There are many principles to which I was committed during my 20-year marriage to a man who was a verbal and emotional abuser. Perhaps above all others, the 13th chapter of I Corinthians, “the love chapter,” became the bedrock of my moral conviction that my marriage would and could be saved, grounded in the core premise that “love never fails.”
That section of Scripture assured me that if I loved fully and well it would accomplish the ultimate objective – to incite my husband to change and become an attentive, loving man – the best husband and father he could be. Our marriage and family would, in time, be restored. To my way of thinking, a faith-borne love must ultimately win.
You might imagine the weight of disillusionment and heartbreak that consumed me when our marriage ultimately ended in divorce. Based on my understanding, the brokenness of our marriage had to be the result of one of two things: either I was unable or unequipped to love in a manner adequate to inspire my husband to change, or the Scripture was a cruel lie.
But, what if there was yet another option? What if I had claimed a scriptural truth to mean something it never meant? The love chapter seems so straightforward; I was convinced that no other conclusion could be drawn. But looking deeper, I can see a profound misunderstanding on my part.
The Apostle Paul penned a piece that reads like a sonnet, affirming that love is not merely an element of our faith, but the surest evidence of it.
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
So, although this world may boast many gifted believers, servants, faith healers and performers of miracles, if even the most profound evidence of faith lacks love, the display has no real, lasting value in God’s eyes. Then the apostle describes how such a love will be manifested.
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Although the attributes present a profound and perhaps impossible challenge, they became the precepts by which I attempted to set my spiritual compass. Surely, if I could exhibit these attributes toward my vindictive husband, then my love would yield restoration and glorious relationship. With God’s help, I endeavored to respond with grace and mercy to my husband’s cruelties, seek his best and commend his successes, refuse provocation, overlook wrongs committed, and cling to hope even while trying to live in the midst of deep darkness and a stress-filled culture of fear.
Love never fails…
I could count on His promise, couldn’t I? A sincere, godly love must yield its most favorable end. Conversely, though, if there is no change, or if a situation worsens, it must be attributed to my failure. I simply did not love well enough. With that conviction held close to my heart, you can bet that when the door of our marriage closed behind me, and I stared in cruel disbelief at the divorce papers in my hand, it was as though an irrevocable title had been seared into my spirit and my identity: failure.
But, if my love failed, then I suppose I am in good company. If love alone has the power to change others, then it must also be said that our exalted Lord Jesus failed too. And that simply cannot be so.
In the days that God’s sinless Son walked this cruel place, He embodied the perfect and personal nature of God with all of the limitations of human flesh. We know that Jesus’ love was – and is – perfect and divine and accomplished all that God intended – including the ultimate gift of redemption. Some welcomed and received what He came to offer – and others, even those who were awaiting His appearance, openly rejected Him.
After these things Jesus was walking in Galilee, for He was unwilling to walk in Judea because the Jews were seeking to kill Him. John 7:1
How is it that those to whom He had revealed Himself had Him arrested in the dead of night and would not rest until His very life had been extinguished? Was our Lord’s love somehow inadequate? Did He miss something? May it never be.
Jesus suffered perhaps the most extreme degree of physical, emotional and verbal abuse ever documented at the hands of people He loved who refused to love Him back. Similarly, every one of us can offer up our sincerest devotion and find ourselves staring into the face of absolute hatred.
We can expect to find such rejection in the world, but marriage is to be a relationship where love reigns. So, it is downright unsettling that the Apostle Paul’s description of what love is not so accurately describes the abusive relationship! Paul states plainly that love is not impatient, unkind or jealous; love is not boastful and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, does not provoke, does not take into account a wrong suffered. It does not tolerate unrighteousness. (How is that we overlook that part?)
An abusive person tends to be incredibly impatient, unkind, cruel and often jealous. Such people are almost universally proud, boastful and arrogant, express no remorse when acting “unbecomingly,” and seek their own pleasure and comfort rather than ensuring the security of others. The abuser seems to enjoy provoking his or her victims and is quick to churn up chaos and engage in useless controversy. He keeps a detailed record of even the slightest offense, using each and every one to silence his victim into submission. Paul tells us that none of these behaviors reflect love, and certainly a marital love. Then he writes:
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away.
When all is said and done, love remains. Paul hones his message by reminding us that, when our earthly days end, prophecy, tongues and even knowledge will have no needful purpose. But this imperfect love begun in this lifetime will carry over; it does not fade. Surely, it will be fulfilled, magnified and carried into eternity when we are overwhelmed by the glorious presence of our Lord.
Ultimately, in loving from a pure heart and a good conscience, there may be loss but without the burden of regret. Love is quite simply a precious gift, a sweet testimony to the nature of God given to us and extended to others through us. Such a love may be disregarded or rejected, but it is never diminished. As strange as it seems, love may not succeed, but it simply cannot fail.
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