Read: 1 Corinthians 13:4, 5
Humility—it is an attractive quality in anyone, but it is especially becoming in those who love.
Love, the love God both shows toward us and inspires in us, is humble. In saying that, I do not mean that love is lowly or ordinary or simple or humdrum. On the contrary, love is as glorious and exalted as God himself. When I say love is humble, I mean to express something about the way love behaves. For this is another of love’s actions as explained in the love chapter.
The Things Love Does Not Do
The opening words of this passage describe some of love’s behaviors. Love is patient; love is able to put up with suffering and wrong for a long time without giving up. Love is kind; love actively seeks to do good to others in ways both small and great.
But the behavior of love can be described negatively as well as positively. If there are certain things love does, certain acts which define it, there are other things love does not do. And so Paul specifies not only some of the ways of love, but also love’s non-ways, the kinds of action love rejects. Here are three of them: “Love is not . . . boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.”
Boasting . . . arrogance . . . rudeness – those are three very unpleasant qualities. We are quick to recognize and dislike them in others, if not always in ourselves. What do they involve? Boasting is trying to enhance my reputation by drawing attention to my exploits or possessions. It is a public relations campaign in which the same person (me) is both agent and client. Boasting is usually a sign of insecurity. Those who brag about how great they are, are generally those trying hardest to convince themselves. The word Paul uses here for boasting means “to behave as a windbag.” Most of us have run into people like that. They are like Macbeth’s opinion of life: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Crude and obvious boasting is difficult for anyone to take for very long. But a lot of boasting is more subtle than that. The real reason people boast is because they want others to admire them, and a more sophisticated way of gaining admiration is by accumulating expensive things as status symbols. After all, you do not have to obviously draw attention to yourself and go on and on about how great and important you are if you can send the same message by the kind of clothes you wear, or the car you drive, or the trinkets and toys and gadgets you display.
I was in an overseas airport not long ago waiting for my flight home, and with time on my hands, I wandered into the duty-free shop. I decided to entertain myself by looking for the most outrageously overpriced item I could find. The eventual winner was a pair of designer sunglasses for $750. “Why would anyone pay $750 for sunglasses?” you ask. In order to show that they are the kind of person who spends $750 for sunglasses! That’s how clever boasters boast.
Next is arrogance; our catalogue of terms also says that love is not arrogant. Arrogant people are “puffed up” (the literal translation of Paul’s word), puffed up with an overinflated sense of their own importance and value. There is a fish in the ocean called a blowfish that has the capacity to suddenly expand its body to several times its normal size. It looks very impressive and frightening. The blowfish often overawes bigger and stronger fish, but it is actually quite weak.
Arrogant people are just like that. They think they are bigger and more important than anyone else. Because of that, they try to use other people. They are pushy and grasping and controlling and bossy. They get where they want to go by climbing over the backs of their neighbors. The arrogant do not have friends; they only have rivals—or servants. An arrogant person evaluates others on the basis of what they can do for him. Those who are arrogant never serve others; they only use others to serve them and make them feel more important. But agape is the opposite of all this. Love is not arrogant.
Nor is it rude. Rudeness, the third negative term in Paul’s list, refers to behavior that is disgraceful or indecent. The kind of rudeness Paul’s talking about is more than just thoughtlessness or neglect toward other people. It is to treat them in an offensive and insulting manner.
But this is not to say that rudeness is always deliberate and calculated. Often rude people do not realize what they are doing because they do not care enough about others to even recognize how they are treating them. Rudeness is the way you behave toward those whom you dismiss as unimportant. When you are rude to someone, you are saying, in effect, “You don’t matter. You’re beneath me. You’re too insignificant for me to care about the way I treat you.”
So these are the non-ways of love: love is neither boastful nor arrogant nor rude. Each of these three ugly behaviors is, in its own way, a symptom of pride, which is another word that needs some explaining. When I talk about pride in the spiritual sense, I don’t mean the self-respect that all healthy individuals have, or the desire to do and be the best that you can, or the joyful gratitude you feel for positive accomplishments. It is right, not wrong, to take pride in your work or to be proud of your heritage or to feel pride when your children excel.
But spiritual pride is different. It is a disease of the soul. Indeed, it is the disease of the soul, a deadly disease that afflicts everyone. Spiritual pride is a curving in on oneself, a way of putting one’s self at the center of life. Spiritual pride leads us to replace God with self as the most important thing in life. Spiritual pride is to proper self-regard as a malignant cancer is to healthy tissue. It is ego run amok, self-respect turned to self-infatuation and self-worship. It is the most basic sin, the one that gives rise to all the others.
And it is spiritual pride that triggers each of the things love does not do. Spiritual pride makes us boastful – when I replace God with myself, my soul becomes hollow, and I try to fill the echoing emptiness with the admiration bought by my attempts to impress others. Pride makes us arrogant—if I think I am the center of the world, then everyone else must serve me, revolving around me like planets around the sun. Pride makes us rude—if I am convinced that I am really more important than anyone else, then I will not care how I treat them.
But in contrast to all this, love is humble. Once again we need to understand what a Bible word really means. In biblical terms, to be humble is not to be convinced you are worthless or unimportant, nor does it require you to deny real gifts. Humility is not a handsome man trying to convince himself he is ugly or a brilliant woman pretending she is stupid.
No, spiritual humility is the opposite of spiritual pride. It is recognizing our dependence. It is consciously giving to God his proper place at the center of all things and over all things, so that I see myself as his dependent creature, neither more nor less important than every other member of his human family. Love is humble, not proud, when it recognizes the equal worth of everyone and seeks to serve everyone.
Christians reject the pride that uses people and the rudeness that ignores and belittles them because we believe that every human being is a creature made in the image of God, and as such must be well treated, served with dignity and respect. Humble love causes us to help everyone and not to see anyone as “beneath” us or not important enough for us to care about. In fact, Christian love reaches out especially to help those whom the world so often considers unworthy of protection and help: the weak and the poor, the stranger, the immigrant, the unborn, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the unattractive and unwanted.
The Mind of Christ
The truth is, if we’re ever going to love at all, we need a heart transplant—or perhaps I should say, a mind transplant. We need to change our self-centered minds for the mind of Christ.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:3-8, NIV)
Jesus Christ is the greatest example of humble love there ever has been. Though he was in very nature God, he did not consider his divine status something to be grasped and held onto tightly, but he freely gave it up. He made himself nothing, taking the form and nature of a servant. Christ gave up the glory of heaven to assume the humiliation of life on earth as a man. And as a man he humbled himself still more, stripping himself of every shred of respect, descending lower and lower into humiliation and pain and suffering, even to death on a cross.
Maybe you have heard the little phrase “RHIP – Rank Hath Its Privileges.” Among us, having power usually means getting whatever we want for ourselves. But with God it is different. With God, having the highest rank means stooping to the lowest depths. His infinite power only gave him the “right” to make an infinite sacrifice of love. The only privilege Jesus exercised in his life was the privilege of giving up everything, even life itself, for the sake of those he loved. This is what it means to be God. To be God means to love. It means to give, and to suffer, and to serve, and to serve through suffering.
Do you know this love of God in Jesus Christ? You can. You can open your heart to it right now, at this very moment, by asking God to reveal himself to you and pour his love into you. If you do, it will change you. It will change the way you think. It will change the way you act. It will change the way you live. It will teach you the humility of love.