What is Paul’s understanding of love? (1 Corinthians 13)

by Richard D. Draper and Michael D. Rhodes, extracted from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, BYU Studies, 2017).

With acute insight, one LDS scholar stated that “First Corinthians 13 is the most moving chapter of the New Testament outside of Jesus’ teachings, a fact that suggests its real source” (Anderson, Understanding Paul, 117).  He further noted that its power comes, in part, like that of the Sermon on the Mount because “it treats the disease, not the symptoms” (Anderson, Understanding Paul, 117). Paul’s intent, as he so precisely stated in 12:31, was to show his readers “a more excellent way,” and in this chapter he does so. To identify that way, he chose a single word: “love” (Greek agape). The KJV translates it with the English word “charity.”

Paul shows love to be the greatest of all the gifts of God and the basis on which all the others operate. In this, he is supported by the Book of Mormon prophet Moroni who also addressed the importance of love (Moro. 7:44–47; 10:20–22). In the Pauline epistles, however, as LDS scholars have noted, charity is “not included as a gift in the way as it is in Moroni, but rather is the principle upon which the [other] gifts are based” (Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Thomas Wayment, Making Sense, 360). The reason that the Apostle sets love above all the other spiritual endowments is because it belongs to an altogether different class. The only other members are hope and faith. Love transcends all other endowments of the Spirit and is the supernal gift from God.

Love, for Paul, is not an ethereal concept but is a concrete reality fully expressed in the teachings and actions of the Master. It is neither a sweet sentiment nor even some motivational power behind certain actions. For him, it is action; nothing less will do Where inaction resides, love does not. As such love is neither a human virtue inherent within the soul nor a talent developed by discipline and hard work. It is the touch of the divine. It is, as Paul knew, “shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us” (Rom. 5:5). As Latter-day Saints understand, it comes only to those “who are true followers of his [God’s] Son, Jesus Christ” and who ask for it “with all the energy of heart” (Moro. 7:48). Even then, it must be maintained “by diligence unto prayer” (Moro. 8:26).

Love’s essence was expressed by the Savior when he said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Therefore, the depth of this kind of love can be measured. Clearly, for Paul, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). This is because, if one loves God—truly loves him—such a person will not commit immoral acts, take human life, spoil a reputation, take neither credit nor property, or covet what another has (Rom. 13:9). Indeed, under its power such things would be unthinkable. Love propels one to take care of others and see to their welfare.