How can Paul say that love “believes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7)? Surely, such a notion is just naïve thinking. And in the age of the Internet, when watchdog groups and “discernment” blogs reveal all the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of everyone how can we possibly live out this expectation? But Paul really does expect that Christians will believe the best about others.
To begin with we need to define out terminology and make sense of the passage itself. Only after we have come to understand the Scriptures rightly can we move on to apply them correctly in our complicated relationships. So, we will begin in this first post by exploring the interpretation of the passage.
In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul is outlining key features of a Biblically faithful love. In the preceding verses he argues that all the evidences of spiritual health are meaningless if they are not also accompanied by love. So, Paul pays special attention in verses 1-3 to some of the more miraculous gifts of the Spirit of God: speaking in tongues, prophetic powers, wisdom and knowledge of great spiritual mysteries, and a mountain-moving-faith. If anything identifies spiritual vitality it has to be these kinds of gifts! Yet, Paul’s point is that without love these “evidences” are just noise and nothingness. In fact, even personal sacrifice and religious duty without love is empty and vain. His words are a real challenge and a reversal of both what the Corinthians and what we today think. Doctrine, spiritual gifting, and personal devotion are not the primary evidences of spiritual health. It’s not, of course, that these things are unimportant. Right doctrine and religious practice are very important to the Christian faith. But without love they tell us nothing about the state of a man’s relationship to God – after all, even the demons believe (James 2:19). What matters most in Christianity is love of God and love of neighbor (Matt. 22:37-39).
Paul then proceeds to describe what love looks like and he lists a number of key characteristics. He notes especially things like patience, kindness, humility, and a love of truth. In conclusion he states that love bears, believes, hopes, and endures all things. It’s a description of love that is built off of the example of God’s love for us in the gospel: While we were yet sinners Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). We need the example of the gospel, and indeed the power of the gospel, because we are called to emulate God’s love by caring for difficult people. Hence the descriptive factors like patience and humility and endurance. If we were only required to love agreeable people then we would not need these characteristics. Instead, we are called to love the difficult, the disagreeable, and the frustrating (i.e. people just like us).
Of interest to me is the phrasing in verse 7: love believes all things. What exactly does this mean? I don’t think Paul is encouraging us to be naïve. I don’t think he is suggesting that we just believe everything that anyone says. We are told elsewhere in Scripture to be discerning and wise (Prov. 18:17; Matt. 10:16; 2 Cor. 11:13-15; Phil. 1:9-10; Col. 2:8; 1 John 4:1). As John Calvin says, “Not that [a believer] divests himself of prudence and judgment, that he may be the more easily taken advance of – not that he unlearns the way of distinguishing black from white.” So, what does Paul mean by “believes all things”? There is some debate and the question has been raised: does the Apostle apply this statement to individuals or to the divine. That is to say, is Paul saying that love has confidence in God and the blessed future of the believer, or does love have confidence in others?
Historically theologians, pastors, and exegetes have interpreted the passage as saying that Paul is urging us to believe the best about others (Augustine – Calvin, interpreted it this way). Paul suggests elsewhere that there is an appropriate level of confidence we can place in one another. So, in 2 Corinthians 1:7 we read:
And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.
Paul is expressing that his confidence in the future hope of the Corinthians is rooted in what he knows of them personally. In 1 Corinthians 10:15 we read:
Neither do we go beyond our limits by boasting of work done by others. Our hope is that, as your faith continues to grow, our sphere of activity among you will greatly expand
Paul is confident that the Corinthians will be able to speak of their own work, not simply the work done by others, because as their faith grows they will respond. He is confident of this.
Within the context of 1 Corinthians 13 the focus is on the relational aspects of love. Love’s confidence, faith, or trust comes as part of a series in verse 7 which includes other elements (love protects, hopes, and perseveres). The protective nature of love and the persevering nature of love are not focused on the divine blessing, but on the active response of love to others. Therefore, it makes sense to me to follow the historic interpretation and see “love believes all things” as an issue of believing the best about others. This characteristic of love, like the others, is about exercising an active response towards others.
This is the call of genuine and Biblically faithful love: to believe the best of others. How are you doing at that? Do you make assumptions? Do you assume the worst? Do you give others the benefit of the doubt? Do you allow love to compel you to ask questions instead of making accusations? How do you love others? In my next post we will look at some specific ways that we can “believe the best about others.”