In his great love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, St. Paul tells us that love is the greatest. “Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). That was a hard saying for me growing up. Shouldn’t faith be the greatest? That’s what I heard in church. We are saved by faith alone and not by anything we did (love). True. I also heard this outside the church. “You just got to have faith.” “Believe in yourself.” Faith is sort of a virtue in our culture, something like courage or patience. A person of faith is a confident person in the face of adversity. Faith can solve a lot of problems. If my Little League self had just believed in himself enough, he could have become a great ball-player. Or at least that’s what my coach told me. The great MLB stars all “believed” in themselves or had someone who “believed” in them. Faith certainly was the greatest. It was not only essential for salvation but also the highest virtue this side of heaven.
St. Paul flips this upside down. Love is the greatest. Paul is not ranking items in a top ten list here. Paul means that love is the goal; love is the ultimate gift. Faith is penultimate, not ultimate. The ultimate is to receive the love of God for all eternity. Faith is not the end; heaven’s love is the end. Love is also the ultimate goal in the Christian life before heaven. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
Paul means that love is the goal; love is the ultimate gift. Faith is penultimate, not ultimate.
As I grew older and further away from my delusions of playing Major League Baseball (I guess I didn’t have enough faith because I wasn’t that good), the truth became the most important thing to me. It became ultimate. Truth matters. Seeking truth matters. Being truthful was the highest virtue. Truth also became the rallying cry for this budding theologian. Stand up for truth. Fight for truth. How could we not? Like love, the truth has to do with both heaven and life on earth. We are sanctified by the truth (John 17:17). Truth is also a weapon in spiritual warfare. “Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace” (Eph. 6:14-16).
So what is the relationship between these two great concepts, truth and love? May I suggest that truth serves love? This does not mean that one is more important than the other, or that truth and love are incompatible. Paul tells us that love loves the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). Jesus calls himself “truth” (John 14:6). He is also love (1 John 4:8). To split faith and love would be almost like splitting Christ. We don’t split Christ. That’s a big theological no-no! Truth and love are from the same God, and God is both truth and love.
Yet it sure seems like truth and love can be enemies. The truth can hurt. It is hard to come to terms with death, but death is a pretty sure thing in this life. Could there be anything more truthful from our vantage point than, “all will die”? It is devastating to come face to face with our own sin. It is not easy to hear a cancer diagnosis. The truth can hurt. At times, the truth seems to be the opposite of love.
Even worse, we can forget about the virtue of love and replace it with a virtue of truth. Truth becomes a weapon against falsity. This is undoubtedly true in spiritual battle, but truth without love is the most pitiful position. Is it true that humans are so devastated by sin that we have no hope in ourselves? Yes. Pointing this out is necessary, but without the love of the Gospel, only a pall hangs over the sinner. In political (and theological) disputes truth is weaponized. Winning is the ultimate, most important goal. If truth is about winning and not love, then what’s the point?
In the same great love chapter, Paul gives us a warning: “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” (1 Cor.13:1-3).
Love is the ultimate gift from God. To be loved by him for all eternity is truly the ultimate goal.
Look at all the things Paul says we humans can do. Faith can even move mountains! But without love, we are only making noise. We are a resounding gong. If we hammer home the truth but have no desire to preach the ultimate love, salvation in Christ, we only clang away. If we strut around righteous as a church lady but have not love, we are only making noise and, quite frankly, we’re just annoying everybody around us.
I want you to know the truth because the truth sets you free. I want you to know the truth because the truth in Christ is very good news. I want you to know the truth because the truth is Jesus loves the sinner so much that he died for him or her.
Truth is a beautiful gift from God. It sets us free. Faith is a fantastic gift from God. We are given faith as we trust the truth of the Gospel. But love is the ultimate gift from God. To be loved by him for all eternity is truly the ultimate goal. Truth serves love.
Jesus is the truth. He is also love. And the greatest of these is love.