A short description of what we’re up to can be found here. Comments are welcome but may be moderated for content and tone.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Poetry and Practice

The apostle Paul is not primarily known as a poet.

Still, even translated into English, 1 Corinthians 13 is poetic enough to have been set to music or read at millions of weddings all over the world, religious and secular.

So much so that Mark Woods at Christian Today wishes we’d use something else instead. He says, “Paul’s sublime, God-breathed words in 1 Corinthians have been co-opted and corrupted by a wedding industry that celebrates romantic love, which is all about hormones, at the expense of Christian love, which is all about commitment”.

Not wrong.

In the spirit of Mr. Woods’ quite legitimate concern, let’s look at one tiny phrase in that famous chapter as practice rather than mere poetry:
“Love … believes all things.”
Perhaps we should start by eliminating interpretations that are obviously wrong because they conflict with other statements in scripture:

1.  Love Is Not Credulous

One thing “believes all things” surely doesn’t mean is that love requires Christians to be clueless. I love my son, but if he comes home staggering and smelling of alcohol, love does not demand I believe him when he says he hasn’t been drinking. The follower of Christ is never called to abandon his or her discernment. Elsewhere Paul prays that “your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment”.

No, that interpretation won’t fly.

2.  Love Is Not In Denial

Equally, it is evident Paul is not requiring us to pretend to believe when we don’t. Love, he says, “rejoices with the truth”, not falsehood. It is not more loving to ignore wrongdoing than to identify it.

Quite the opposite. Ask Eli.

3.  Love Does Not Fantasize

Another thing Paul is not advocating is the easy-believism of the New Ager; the sort of airy-fairy pseudo-scriptural feel-good positivity that says, “You just need to have faith”, but really means nothing more Christian than, “If you believe hard enough, whatever nonsense you want to happen will happen”.

So by saying “Love believes all things”, Paul is not saying that a loving person can reasonably expect his friends and family to be saved provided he or she believes hard enough that it will happen. The apostle puts too much of a premium on truth for that to be an acceptable reading. In fact, earlier in the same book Paul asks the hypothetical believing wife, “How do you know whether you will save your husband?” and vice versa. It might be nice to fantasize about, but where there is any element of human choice involved, all the “belief” in the world from even the most loving partner is no guarantee of a favorable outcome.

4.  Love Is Not Merely the “Benefit of the Doubt”

William MacDonald says, “Love … tries to put the best possible construction on all actions and events”, meaning that it always seeks to give the benefit of the doubt. While this is a good general principle for all relationships and certainly the most credible interpretation to date, I don’t find it entirely satisfactory in combination with the words “all things”.

Those for whom Bill MacDonald is the final word may exit by the middle doors.

But really, sometimes there is no doubt for which we may give the benefit. There is no “best possible construction” to be put on, for instance, a wife’s demonstrated or confessed infidelity. To “believe” in the face of hard evidence is to veer back into credulity or denial, assuming we are talking about believing in a person, or believing in an idealized outcome.

I think that’s not what Paul is talking about here. Indulge me a bit?

Back to the Word “Believes”

Assuming we reject the four most obvious interpretations of the phrase, we have narrowed the field of possibilities somewhat. Still, we are left wondering exactly which things love always believes.

In English it’s only four little words (three in Greek), none terribly distinctive in either language. A Greek dictionary may not be much help here.

Or perhaps it may. The Greek is pisteuō, which is usually (but not always) translated “believe”. But it is also translated as “entrust” a number of times. Substitute that nuance of meaning in, and we get “Love entrusts all things” or “Love entrusts all”.

Believing or Entrusting?

Don’t take my word for it:
  • At the Passover in Jerusalem, John tells us many Jews believed when they saw the signs Jesus was doing. But he “did not entrust himself to them”. Same word, pisteuō.
  • Luke says, “If you have not been faithful … who will entrust you the truth riches”. Again, same Greek word.
  • Paul tells us in Romans that the Jews were “entrusted” with the very oracles of God. Same word.
  • Paul tells Timothy he has been “entrusted” with the gospel. Same word.
Does that help? It helps me. It takes a statement that might otherwise be ambiguous or obscure and turns it into a bit of a spiritual challenge. It converts poetry into practice. It gives me a way of understanding the phrase that is consonant with the rest of the New Testament.

We can read it two ways, and neither way is natural or easy:

1.  Entrusting All to God

First, Paul could be saying, “Love entrusts all things to God”, which is undoubtedly true. After all, who else can we trust? Who is the source of love, the energy behind love and the ultimate model for love? Who knows the hearts of the ones we love even better than they do?

To say “Love entrusts all to God” is certainly not to say anything new, but it is very much in keeping with New Testament teaching, and it is an acceptable interpretation. A marriage entrusted to God is a marriage for which there is hope, no matter what other deficiencies it may have. A friendship entrusted to God is one in which self will more rarely rear its ugly head. A parental relationship entrusted to God is often the only way some of us stay sane these days.

Love always entrusts, at all times, in everything, first and foremost to God.

2.  Entrusting All to Others

Second, Paul could be saying, “Genuine love puts itself perpetually at risk by entrusting itself at all times to the person it loves”.

Ouch. That’s a scary possibility, but it’s very biblical too. We are commanded to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors. That’s a risky proposition, and it involves entrusting ourselves not just to God, but to people who may respond very unfavourably indeed to someone who appears to be putting up no resistance. And yet these are exactly the sorts of scenarios the Lord contemplated:
“Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.”
A caveat: I do not think for a second that the Lord’s instructions here about responding lovingly to “one who is evil” are intended to apply to domestic violence. The context is nothing to do with the home, but rather with testimony to those outside it. Further, the worst involved here is a slap on the cheek, not broken bones or concussions. The idea is to accept humiliation and financial loss as a testimony of the reality of our faith to those we encounter in the world; it is not a carte blanche instruction to endure repeated and violent injury.

But the point is that the follower of Christ demonstrates love by leaving himself or herself open to being taken advantage of, embarrassed or getting the short end of the stick, rather than striking back in kind. That sort of vulnerability may scare us, but it certainly has a precedent:
“I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.”
 Love always entrusts. After all, isn’t that exactly what the Lord did?

No comments :

Post a Comment