Learning How to Love

1 Corinthians 13:1-13

June 10, 2001 | Brian Bill

Last week we tackled the very difficult question, “What Happens When You Die?” Several of you commented afterwards that we don’t hear enough sermons about Hell in church today.  Well, this morning, we’re kicking off a brand-new series called, “Developing Your Character” from the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23.  

Our focus today is on love, which is preached about in a lot in churches.  The danger here is that because love is such a well-known topic you may be tempted to check out.  I hope you don’t.  If I see that you are, I may switch back to last week’s message just to get your attention! 

While love is a common theme, it’s not always easy to define or describe it.  We can learn a lot by listening to the perspective of children.  

Here’s what Greg, who is 8-years-old, said about love, “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good too.”  

Mae, age 9 remarked, “No one is sure why love happens, but I heard it has something to do with how you smell.  That’s why perfume and deodorant are so popular.” 

When asked what falling in love is like, 9-year-old Roger said, “It’s like an avalanche where you have to run for your life.”

Leo, age 7, isn’t all that interested in love when he says, “If falling in love is anything like learning how to spell, I don’t want to do it.  It takes too long.”

And finally, Bobby, who is 8, recognizes the power of love and the inevitability of being ambushed by it when he declares, “Love will find you, even if you’re trying to hide from it.  I’ve been trying to hide from it since I was five, but the girls keep finding me!”

Preliminary Observations

Before we look at love this morning, I want to set the table for this series by making some observations that will help frame our study on the Fruit of the Spirit.   Please turn in your Bibles to Galatians 5:16-26.  Follow along with me as I read. 

1. We cannot create fruit on our own. 

Verse 17 reminds us that the sinful nature and the Spirit desire contrary things.  There’s an obvious contrast between works and fruit and between the flesh and the Spirit.  The Fruit of the Spirit can only come from the Spirit of God.  Those things that naturally flow out of us are found in verses 19-21: “…sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy…”

Our flesh produces dead works but the Spirit produces living fruit

We can’t just decide to be more loving or more joyful or more peaceful and suddenly we are!  It doesn’t work that way.  Fruit is not something we do; it’s what we display.  There’s a difference between works and fruit.  A machine in a factory works, and turns out a product, but it could never manufacture fruit.  Fruit must grow out of the life of the Spirit.  Our flesh produces dead works but the Spirit produces living fruit.  Vices come from our sinful nature; virtues come from the Spirit’s work.

The fruit of the Spirit is never dispensed apart from Christ.  The more I have of Him, the more His fruit will flow through my life.  Our responsibility is clear from Galatians 5:25: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”  This is a military term meaning that I must march in a straight line, taking my orders only from Him.  As I yield to the Spirit His fruit will ripen in my life.

2. The Fruit of the Spirit is a package deal. 

Did you notice that verse 22 uses the singular “fruit” and not “fruits”?  This is not a grammatical error.  The Greek very clearly reveals that it’s in the singular.  Some commentators believe that it’s because the Fruit of the Spirit is love and that the other eight items are simply ways in which love is manifest.  Galatians 5:14 says, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

While I agree that love is the most important I think the singular is used for another reason.  The character qualities, or divine virtues, are like a cluster of grapes.  The grapes are fruit, not fruits.  The fruit of the Spirit is like this bunch with nine different grapes.  One grape may taste sweet.  Another may have a brilliant color.  Another may be smaller.  But they’re all grapes.

It’s not a ‘pick and choose’ list like a buffet table to browse through.  We can’t say, “I’ll take a little love, a portion of peace, a spoonful of self-control, but I’ll pass on the patience.”  It’s a full-meal deal.  It’s one kind of fruit with nine different qualities.

3. The focus is on Christian character. 

It’s important to distinguish between the gift of the Spirit which happens at salvation; the gifts of the Spirit, which have to do with service; and the graces of the Spirit, which relate to Christian character.  Unfortunately we have sometimes elevated the gifts of the Spirit over the graces of the Spirit.  Building Christian character must take precedence over displaying special abilities. 

4. The fruit must be displayed individually and collectively.

We’re not given the Fruit of the Spirit just so some individuals can be more kind or more faithful.  If the church is to be the community God desires it to be, then these nine virtues should work in our lives corporately.  In other words, this church should be characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control

In the context of Galatians 5, “fruit” is in juxtaposition to those things that lead to strife between believers – hatred, discord, jealousy, dissension, factions, and envy.  When God causes His fruit to ripen in our lives, the community of Christ-followers here will reflect His character.  

We should avoid thinking of these virtues as somehow our own individual possessions.  Rather, as His people we are called to embody before the world the kind of reconciled and transformed life that God desires for all creation.  As you and I keep in step with the Spirit, we’ll bear fruit, the church will reflect the Spirit-life, and others will want what we have.

5. Not all fruit ripens at the same time. 

We must allow for the process to fully take place.  If a cluster contains nine individual grapes, they may differ in size, shape, and taste.  One may be fully ripened, full of sweet juice, pleasing to the eye, and delectable to taste.  But in the same cluster there may also be several grapes that are somewhat less ripe, rather green, still sour or perhaps even shrunken and shriveled.  As you look at my life you may see that the individual grape of joy is fully sweetened but at the same time that of patience may be small, sour and shrunken.  As we submit and surrender to the Spirit, keeping in step with Him, He will bring to maturity all nine virtues!

6. The Fruit of the Spirit should be the result of living the normal Christian life. 

These character qualities are not meant to be the exception for believers but rather the norm!  It shouldn’t be extraordinary or unusual when Christ followers live in peace with each other or treat others with kindness.  Sadly, many of us don’t reflect these virtues on a regular basis. That’s not how it’s supposed to be!

To expect to see the Fruit of the Spirit in the life of each believer may appear to be expecting the impossible, but this is clearly what the New Testament teaches.  The display of the fruit of the Spirit is not the result of more faith, or more work, or a more frantic fanaticism.  It is simply the result of normal Christian living where we daily surrender to His will and die to self, as we love God with everything we’ve got.  Then, the common transactions of life become the most sacred channels for the spread of God’s fruit to others.

7. Bearing fruit is a both a gift and a task. 

There’s a paradox in living for Christ, isn’t there?  Fruit is always a gift, but it still requires hard work.  While the love of Christ is poured into our hearts, 1 Corinthians 14:1 tells us to pursue love by going after it.  We’ve been given the Fruit of the Spirit and yet we’re reminded in Galatians 5:16 to “live by the Spirit.”  It’s ours, but we have to appropriate that which He has given us.  It’s not automatic.

The Love Chapter

In the famous “love passage” that is read at most weddings, 1 Corinthians 13 helps us understand what love is and what it looks like in daily life.  Many have said that this is the greatest, strongest, and deepest passage Paul ever wrote.  This crown jewel of the Bible establishes the fact that love is not primarily a feeling but an action.  The kind of love that you and I are called to demonstrate must be seen and experienced.

When Paul wrote this chapter, he was not thinking about weddings or romance.  Chapter 13 comes right in the middle of a lengthy discussion on the use of spiritual gifts in chapters 12 and 14.  All sorts of disputes and divisions plagued the Corinthian church.  They argued about which spiritual gift was the greatest; they were selfish, they were taking each other to court, and they were impatient with others.  

When the writers of the New Testament looked out on the world of their day they saw people who talked about love but seemed to know little or nothing about the sort of love that the Holy Spirit was revealing to them.  The Greek words in general use were not adequate: one had too many sexual connotations, another meant merely natural affection, and the third meant brotherly love.  

So when they wanted to write about love they needed a new word for a new idea.  The love that the New Testament writers had in mind was a stranger to this planet because it was supernatural love, or agape love.  It’s a selfless and unconditional commitment to imperfect people.  Agape is a love for the utterly unworthy, a love which proceeds from a God who is love.  It’s a love lavished upon others without a thought of whether they are worthy to receive it or not.  It proceeds from the nature of the lover, rather than from any merit in the beloved.  That’s the word that is used throughout 1 Corinthians 13.

D.L. Moody once remarked that “some men occasionally take a journey into 1 Corinthians 13” but very few people actually live there.   Let’s see if we can be those who put our roots down in this chapter and live it out in our lives.  Here’s a simple outline that I’m going to follow:

  • The Preeminence of Love (verses 1-3)
  • The Practice of Love (verses 4-7)

The Preeminence of Love

Follow along as I read the first three verses: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.   If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Whatever I do and say is useless without love.  In verse 1, Paul is saying that even if he could master several languages and be able to speak the heavenly language of angels, but he didn’t have love, then he would be nothing more than a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  

In the first century, there was a big gong or cymbal hanging at the entrance of most pagan temples.  When people came to worship, they would hit this gong in the hope that it would awaken the pagan gods so they would listen to their prayers.  Paul is saying that even if he were so blessed that he could speak with great eloquence in every language known to man and angels, if he didn’t have love it would be as useless as the ridiculous act of pounding on a piece of metal to wake up a non-existent deity.

In verse 2, Paul says that love is more important than knowledge.  Even if we know everything about nuclear science, medicine, philosophy, psychology and theology but still do not have love, we are nothing.

Unbelievably, Paul says that love is more important than faith.  He’s not saying that faith is unimportant, because we know that Hebrews 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please God.”  What he is saying is that love is preeminent: “If I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”  

He next states in verse 3 that love is even more important than generosity and sacrifice: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I am nothing.”   

The Practice of Love

While love is preeminent, in verses 4-7, Paul challenges us to practice it.  It’s not enough to just acknowledge that love is essential; we’re called to exhibit agape love in our lives.  In John 13:34, Jesus challenges us, “A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  This is not a suggestion; it’s a command.

The Bible teaches us that love is something we can control

We tend to think that love is something that just happens to us.  We fall in love like we fall into a ditch, or we fall out of love like we fall out of a tree.  The Bible teaches us that love is something we can control.  It must affect the way we live.  It’s the fruit of the Spirit-filled life.  The love that the Holy Spirit brings into our lives is a stranger to the natural human heart.  We can’t create this love but we can allow it to grow in our lives.

Let me read verses 4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”  Let’s look at these descriptions a little more closely.  As we do, we’ll see the Fruit of the Spirit sprouting up through the soil of 1 Corinthians 13 and out into the branches of our lives.

  • Love is patient.  This word basically means “someone who is able to avenge himself yet refrains from doing so.”  It carries with it the idea of perseverance.
  • Love is kind.  The meaning here is to “show oneself useful.”  Love volunteers to help others when they’re in need.  If you truly love someone you will be kind to him or her.
  • Love does not envy.  Instead of wishing I had what you have, love helps me to celebrate what God has given you without being jealous of it for myself.
  • Love does not boast.   This word literally means a “braggart” and is used nowhere else in the Bible.  It can also mean, “wind-bag.”  The fruit of love does not brag about what I have or what I’ve done.  
  • Love is not proud.  The word here means to “blow or to puff.”  Pride has no place in a believer’s life because everything we have is by grace.
  • Love is not rude.  The Greek word means that love does not “behave in an ugly, indecent or obscene manner.”  Love acts in a worthy way.
  • Love is not self-seeking.  This is the polar opposite of agape love.  True love does not seek to build up self but rather puts others first.  
  • Love is not easily angered.  A person who is living under the influence of love is not “prone” to violent anger or exasperation.  
  • Love keeps no record of wrongs.  This is an accounting term meaning that we must not add up and itemize the failures of others.  Love does not keep lists of wrongs done to it.  Instead of remembering everything that’s ever been done to us, we should wipe out those wrongs by forgiving and by refusing to hold people hostage to what they’ve done in the past.  Instead of being so tough on people who sin differently than we do, let’s learn to give grace by cutting others some slack.
  • Love does not delight in evil.  We should not enjoy hearing about other people’s sins or focus on the bad stuff that happens in our world.
  • Love rejoices with the truth.  The word “truth” here is the opposite of “evil.”  Instead of locking into the vices of others, love celebrates and applauds the virtues of those around us.
  • Love always protects.  The image here is of a blanket that covers, or hides things.  The artist who painted the portrait of Alexander the Great made the shadow of Alexander’s hand conceal a scar on his brow.   Instead of exposing blemishes and sins in others, true love covers them with a cloak of love.  1 Peter 4:8 challenges us to, “Love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.”   When I am quick to notice fault and tell others about it, I am not practicing love.  
  • Love always trusts.  The idea here is that we don’t lose faith in others even if they’ve messed up or hurt us.  We resist the temptation to think the worst.  We delight in giving people second and third chances.
  • Love always hopes.  To hope means “to expect with desire.”  No matter how dark things are or how bleak things look; love maintains an attitude of hope that they can get better.  It’s a refusal to take failure as final.
  • Love always perseveres.  This literally means, “to remain under.”  Love hangs in there with others in long-term relationships.  We’re going to spend eternity with each other so we might as well get along now.

Living a Life of Love

The fruit of love should be desired and demonstrated by every Christian.  Rather than worrying about what spiritual gifts I have; rather than being concerned about my position in church or focusing on attaining money or pleasure, I need to make sure that I am a person who loves.  Do I treat others with the same type of love that God has shown me?

Here are some application steps that will help us learn how to love: 

1. Love those who are close to us.

Someone has said, “To love the whole world for me is no chore; the only real problem’s my neighbor next door.”  If we are not demonstrating love to those closest to us, how do we expect to do so in other relationships?   We are commanded to love no matter how inconsiderate our spouse is; no matter how unreasonable our parents are; no matter how disrespectful our children are; and no matter how selfish our friends are.

2.  Love those who are different from us

Many of us have developed negative attitudes toward certain types of people.  You may not care for people who have different colored skin than you do, or live in a different neighborhood, have a different lifestyle, or listen to different music.  We tend to gravitate toward those who have similar backgrounds, values and interests.  While we don’t have to be best friends with everyone, we do need to strive to love everyone, even if they are different from us.

3.  Love those who disagree with us

Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to love someone who we think is wrong?  Remember this.  Christians with whom we disagree are never our enemies.  They are still family members.

4.  Love those who irritate us. 

Isn’t it hard to love people who bug us?  It’s not easy to love people we think are stupid, is it?  When there is someone in the church who rubs us the wrong way, we need to make a special effort to change our attitude and to treat others in a loving manner.  

Some of you are thinking, “Yes, I know, but…but, he really hurt me when he said that,” or, “…but, she won’t even talk to me.”   It doesn’t matter.  It was said of Archbishop Cranmer that if you did him a disfavor you had him as a friend for life.  Before he was martyred he made a very surprising statement: “I never had greater pleasure in all my life than to forget and forgive injuries and to show kindness to them that sought evil to me.”  

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes use the imperfections and sins of another person to try to excuse the lousy attitude I have toward that individual.  I need to remember what Jesus said in John 8:7, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  

What can we do if we’re not demonstrating the fruit of love in our life?  

  1. Confess your lack of love.  Don’t make excuses for lousy, unloving attitudes.  Own it before God and to those you’ve been sinning against.
  2. Focus on God’s love for you.   Read portions of Scripture about God’s love.  Sing or listen to hymns and worship songs that speak of how God has shown us grace and mercy.  Live every day with the knowledge that even if no one else cares about you, God loves you. Allow His love to be the reservoir that enables you to love others.
  3. Identify someone that is hard for you to love.   Pray and ask God to help you change your attitude toward this person. 
  4. Treat that person in a loving way.   Have you ever noticed that our feelings often follow our actions?  Doing the loving thing is a good place to start.  When God provides the opportunity for you to act in a loving way to someone, make sure you do it.  1 John 3:18: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.”

One danger of preaching on the Fruit of the Spirit is that you may think that since I’m up here I must have this one figured out.  Let me tell you what happened to me on Thursday.  I stopped by the hospital to visit someone and jumped out of my car and began walking briskly toward the door.  I saw an older gentleman out of the corner of my eye who was walking very slowly and using a cane.  I swerved around him and raced by him.  When he saw that I was in a hurry he said, “I’ll let you go first.”  My conscience poked me but I just kept walking.  When I got almost to the front doors, he shouted out, “I used to be just like you when I was younger.”

My heart sank because I wasn’t sure what he really meant.  At first I thought he was referring to my ability to walk fast but then I wondered if he was thinking back to a time when he was just as unloving and rude as I am today.  I was in too much of a hurry to slow down and talk to someone who may have been going to the hospital for a test, to see his wife, or to visit an old friend.  I have no idea because I didn’t stop and take the time to love him.  In fact, I treated him rather indifferently, which may be worse than expressing outright hatred to him.  

My problem may be similar to yours this morning.  While we know we should be more loving, the fruit of the spirit is not always on display in our lives. Oh, we might look like we’re loving but we may be more artificial than we care to admit. 

These grapes are not the real deal.  They may look good but they’re not.  You can’t tell it’s plastic produce unless you get up close.  Likewise, sometimes you can’t tell if someone is exhibiting real fruit unless you get close to them.  I wonder how many of us have fake fruit in our lives?

In his book called, “Secrets of the Vine,” Bruce Wilkinson states that nearly half of all Christians bear little or no fruit.  Another third bear some fruit.  But only about 5% bear a lot.  He concludes by saying, “Bearing fruit is not some unique phenomenon reserved for certain types of Christians.  It’s the destiny of every believer.”  (Page 26)

If you want to see the Holy Spirit bear His fruit in your life, then you must stay connected to the vine.  John 15:4 gives us the secret to fruit bearing.  Jesus says, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.  No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.  Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” 

I want to close by reading something by Amy Carmichael called, “If.”

If I belittle those whom I am called to serve, talk of their weak points in contrast perhaps with what I think are my strong points; if I adopt a superior attitude, then I know nothing of Calvary love.

If I take offense easily, if I am content to continue in cool unfriendliness, though friendship be possible, then I know nothing of Calvary love.

If I feel bitterly toward those who condemn me, forgetting that if they knew me as I know myself they would condemn me much more, then I know nothing of Calvary love.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?