Francis Bourdillon, 1881
"Charity (love) is patient, and is kind." 1 Corinthians 13:4
This is a very remarkable chapter. It is all on one subject, love. It gives a full-length portrait of this Christian grace. All must be struck with the force, the fullness, and the earnestness with which the apostle writes. One thing we clearly see, that he had considered love in all its workings, that he did most earnestly desire that all should live in it — nay, that he thought it absolutely necessary in every Christian. And we must bear in mind that this was not a mere opinion of his — but that what he wrote, he wrote by inspiration of God.
Before we go further, let it be clearly understood what charity means. The word is often used for giving to the poor, or for showing kindness to any. If a beggar meets us — he asks our charity. If a person is noted for relieving the needs of others — he is called a charitable person. But this meaning of the word is not, strictly speaking, its right meaning; nor is it the meaning of it here.
Charity is a feeling or principle — not an action. It leads to actions, but it is not itself any action at all. In short, it simply means LOVE — Christian love. A spring issues from the ground, and, as it flows down the hill-side, divides itself into several streams. One stream goes this way, another that. One makes those meadows so green; another turns the water-wheel in the valley. Each is useful, but each in its own way. Now it would be wrong to call any one of those streams, the spring. The spring is that which supplies them all. The streams pursue their course, doing good wherever they go; but the spring is on the hill-side, or rather deep below the ground, where the eye cannot see it.
So charity, or love, is the spring — and acts of kindness are the streams. The spring is in the heart — the streams appear in the life. Like the streams of water flowing this way and that way, and doing good wherever they go — so charity, or love, sends out kind thoughts, kind words, and kind actions in all directions. But they are no more charity, properly speaking, than the streams are the spring.
Much is said in this chapter about charity. We are told what it is — and what it is not; what it does — and what it does not do; how it feels, what it seeks, what it takes pleasure in, and how long it will last. But let us fix our attention now on this one thing that is said about it, "Love is patient, and kind."
Of course when it is said "Love is patient," the meaning is, that the person who has love is patient. In other words, the loving person is a patient person. He is patient and forgiving. He willingly puts up with wrong. Even when treated as he feels he ought not to be treated — he is not angry or revengeful, but patient. To many an angry word — does he return a soft answer. Many a slight — does he pass by unnoticed. Many an unkind act — does he repay with kindness.
Is this easy? Far from it. Some are indeed by nature more smooth-tempered than others, but none are disposed by nature to return good for evil. And many a person to whom the words "Love is patient" may now with truth be applied — was by no means smooth-tempered naturally.
Formerly the hot temper was ready to rise at every provocation — and angry feeling was easily excited — and hasty words were often on the tongue. But now there is something within which checks, softens, and calms his anger. It is love — God has given him the spirit of love. And so this same person now bears with offenses which he would not have borne with formerly. He is now patient under harsh treatment, which once would have filled him with thoughts of revenge. He now answers gently, with words that would once have called forth the angry and bitter speech.
This is his habit. His patience is shown, not merely now and then, in an occasional fit of forbearance and gentleness — but always. Such at least is his desire. He is patient every day — to those with whom he lives continually; to those in the same neighborhood, or in the same house; to those who often provoke him, or whose temperament is not pleasing to him. To all such, he tries to be patient at all times. It has often a wonderful effect on them in the end.
But this is not all. "Love is patient, and is kind." Now there is a way of being outwardly patient — without being kind. Some people bear things in sullen silence. There is no outbreak of angry passion, no show of resentment, no hasty reply — yet, under a calm appearance, there is secret ill-feeling. And there is yet another way.
Some are patient because they are unfeeling. Treatment that would make a hot-tempered person very angry — does not make them angry at all, simply because they do not care about it. But neither of these is love's way of being patient.
"Love is patient, and is kind." He who has Christian love in his heart — bears ill-treatment, or puts up with what is unpleasing in others, not in sullen silence, or cold unconcern — but in a spirit of kindness. He is not without feeling. The harsh treatment of others cuts him to the heart. It pains him to meet with cruelness in word or in deed. But, though pained, he is still kind. He has no feeling of resentment — or if such a feeling should rise, it is quickly subdued. He not only endures meekly, but is ready also to do any act of kindness in his power, and is glad if an opportunity occur of doing good to one who has injured him. This is the triumph of love — the victory of grace, "to overcome evil with good."
I say "of grace," for it is of grace. Some are by nature more kind and gentle than others — but true Christian love is a fruit of God's grace in the heart. Natural kindness is a lovely thing, but it is not Christian love. For love is a Christian principle, drawing its life and power from Christ Himself. His love is its motive; His example is the pattern; and His power in the heart by the Spirit is that which begets, maintains, and increases Christian love.
Yet all merely human instances of charity are imperfect. I said that "love is patient" means that the person who has it, is patient. But how little we have of it! How often our love fails when tried!
In describing how the loving man feels and acts, I have been forced to speak of him as if his love were perfect. Alas, it is not so. But one example we have, that is quite perfect. "God is love," and it is only in Him that we see the words fully made good, "Love is patient, and is kind."
Think of the life and death of Jesus. Consider how He went about doing good, how forbearing He was toward His disciples; how gentle He was to those who opposed Him; how forgiving He was to His enemies. His was love indeed. "But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." Thus He taught — and thus He lived. Even on the cross His prayer was, "Father, forgive them!"
And think of God's general dealings. How patient and kind He is! He is patient to His people, in their coldness of heart, their inconsistency, their short-comings and backslidings. He is patient to rebellious sinners, in bearing with them, waiting for them, and sending them again and again, His messages of mercy.
He is patient and kind to all — making His sun to rise on the evil and on the good; sending rain on the just and on the unjust; blessing many who never thank Him; supplying the needs of numbers who never pray; and continuing life and health and the means of grace to those who still refuse to come at His call.
He who is love, requires us to love one another. This is to be the badge of Christ's followers. "By this all people will know that you are My disciples — if you have love for one another." No gifts can make up for the absence of this grace. "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels — but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." A lack of love, or at least of an earnest desire for it — would prove us too surely to be none of His.
But grace can do wonders in smoothing a rugged temper and in subduing an impatient spirit. He who knows our frame and all our manifold infirmities — will help us by His grace to love one another.
"Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation." Watch against all that has heretofore led you to offend against the law of love. Pray continually that the Holy Spirit may make you patient and kind. Let the thought be ever present with you as your strongest motive to love — that all that you have and all that you hope for — you owe to God's free love and mercy in Christ Jesus.