1 Corinthians 13 is sometimes called the Bible’s Chapter on Love. It is a beautiful description of God’s definition of love. In it, God tells us that if our actions are not motivated by love, they are worthless even if they appear to be worthwhile. It also states that love endures all things and that love never fails, both of which seem hard to achieve.
For many years I had read this chapter and applied it in the sense that these characteristics of love were something that I needed to “do”. I would read that “love is patient” and I would try to be more patient. I would read that “love is not irritable” and I would try not to become irritated. If I found myself being impatient with someone I would think to myself ‘I need to have more patience’. I interpreted this chapter to be a guide on how I needed to behave. I think most people think of 1 Corinthians 13 this way. And in one sense this is true. It does give us a guide as to what love should look like. But this way of thinking about it never helped me to achieve what the chapter describes: Love NEVER Fails.
What I had missed was that Paul is describing what actions result when love is the motivation. Paul’s core message is about motivation. This can best be seen in verse 3:
1 Corinthians 13:3 (REV)
“And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor… but do not have love, it profits me nothing.”
Giving to someone in need is a loving action. Giving a great deal to people who are malnourished, or even starving, is a great loving action. And yet Paul says that if he does not “have” love then this great loving action will do him no good. Since the action described is loving, but is contrasted with “having” love, then Paul cannot be talking about an action of love. He is talking about being motivated by it. He is saying that you can do things that appear to be good and loving but if you are not motivated by love then those actions are empty and meaningless as far as you are concerned.
Consider also Paul’s use of the noun instead of the verb for love. Paul did not say “if I do not love I am nothing”, he said “if I do not HAVE love I am nothing”. Had he used the verb form of love then it would be appropriate to say that the description of love that follows in verses 4-7 are the actions to which Paul was just referring. In other words Paul might have said “you need to love (action)” and then “here’s how to do it.” But Paul uses the noun form of love and he uses it in conjunction with the word “have”. The English word “have” is the translation of the Greek word echo (Ἠχω) which means to possess something. In fact if we replace the word “have” with the word “possess” it becomes clear that Paul is concerned with motivation.
1 Corinthians 13:1 (REV)
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels but do not have [possess] love, I have become a sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal.
Therefore while chapter 13 does describe what genuine love looks like it is not about how to act loving, it is a call to act with a motivation of love. This is not to say that the action of love is not important, of course it is! You cannot say that you love someone if you do not manifest that love in action. But Paul’s main purpose in chapter 13 is dealing with the motivation of love. And he is warning us that all action, whether of a spiritual or even beneficial nature, must be motivated by love.
Understanding that we are dealing with motivation is the key to understanding how it can be that “love never fails.”
1 Corinthians 13:7-8a (REV)
[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails…
The word translated “fails” in the REV is the Greek word pipto (πίπτω). It literally means “to fall down.” Checking several Bible translations will reveal that there are two general ways that this word is translated: either “fails” or “ends.” The word can certainly mean both of these concepts but they are radically different in meaning. Commentators are torn as to whether or not this phrase is the conclusion of the previous section (i.e. bears all things, believes all things, etc.) or the introduction of the next section (i.e. but where there are prophecies). It is distinctly possible that Paul intended it to be both, which would explain his unusual word choice in pipto. If he had intended to only indicate the idea of love never coming to an end or ceasing there are several other words he could and normally would have chosen including two words used later in this verse. Paul uses pipto a number of times and this is the only place where he might be using it in the sense of coming to an end. In every other use he either means to literally fall down or to fail at something.
Love never fails?! My love often fails. I try to be patient only to become impatient. I try not to be irritated only to become so. This saying “love never fails” has often troubled me. I would console myself with the thinking that Paul is just saying that love will always be important but, as we saw in the previous paragraph, if that is all that Paul had intended he could have more easily said it. And besides, Paul’s statement “love endures all things” never really let me off the hook. But when we understand that Paul is talking about the motivation of a love that is committed to the benefit and welfare of the other person as opposed to being motivated by our own wants and desires his meaning becomes clear:
When love of the other person is our genuine motivation we will never fail to manifest the characteristics of love in action.
That statement bears repeating, but I’ll just let you read it again.
When I am motivated by love of the other person I will remain patient. I will not become irritated. I will not keep a record of wrongs. Why? Because my motivation has changed the focus from me to the other person. Love fails to endure when my motivation is love of myself.
This concept can be clearly seen in the transition couples often make from doting lovers when their vows are fresh to cold and frustrated strangers a few years later. We look at these newly minted couples and say “they are so in love.” But what is the reality? The truth is they like the way the other person makes them feel. As time passes and the newness wears off, the love subsides because the “doting” ceases. In other words they stop doing the things that make each other feel good. This is a vicious cycle that builds on itself. As one person begins to stop doing some of the things they did before, the other person doesn’t feel as loved and so they do less in return. Even in a marriage where they continue to do those things that make each other feel good, they are always in danger of falling prey to something else coming along that makes them feel even better whether that something is innocuous as a sports season or as cruel as another lover.
God’s type of love stands in stark contrast. It is best illustrated by Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus set aside his wants and desires (Matt. 26:39 – “not as I will but as you will”) because he was motivated by his love of God’s people. We are called to that same kind of love—a love where we set aside ourselves in order to truly love others.
Ephesians 5:2 (REV)
“and walk in love, even as Christ also loved us, and gave himself up for us as an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling fragrance.”
We need to read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 with fresh eyes filled with this understanding. When we are motivated by love of the other person and are not seeking our own comfort, our actions will be characterized by love without fail.
By focusing on motivation and then providing a list of descriptive characteristics of how love manifests when it is the motivation, Paul has given us a useful tool to help us uncover our motivations. Whenever I find myself failing at any of the descriptions of love found in 1 Corinthians 13, it reveals that my motivation is not love of the other person. I can then examine myself and determine what my real motivation is and then purposefully change that motivation to love of the other person.
For example, if I find myself becoming irritated with one of my children, I know at that moment that I am not motivated by love of my child. Somehow I am motivated by love of self in that situation. Perhaps he is making me late for something and I am irritated because I do not want the inconvenience. So I snap at him. As I recognize my motivation I can begin to effect change in my heart. I can decide that he is far more important than any inconvenience I might experience. I might ask in a genuinely interested way what is happening that has caused him to delay us. It might become an opportunity to help him understand the importance of planning ahead so that he is able to keep his word. However it works out, I will not become irritated with him if my motivation is love for him.
Or a person may actually believe that they are doing something good and loving for someone else when in actuality they are being selfish. For example, a parent that continues to enable a grown child who is irresponsible may believe that they need to help their child out of love when in reality they may be acting out of a sense of guilt or even simply trying to avoid their own embarrassment. The reality is that their enablement only perpetuates the behavior.
It may seem strange to realize that from God’s perspective a good action without a motivation of love is worthless, but that is exactly what Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13. As we understand that Paul’s message is about motivation, not action, we see that the characteristics of love he describes are the result of having a motivation of love, not a list of things we are supposed to endeavor to do. That same list becomes a barometer of our motivations. If we find ourselves manifesting the opposite of the characteristics of love, we can immediately recognize that we are motivated by something other than the love of the other person, probably love of ourselves. I have seen tremendous fruit in my own life and in the lives of my family by using the characteristics of love to clue me in on my motivation. I encourage you to use them in this way. I believe you will see the great fruit of love grow and grow.
 e.g. The First Epistle To The Corinthians, Gordon D. Fee, Eerdmans Publishing Co. pgs. 642-643
 Rom 11:11,22;14:4, 1 Cor 10:8,10;13:8;14:25