"If I speak human or angelic tongues[a] but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 And if I give away all my possessions, and if I give over my body in order to boast[b]but do not have love, I gain nothing." 1 Corinthians 13:1-3.
Most of the time, when I’ve heard 1 Corinthians taught or read about it, the emphasis is placed on verses 4-8, which explain what love looks like. You can hear these verses read at weddings, Valentines celebrations, anniversaries, and even funerals. When they’re read, rarely, if ever are the above three verses discussed at any length. However, I believe these verses are the key perspective to remember when considering the rest of the chapter. It’s my belief that if these three verses, especially verse 1, were held in high enough esteem, the way the church interacts with our society in general would look completely different.
The gist of these three verses is that if I have all the ability that any church would want, but do not love people, I’m empty and useless in the Kingdom of God. Paul ends each verse with “I am a noisy gong or clanging cymbal”, “I am nothing”, and “I gain nothing”. I especially like the “clanging gong or noisy cymbal” analogy because I think it perfectly illustrates what we can look like when we forget to filter all of our actions through the love of Christ.
Think for a minute of your favorite song. Now imagine that God has given you the ability to be a great sound engineer and your mixing this song to be released to market. For some crazy reason, you drop the sound on every instrument down to zero except the cymbal. All you have is the clanging of the cymbal without the rest of the music. The drummer is a pro, so at first you admire his work, and love the way he plays it. Then after a while, you start to notice that without the rest of the band, the cymbal by itself is pretty empty. As a matter of fact, now that you’ve listened to it a while, without the rest of the instruments, it’s starting to get pretty annoying. By the time you finally turn up the rest of the band, you’ve reached a point where you can’t stand the sound of the cymbal. Let me hear anything else but the cymbal!
That is the way the church can appear to a lost and dying world if we don’t remember that the greatest commandment Jesus gave us is to love God and love our neighbor. Too often, we want to communicate the truths contained in God’s word without expressing the love that embodies it. The church has become identified with the things God’s word forbids rather than for the love that it expresses. We shout from the rooftops our opposition to changes in marriage laws, how God hates divorce, the decay of morals in our society, our view on gender roles in the bible, our support for the unborn, and a myriad of other social ills that have either plague our society or are contrary to what God’s word says. We have forgotten that these truths of God's word are just like the cymbal, complimentary to the Great Commandment.
The fact that many are sticking to what God’s word says should be commended, however, Christianity will never be a an “ends justify the means” faith. The truths of God’s word become an annoying clanging gong that people quickly grow tired of hearing when they are not accompanied by the love that Jesus Himself said was most important. When we put the truths of God’s word before establishing a reputation of loving God and neighbor, we make Jesus look like a legalist more concerned with one’s behavior rather than the condition of that person’s soul. It’s when we do this that we become judgmental toward the homeless, the immigrant (legal or illegal), the poor, the outcast that just doesn’t fit in anywhere, and those disenfranchised because they have a past full of behaviors that God’s word prohibits.
It’s also an indication of a lack of understanding of our own sin condition. When we condemn people that are less fortunate or who have difficult circumstances in their past, we are elevating ourselves above them as if we are incapable of such sin. We don’t always do this consciously, but it’s the root cause all the same. That’s why it’s so important that all of our actions are covered in God’s love and with a humility that understands that we would most likely be just like those we condemn if we had been born into their circumstances.
So, the next time you read 1 Corinthians 13, stop and dwell on the first three verses. Ask God to help you see and understand how important it is to express the love of God before expressing some of the truths of His word that our culture may not understand. By doing this, you may gain a reputation of being a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners, but since that was the reputation Jesus earned, you’re probably headed down the right path.