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Examining 1 Corinthians 13:4–8

Caitlin Bean

The Bible verses 1 Corinthians 13:4–8 are some of the most popular for weddings. And it makes sense—it’s a beautiful description of what love should look like. But what if I told you that when Saint Paul wrote that, he wasn’t giving advice to newlywed couples but rather to a Christian community that was divided and failing to live out the gospel? Understanding these beautiful verses in their proper context can help us not only appreciate their profoundness but also learn how to apply them to our lives—regardless of whether or not we are entering into matrimony. 

Historical Context of Corinthians
The book of 1 Corinthians was written by Saint Paul to the people of Corinth in 54 AD. Saint Paul was on a mission in Ephesus when he received word that the church in Corinth was in conflict, falling away from the gospel and suffering from many problems. One of the first church communities that Saint Paul had established, Corinth was dear to his heart, and he was saddened to hear about the discord in it. His letter addresses the issues with which they were struggling. His response always includes redirecting the Corinthians back to the gospel message so that they can realize that each person's whole life is to be lived through this lens. 

It is chapter 12 that particularly provides an important framework for chapter 13, one of the most influential chapters in all of the Pauline letters. In chapter 12 we learn that the Corinthians had been quarreling over spiritual gifts, debating which gift was the most important. Saint Paul concludes chapter 12 by describing the Church as the Body of Christ, where the various spiritual gifts are analogous with different body parts: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:12). 

Understanding 1 Corinthians 13:48
After noting that God gives different spiritual gifts to everyone so that the Body of Christ be glorified, he begins chapter 13 by stating that even if he has the greatest of spiritual gifts, but he does not have love, he is nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1–3) for love is the greatest gift of all. Indeed, God is love (1 John 4:8), and we are only capable of having spiritual gifts and practicing the virtue of charity because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). 

And it is here that Saint Paul describes just what love is: 

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. (1 Corinthians 13:4–8)

In this, Saint Paul gifts to his readers two things: the knowledge of who God is and the foundation of what our love should look like. 

God is Love
I believe that Saint Paul’s understanding of God’s love is the most overlooked aspect of this passage. If God, by His very nature, is love,[1] then these qualities of love are qualities that describe our God. With our limited human knowledge and with the wounds of sin (both those inflicted upon us and those we have committed), it is difficult to comprehend the love of God. As Saint Paul notes, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Eventually, when we (God willing) reach heaven, we will see and understand all things clearly, but for now, our vision is blurred. 

When we doubt God’s love for us, may we return to these verses, resting in the truth that God is patient and kind. God is not jealous, He is not rude, and He gives us free will. He does not resent us or grow irritated with us. God rejoices with what is good and true. His love bears all things, and most importantly: God’s love never fails. 

Applying This to Our Life
In his first letter, Saint John writes: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God...Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:7,11–12). This is our mission to love. 

And how should we love? As God loves us—unconditionally, sacrificially, patiently, hopefully, kindly, without anger or resentment, and without arrogance or pride. 

Yes, this is difficult. It is especially difficult to love in this manner when people disappoint, hurt, or betray us. Truly, without God’s grace, the love He asks of us would be impossible. But with God, all things are possible—even the brilliant type of love Saint Paul describes. 

My dear sister, may we love boldly and fiercely so that God’s love may abide in us and be perfected. 

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2012), #221.

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