Love is Patient and Kind
1 Corinthians 13:4
For most of my life, I had thought about patience as the ability to wait without complaining. Like when I’m driving behind an Amish buggy without an opportunity to pass. Or when I’m waiting for my four-year-old to complete his thought. Of course these situations can be a test of patience. But when Paul says “Love is patient,” he is getting at something a bit deeper.
It is easy to think of kindness as merely being nice to someone. Like letting the woman with only two items in her hands go in front of me with my full shopping cart. Or giving my son the last strip of bacon off of my own plate. (Can you believe I actually did that?) Sure, these are acts of kindness, but when Paul says “Love is kind,” he is taking it a bit further. We will dig into these small but powerful phrases in a moment, but first let’s set them in their context.
To be honest, before I began studying 1 Corinthians 13, I had never heard it taught in its context. Ever. Don Carson says of it, “[Its theme] can be theologically related to the very heart of the gospel itself. The chapter is a masterpiece even when cut loose from its literary context.”1 But then he goes on with an entire book on chapters 12-14, setting chapter 13 beautifully within its context of spiritual gifts. Beyond this immediate context is the bigger context of the whole epistle.
Paul has spent the better part of the preceding twelve chapters correcting wrong behavior among the Corinthian Christians. If all the issues he mentions could be summarized by one statement, it would probably be something like “You are lacking a heart of love which is causing sinful behavior and disunity.” So, when the careful reader gets to this depiction of love in chapter 13, he should be thinking, “Wow, what a contrast to how these believers were behaving!” And as believers who know that the Bible is still for us today, we should also be comparing it to our own behavior, examining our hearts to see how we are measuring up.
Love is Patient
You have probably seen the word “patient” translated “long-suffering.” This is a more literal translation of the Greek,2 but its definition reaches even further. Carson explains, “the word usually suggests not merely willingness to wait a long time, or endurance of suffering without giving way, but endurance of injuries without retaliation.”3 In other epistles, Paul exhorts his readers to be patient in view of the faults of others. (Eph. 4:1-3, Col. 3:12-13, and 1 Thes. 5:14.) Proverbs 19:11 says “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.”4
Earlier in his letter, Paul had corrected the Corinthians for filing lawsuits against one another, saying “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?”5 Isn’t this what Jesus did for us? Willingly suffering abuse of all kinds in order to bring us life? Furthermore, patience was part of God’s own description of Himself as He passed in front of Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.”6
Often in Scripture, God’s patience is mentioned in terms of His forbearance, or delaying judgment. Look at 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” I mean, talk about holding back anger! Our holy God would have been completely justified in destroying this sinful world at any point post-fall. And yet He patiently restrained His wrath against us so that, at just the right time, He could pour it out on His own Son in order to offer us His mercy. And what a patient Father He is toward His children! Rather than punish our sin in anger, He disciplines us in love for our own benefit, drawing us ever nearer rather than pushing us away or turning His back on us.7
Love is Kind
Where patience has this idea of holding back anger (even justified anger), kindness goes a step further and offers a positive response in the face of offense. In other words, patience has to do with showing mercy and kindness has to do with showing grace. Paul pairs these two attributes of love intentionally. They go together. Neither one requires a worthy object and as such, they both will often involve the slaying of my pride. This means not only will I not seek retribution of wrongs done against me, but I will also humbly offer goodness instead.8 As Evan May says, “Love leans forward…and treats them as if they are worthy of love.”9
God is our example of kindness as well, lavishing us with his great love which has made us His children and heirs (1 John 3:1, Romans 8:15-17). Not only does he acquit us from the punishment we deserve, he graciously gives us good things that we don’t deserve (Romans 8:32, 2 Peter 1:3). In one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Paul speaks of God being rich both in mercy and grace–
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.10
The remarkable thing here is that we are utterly undeserving of what God has done for us. We were dead in our sin and could do absolutely nothing about it. God was the offended party and how great was the offense! Our punishment would have been completely just. It was out of the riches of God’s mercy and grace that He made us alive in Christ and even seats us with Him in the heavenly places! Not only was He patient with us in our sin, He Himself paid the debt we owed and is continually showing us “the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
In the previous chapter (Ephesians 1), Paul has listed one benefit after another that followers of Christ receive: every spiritual blessing (v. 3), holiness (v. 4), adoption as God’s children (v. 5), redemption and forgiveness (v. 7), a guaranteed inheritance (v. 11, 14), the Holy Spirit who seals us (v. 13). Just to name a few. What truly immeasurable kindness He lavishes on us!
At this point you may be thinking, “But how can I be more patient and kind?” Well, these are characteristics of genuine love, the outworking of love. So rather than striving to be more patient or kind, we ought to be seeking to have a deeper love in our hearts for God that spills out in love for others. When we are rooted in God’s love, these characteristics of love naturally grow out of us as the fruit.11 And the best way to grow in our love for God is by knowing Him more. Not just knowing more about Him, but truly knowing Him through relationship–through reading His Word, through prayer, through fellowship with other believers, etc.
So as I study how God is extravagantly patient and kind toward me, though I deserve it the least, I am changed on the inside. I reflect on Romans 2:3-5 which says I was storing up wrath for myself apart from God, but that God is rich in “kindness and forbearance and patience” (see all these ideas working together here?) and I remember how it was His kindness that led me to repentance. I marvel at such a deep love and thank Him for it, praying that His Spirit would deepen my love in return. And I seek to imitate my Savior whose love did not depend on the worthiness of its object. Then as opportunities arise for me to exhibit patience and kindness toward others, I renew my mind in these things and the Spirit empowers me to apply them out of the genuine love in my heart.
- D.A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14, 1987, p. 51-52.
- Edward W. Goodrick and John R. Kohlenberger III, The Strongest NIV Exhaustive Concordance, 1999.
- Carson, p. 62
- Italics mine. The word translated “slow to anger” here is translated in the Septuagint ‘makrothymeo,’ or ‘patience.’ This is the word used in 1 Cor. 13:4. (See Carson, p. 62.)
- 1 Cor. 6:7. See Evan May, Love Gives Life: A Study of 1 Corinthians 13, 2012, p. 26.
- Exodus 34:6-7; italics mine.
- See Heb. 12:6-11.
- Of course believers should seek reconciliation whenever possible, and discipline when necessary. But love should not pursue retribution or vindication.
- May, p. 28
- Ephesians 2:4-9
- This concept will be developed further throughout this study. For now, take a look at Galatians 5:13-26 (the fruit of the Spirit passage), and Luke 6:43-45 (Jesus’ teaching on trees being known by their fruit) to get a better idea of what I mean.