I do not recall hearing the question and I do not recall offering my answer, but my parents and grandparents remember the question and they certainly remember my response. The story goes like this: The pastor boomed a question from the pulpit, “Does anyone here know what love is?” The congregation was pondering in silence, until I answered back, a 2-year-old toddler, “Oh, how should I know?”
If someone asked for a definition of love today, I might wonder for a moment if I knew how to define love, but St. Paul’s ode to divine love in 1 Corinthians 13 means I have on hand a thorough and complete definition. I know what love is. The truth is that even though as a toddler I thought like a child and reasoned as a child and did not know how to describe love, I had already experienced God’s love in my family.
Love is the experience of being intended, wanted, cared for and known. It is not just the prophet Jeremiah whose life was intended by God before he was born and who was called by God as a boy to fulfill a specific vocation. Each of us has been called forth by the love of God who wills us into being and who intends for us to remain in the presence of God’s love for eternity. Love is the essence of God’s being and so the true intention for each of our lives.
This is why, when Paul is speaking to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts—the same Corinthians who have argued about which gifts are superior, such as speaking in tongues (glossolalia) or prophecy or gifts of healing—the apostle outlines “a still more excellent way.” The more excellent way Paul outlines describes the precedence of love (agapê) in the spiritual life. Paul assures us that there is no substitute for love in the life of the church. No spiritual gifts, no prophetic powers, no mysteries, not knowledge, not generosity, not even faith, replace the superiority of love. Paul asserts that if he does “not have love, I am nothing” or merely “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Because the essence of God is love, the Christian life is love.
Paul defines the essence of love, grounded in his understanding and experience of God’s own love. Paul defines agapê with a sort of list: love is patient, kind, not envious, not boastful, not arrogant, not rude, does not “insist on its own way,” “is not irritable or resentful,” rejoices in truth and not wrongdoing, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things and never ends. To take stock of this list is to see where we have failed one another on numerous occasions, but it also illuminates what it means truly to love each other and to understand how fully God loves us. More than offering us a definition of love, it offers us the overwhelming reality of how God cares for us.
The irresistible reality of God’s love becomes evident when we reflect on the last item on the list: love never ends. Paul says that “as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end,” but because God is love and because God is without beginning or end, love truly is at the heart of existence, also without beginning or end. We are tempted sometimes to think that love does not win, when we see horrors inflicted on innocents because of their religious beliefs, the color of their skin or simply out of cruelty and bullying. But love is our past, present and future.
Paul says that “when I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” If he means that he did not know what love was, or how to define it, or how to put into words his own experience of love as a boy, it makes sense to me. How should he know?
But as an adult, he came to know the experience of God’s love and through the experience of the reality of God’s love to express it more perfectly than any writer before or since. Paul was called into existence by a loving God to fulfill a call, but it was not just his superior gifts as a writer that allowed him to express God’s love. It was the pure experience of that love. Our experience of love in this world, both God’s and the love of other people, sustains our hope and faith when love sometimes seems absent, a question difficult to answer or a virtue hard to define. In his heart and mind Paul knew, “faith, hope and love abide,” but “the greatest of these is love.” With Paul, we know what love is: eternity in God’s presence.