Without Love, We Are Nothing

David Carr

Without love, writes Paul, “I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2). Once, upon reading the “love chapter” (1 Cor 13), those three words stuck out to me. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out what Paul thought about the human person, and I was struck by the notion that he would “be nothing” (outhen eimi) without love. Does his wording suggest, I wondered, that the inverse is true? Is he the “something” that he is in Christ because of love? Is love more than something believers feel, receive, do, or experience? Is love, in fact, a necessary ingredient for the making of a Christ-believer?

In the immediate context, Paul makes similar claims in relation to several practices and attributes. Without love, his speaking in “the tongues of people and of angels” would be like noise from percussion instruments played poorly (13:1). If he does not possess love, he is nothing despite having powers of prophecy, otherworldly knowledge and insight, and faith to relocate mountains (13:2). Apart from love, he profits nothing from giving away his possessions or surrendering his life in martyrdom (13:3). In sum, without love, this whole Christ-following thing is just going through some motions in ways that are, at best, annoying—like a clanging noise—and, at worst, worthless. Put more constructively, love makes Paul’s use of spiritual gifts effective for others. Love is the currency that makes his acts of giving valuable. Love, rather than insight, makes him something. Anthropologically, without love, Paul does not exist as a person in Christ; without it, he is nothing.

Admittedly, I could be overreading. It’s possible that Paul writes this hyperbolically or that it’s going too far to say that love somehow contributes to his selfhood in Christ. Yet part of what made that reading memorable for me was that, growing up in Protestant denominations, I heard much more about faith than love. I not only needed to have faith; I really, really needed to have faith! I had to “know that I know in my heart of hearts” that Christ died for my sins and rose from the dead. Faith, in those contexts, seemed to mean something like full belief, assurance, or mental assent. Once I had that, then I could go on loving God and others. But Paul himself writes that in comparison with faith (and hope), love is greater. For him, love constitutes the fulfillment of the entire law (Rom 13:8–10).

Paul didn’t come up with these ideas on his own. According to the Gospels, Jesus centralized love in his teaching. The Synoptic Gospels record Jesus naming love for God and neighbor as the most important command to obey (Matt 22:37–39; Mark 12:29–31; Luke 10:27; cf. Rom 13:9), and Luke has Jesus affirm that love for God is needed for eternal life (10:25–28). Jesus even goes as far to teach that his followers should love not only their friends and family but their enemies as well (Matt 5:43–48; Luke 6:27–36; cf. Rom 12:14–21).

To return to Paul, he writes that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom 5:5 NRSV)—a line that John Wesley referenced consistently. Wesley ultimately concluded that Christian perfection amounts to “perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love ‘rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks’” (The Scripture Way of Salvation §I.9). If we hold these ideas together, a powerful conception emerges. It’s as if God’s love becomes part of the person (“filling the heart taking up the whole capacity of the soul”) and, with human participation, love guides human moral agency. To the extent that the believer is filled with, cooperates with, and yields fully to God’s love, that person is being sanctified and moving on to perfection, defined as being “perfected in love.”

To be sure, Wesley also placed a high value on faith, but my little synthesis here suggests that there may indeed be some theological significance to my reading of 1 Cor 13:2. Put somewhat technically, love should be a necessary component not only of our ethics but also of our theological anthropology (and our soteriology). Put more simply, we should view love not only as something we receive and share but as an essential part of what makes us who we are as Christ-believers. Christians certainly disagree on what shape love should take in various contexts. But, as Wesleyan/Methodists, our self-understanding must include that we are united with the spirit of the resurrected Christ and are being changed, empowered, and led by the experience of transforming love. Without that, in Paul’s words, we are nothing.

Posted Jun 19, 2023

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