Park, all of them are pretty much alike. But there was one that I do remember.
A young man was being examined for ministry, and as I remember, he was a graduate of a Bible college. The pastors in the area had come to put him through his paces, the standard stuff—call to ministry, conversion, and then they got into the doctrinal section. That was pretty standard, too. What did he believe about Scripture? What did he believe about Jesus Christ? What did he believe about the Holy Spirit? Did he think it was all right for people to speak in tongues? Then there were always the questions on eschatology. Are you premillennial, are you amillennial, or are you postmillennial? If you got it right, you said premillennial, and then they moved on to a second set of questions. Are you pre-trib, mid-trib, or post-trib? After a while the chairman decided that it was enough, the suffering was over and asked for any final questions.
A pastor stood up and said, “I’ve got two more questions.” Folks were a little uneasy, but he began, “Young man, I’ve got two questions. The first question is: Do you love people?” I guess I remember it because I remembered my reaction. You know they say there are no stupid questions. This gets about as close as you could get. Do you love people? What do you expect him to say? No, I hate people but I love the money and the ministry.
As the years have passed I realized that wasn’t a dumb question; it was a crucial question. In fact, if you take Paul seriously in 1 Corinthians 13, he is saying whatever you do with your gifts, no matter how brilliant they may be, if you do not exercise them in love, you accomplish nothing. You yourself are nothing, and you gain nothing at the judgment seat of Christ. Do you love people? That’s a crucial question.
The young man, I’m sure, answered that correctly. But then the second question was: If you love people, how do you know? Oh you have warm feelings towards some people, and you’re about as loving as the next person, maybe a little bit more. But how do you know?
Paul answers that in 1 Corinthians 13 by showing us what this love, this agape love, looks like.
Love Is Patient and Kind
Paul defines it by describing it in fifteen phrases. The first two “Love is patient. Love is kind.” They’re kind of like the headline for everything that follows. Real love is patient because real love knows that every one of us is a work in progress. None of us has arrived. Every one of us has a way to go. So we understand that. You can be patient with people.
You’re also kind. Real love is always filled with those little acts of consideration that make life bearable, make it pleasant. This love is able to handle the fact that there are differences among people, differences in gifts. There are some people who have very evident gifts, public gifts, and when you see that you don’t envy it because God’s given you gifts.
God has given us the gifts we need to serve him where he puts us. When you can settle for that then you don’t envy other people who have more evident gifts. And certainly if you have public gifts, you don’t boast. You don’t keep dropping suggestions about how wonderful your ministry is. You’re not puffed up like a balloon that has only air in it.
Love Is Not Rude
Then Paul turns to talk about social situations. In 1 Corinthians 13:5 Paul says that “Love is not rude.” King James’ Version says that “Love does not behave unseemly.” Another translation says that “Love had good manners.”
I realize that if you’re going to talk about manners at church it’s a bit like wearing a sweatshirt to a formal dinner. I mean, manners, we got so many important things to say. But Paul says “Love isn’t rude.”
I guess the reason we don’t put a lot of stock in manners is that we think of manners as etiquette. The word “etiquette” comes from the French word for ticket or a card, and back in the great days of French royalty if you had an audience with the king or the queen they gave you a card and told you how you were to enter, where you were to stand, how you were to sit, when you were to speak, and how you were to leave. So today the rules of etiquette are those rules, often very complicated, that govern us when we meet, greet, eat.
Americans don’t think too much of that. Maybe coming out of our frontier spirit we think they’re kind of stuffy. So when we hear about love has good manners, we think Well, yeah. I mean, you never hear a youth director saying I want to challenge you today to have better manners. They don’t advertise in Christianity Today we’re having a conference on manners. It’s all so trivial. But manners have to do with the manner that we have when we interact with other people. They are important. Whether they’re good or bad, but we all have manners. Even people who do not know the rules of etiquette, if they are people of love, have manners.
I grew up in New York City in a section of New York that Reader’s Digest said was the toughest section in the United States. We were not schooled in the social graces. When we said to somebody around our neighborhood he was good with a knife, you were not talking about the way he cut his food. When I went off to college it was a whole new world. College was in the South, and they put a great deal of emphasis on etiquette. I learned about stuff I didn’t even know existed—how you passed your food when you’re all through, where you put your knife and fork. Got to get it right. Introducing a younger person to an older person. I came back home after that first semester educated beyond my intelligence.
We had a lady in our church. Her name is Mrs. Anita Whinny. She was a wealthy woman and a very cultured woman, and she invited several of us at the church to go as her guests to a very formal dinner. Then she spoiled it all, because she invited my father to come as well. My dad didn’t know the rules. I knew it was going to be a long evening. We got there and my father sidled up to one of the waiters who was dressed in a tuxedo and asked him how the tips were in a place like this. Then when he sat down, he opened the menu, it had the items but no prices. My father had never seen anything like this, and he said, “How do you order? You don’t want to just take all the expensive things.” I said, “Dad, that’s the way it works here.” When they passed the food there were times in which he took the shortest distance between two points. It was a tough evening.
What surprised me was a few days later we were at church and Mrs. Whinny was there and I thanked her for the invitation. She said, “I’ve already gotten a thank you note from your father. I’m glad he could come. He’s such a gentlemen.” I thought she was putting me down, but she was too gracious to do that. No. She had realized that what my father had done was not the rules of etiquette, but he cared about people. What he did was simply a display of that, and she could see beyond his errors to his heart.
Years later I read a comment that said, “You can take the most untutored person, and if they have a reservoir of love in their heart you can put them into the most formal situation and they will not be rude; they cannot be because they are governed by love.”
Now don’t mishear what I’m saying. This is not an argument against etiquette. It’s a good thing to know the rules of etiquette. Those rules keep us from bashing each other in the landslide of life. But etiquette without love can make you a snob, but love can give etiquette a soul.
People at Corinth could have used a course in etiquette or in manners. They began the first of a series of great potluck suppers. They called the love feasts. People came Sunday evening, and everybody brought something to share with others. I guess the rich brought lavish dishes, pies, cake, whatever they had, and the slaves who came they could afford a little more than a bowl of Jell-O. They shared that with the Lord’s table. They began with the breaking of bread; they ended with the taking of the cup. It was a full meal. I mean, it wasn’t the kind of stuff we have. We get a little wafer or a little tiny piece of bread. They had a full meal. It was a love feast.
But after a while the love got lost. The wealthy people, who came, they came early. They came with their food. They ate. When the slaves came later all they got was the leftovers. When Paul wrote about that in 1 Corinthians 11 he’s furious. He says what this thing is is not the Lord’s table. It has nothing to do with the Lord. What you’re doing is sinning against love. I rebuke you for that.
We have our potluck suppers, and we have the danger of ignoring people as though they aren’t there. When the service is over in church, we have a way of getting up and going over to greet the people we know, and a stranger who is there is ignored. Often feels as though we’re as distant as a star, as cold as space. That’s not just bad manners. That’s not just a sin against etiquette. That’s a sin against love. Love isn’t rude; can’t be.
I think it would be good to have a conference on manners. Sometimes we practice our virtues in such a way that they lack love. People who are proud of candor often are unkind, and people who like to call a spade a spade often end up treating other people like dirt.
Dr. Richard Sumi was a pastor in Houston, and he told me that he had a well-known Bible teacher in for several days for a week of meetings. Before one of the meetings they went out to get a bite to eat, and while the waitress was serving the food she spilled some water on this man and he was furious. He told that waitress what he thought of her and rebuked her for her carelessness. Said she should be more careful. If she’s going to be a waitress, she need … and on it went. She went to get a towel. Sumi leaned over and said, “Doc, when that girl comes back, I dare you to witness to her.” He couldn’t. His rudeness had destroyed his witness.
That’s worth keeping in mind, isn’t it? Next time you are at a restaurant, what will you do when the folks who wait on you make a mistake? It’s certainly worth keeping in mind if you travel a lot and the airlines are late again. How you handle a person at the counter has a lot to do with your Christian witness.
Love Is Not Self-Seeking
Then Paul says it’s not self-seeking. I think that’s the motives behind good manners. Not self-seeking. It isn’t always asking What’s in it for me? When you really love people your learning is for their benefit. Your service is for their good. Your leadership is for their enrichment. Love is not self-seeking.
When you read that and think about it, you realize that whatever it is Paul’s talking about he’s not talking about something natural that you can just sort of say “From here on out I’m not going to be self-seeking.” No. This is the kind of love that comes from God, because by nature we are self-seeking. By nature we’re always wondering How does it benefit me? But real love doesn’t make that the first question. You don’t need the Bible to tell you how selfish we are. Rudyard Kipling in his novel Dombey and Son has these words.
Dombey and Son. These three words conveyed the one idea of Mr. Dombey’s life. The earth was made for Dombey and son to trade in, and the sun and moon were made to give them light. Rivers and seas were formed to float their ships; rainbows gave them promise of fair weather; winds blew for or against their enterprises; stars and planets circled in their orbits, to preserve inviolate assistant of which they were the center. A. D. after a date, had no concern with Anno Domini, but stood for anno Dombey-and Son.
That’s not just out of one of his novels; that’s out of life. Another novelist is talking about Edith. He said Edith was like an island surrounded on every side by Edith. On the north there was Edith; in the south there was Edith; in the east there was Edith; in the west there was Edith. Everywhere she looked all she saw was Edith. That could refer to Harold, Mary, Rebecca, or Tom. It’s just the way we are. But this kind of love that comes from the Holy Spirit doesn’t seek its own. It asks about the good of others.
Paul showed the Corinthians that. One of their issues was: Could you eat food sacrificed to an idol? It was a big issue. Theologically idols are nothing, a piece of stone, wood. You don’t have to worry about them. But that wasn’t the end of it. There were people who ate food offered to an idol, sold in a meat market that was common stuff in Corinth, but when they saw that they couldn’t eat it because it would offend their conscience. The danger was that if they did that practice they’d go back to the old life.
So Paul spends basically three chapters talking about it. But the principle, he said, is that nobody should seek their own good but the good of others. That’s the norm. This kind of love just doesn’t keep asking: What’s in it for me? The basic question is: What’s in it for others?
Love Is Not Easily Angered
So love isn’t rude. It’s not self-seeking. Then Paul says it’s not easily angered. Another translation says it’s not irritable. You read that; depending on who you are, that can make you irritable.
Love is not irritable? If you knew the roommate they stuck me with, you couldn’t help but be irritable. The people in my hall, the noise they make. If you were married to my husband, I mean, he doesn’t even know how to squeeze a toothpaste tube correctly. And my wife, you let her get hold of that checkbook for ten minutes and she’ll destroy it for a year. Irritable? If you were surrounded by the people that I have to work with at the office, you’d be irritable. I was born with a disposition of a bulldog. I get wound up tighter than a banjo string. You can’t expect anything else of me. If you can’t handle that, if God can’t handle that, I’m taking the trolley; I’m out of here.
All right. Admit it. I will. Irritability is a greater problem for some people than others. There are some people who just get along, and there are others who never lose their temper. It’s always out there where everybody can see it. But usually when people say they’re irritable and you ought to overlook it, they say that and they mean you ought not to take it too seriously. If it’s just part of my personality or my background I expect you to overlook it. It’s the one thing irritable people don’t do for others.
Sometimes it’s called the vice of the virtuous. If you’re a highly moral person and somebody doesn’t toe your line. If you’re a perfectionist and you want to get it all right and you always have a clean desk and you’re around the rest of us who make the top of the desk look like a snowstorm, irritated, especially if you have to deal with it.
You don’t make allowances. What you don’t say is it’s a sin. I mean, I’ll grant you, you have difficulty with it. Some people have difficulty with stealing or with lying, some with pornography; your problem is irritability. Love isn’t irritable. The only way I know you can deal with it is by seeing it as a moral evil, and seeking for grace and forgiveness.
If you’ll excuse the mistake of a homiletician, Paul is talking about manners, motives, and mood. And he says if you really love people you’ll see it at least in those three things in action.
Years ago in Decision magazine a seven-year-old boy wrote a letter to Billy Graham, and they printed it. It said, “Dear Billy Graham, I love God. I love Jesus.” Signed “Johnnie.” Underneath there was a PS and he said “I love people, too.” He was well on his way to having ministry.
Two questions: Do you love people? And if so, how do you know? If so, how do they know?
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.