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7. Unselfish Christian Love (1 Cor. 13:5b)

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The words of our text (1 Cor. 13:5b) are translated in a number of ways: love seeks not her own, does not insist on its own way, and is not self-seeking. A very literal rendering that goes right to the heart of things is, love does not seek the self. You can see how this leads to the translation, not self-seeking. Therefore our topic for this morning and next Sunday is Unselfish Christian Love. This week I will develop some perspectives on the unselfishness of Christian love and next week I will discuss the motives that drive us down this road. Now let's take up some perspectives on unselfish Christian love in two main points: what the text does not teach and what it does teach.

1A. What the text does not teach

If we think of the text in terms of the notion of self-love, then we can make this twofold claim: acts of self-love are not eliminated but neither are they maximized.

1B. On one hand, it does not teach that acts of self-love are eliminated.

We cannot remove all self-seeking from human life. There is some self-seeking that is proper. This is so for the following reasons.

1) Otherwise, we would have pie in the sky Christianity that is of no earthly good in that it forfeits responsibility we have for ourselves. We are to take care of ourselves. We are not to be dependent on others for all our needs. We have to and we ought to look out for ourselves.

2) Furthermore, we cannot eliminate all self-love because it is presupposed in the great commandment of love in the call to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:34-40; Lk. 10:25-28, 37). This is not commanding love for yourself but it is building on the fact of self-love. It is a given that is presumably something natural and normal.

3) But as commandments go, a form of self-love is implied in the true spirit and intent of the sixth commandment. The Westminster Shorter Catechism states, The sixth commandment requireth all lawful endeavours to preserve our own life, and the life of others (A 68) and The sixth commandment forbiddeth the taking away of our own life, or the life of our neighbor unjustly, or whatsoever tendeth therunto (A 69). A good exercise would be to compare the historic reformed confessions on the sixth commandment looking for this point of self-love.

4) The golden rule begins with what we want to develop a pattern of lawful action (Matt. 7:12).

5) Finally, consider how promises and threats in Scripture fit into this picture. They would make no sense if they did not presuppose a principle of self-love that is natural, legitimate, and even essential to being human. We are promised blessings and thus happiness. We are threatened with curses and thus misery. We can only make sense of the Scriptures that do this on the assumption that appeal is made to an appropriate self-love.

Having said that we must still try to do justice to the fact that we are being pointed away from self-seeking acts of self-love in some significant way since the text does say: love is not self-seeking and there is no qualification cited.

2B. On the other hand, our text does not teach that pleasure and happiness are maximized.

This fact should be self-evident because the text directs us away from self-seeking acts of self-love; that is precisely what love is not. However, it is not obvious to those who call themselves Christian hedonists. There are many good things stressed by Christian hedonists but I detect a major oversight in their doctrine of maximal pleasure in the Lord.

The oversight is right here in our text. Namely, our personal pleasures are not the point; they are not accented. Some obvious limits are imposed on acts of self-love when Paul says, love is not self-seeking. As a matter of fact, if we pursue Christian unselfishness instead of self-seeking selfishness, we will forego or part with some happiness. Hedonism in principle accents the pursuit of pleasure to the maximum and Christian hedonism seeks that maximal pleasure in God (that it is in God is a good point and important to remember). Are there limits to the pleasures of heaven? they may ask. But the text tells us not to seek our own pleasure and happiness; it tells us that Christian love is somehow distinct from self-love.

An important parallel passage is Romans 15:1-2, which likewise speaks of not pleasing ourselves. Accordingly, if we seek to please others by promoting their best interests (their good, 15:2) we will at times be misunderstood and may even suffer for the sake of righteousness. What the gospel tells us promotes the good of a human being is very different from what we, as sinners, think is best for us. So to serve other people in the way of the gospel often costs a lot in emotional energy depletion. We risk some troubled waters if we rock the boat promoting the good of others. We may do what pleases our neighbor objectively (that is, what is for their ultimate benefit) while they are not pleased subjectively (that is, they do not see the benefit and dislike our efforts on their behalf). We may then wonder if we didn't forgo some of our own pleasures needlessly. But then we must remember that seeking our pleasure to the maximum is not the goal. Our pleasure, what pleases ourselves, is not what we focus on (Rom. 15:1-2). Sometimes serving others brings tension and sleepless nights. So be it. We are not our own and we seek not our own things.

To broaden out a little more for fuller perspective, I want to make a couple of more comments in critique of Christian Hedonism as represented in the writings of John Piper, especially in his book, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, 1st ed., 1986, 2nd ed., 1996). My comments hub around this complaint: Christian hedonism with all the good it represents is a misplaced emphasis.

1) First, pleasure is something good in itself and it is something we naturally seek. We need no commandment to seek it. What we need is guidance on how to seek it. Therefore, we are directed in passages like Romans 15:1-2 to look away from our pleasures to limit them and not maximize them.

2) Second, Christian hedonism makes pleasure the key to everything including worship. However, not all aspects of worship are pleasurable. For example, preaching on eternal punishment is not pleasurable and the saints may go away from such preaching sobered rather than glutted on joy (glutting oneself on the feast of worship is an emphasis in Christian hedonism).

3) It is surely a misplaced emphasis to speak of glutting oneself whether on food or pleasure. Doesn't moderation apply to us both physically and emotionally?

4) Although many other things could be said, I limit my comments here to this final point. Regarding pastoral joy, Piper says that if a pastor does not seek after his highest joy in serving his flock then he does not care for the flock properly (a pastor who does not seek to do his work with joy does not care for his flock. Not to pursue our joy in ministry is not to pursue the profit of our people, p. 225). He uses Hebrews 13:17 as support. However, if you read the text carefully, you will notice that nowhere is the pastor directed to pursue his joy in serving (let alone a maximal/hedonistic joy). As a matter of fact, the joy of the pastor is left in the hands of the flock. That may be risky but the pastor serves the flock not for the joy he can get but for the benefit he can give. The risk is that the flock may be ornery and bring the pastor much grief. He serves nonetheless. His pleasure is not the standard of his service. He is not told to seek his joy in serving in this text. That he leaves in the hands of the flock and by faith in the hands of God. In the bigger picture, it seems to me that instead of serving for the joy this text directs us in the opposite direction. Serving is encouraged in pastoral labors by the joy the flock gives to the pastor and being encouraged by that joy pastoral work brings advantage to all.

2A. What the text does teach

To get at the teaching here we have to keep what is not being taught in mind. Let's work into this in stages.

1B. First, we are to seek the things of others

Since self-love is not eliminated, then one way to view the text is in terms of the enlarged heart (enlarged so as to include others within it). Edwards speaks of the Christian heart as enlarged instead of contracted. A Christian is big-hearted rather than small hearted. What are you, big hearted or small hearted? Here is one test to find the answer.

A person of selfish spirit is ready to make much of the afflictions that he himself is under, as if his privations or sufferings were greater than those of anybody else…A selfish man is not apt to discern the wants of others, but rather to overlook them, and can hardly be persuaded to see or feel them.

But a man of charitable spirit is apt to see the afflictions of others, and to take notice of their aggravation, and to be filled with concern for them, as he would be for himself if under difficulties. And he is ready, also, to help them, and take delight in supplying their necessities, and relieving their difficulties. He rejoices to obey that injunction of the apostle (Col. 3:12), Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness…. (Charity 168).

The no you principle of yielded-ness takes a humble spirit because it includes submitting to the wants, needs, and perspectives of another. But it also demands an unselfish spirit. Such is needed to not seek self (not putting what I want first and foremost over what you want; not what pleases me but what pleases you; let's do it your way so I can sing, I did it your way.).

To seek the things of others in this sense is far a field from envy or pride. We are not seeking what others have and we want but lack (as in envy). We are not seeking the things of others to display what we have (as in pride). To seek the things of others is to promote them, to promote their good by supplying and advancing what they need. That is the decisive point of Romans 15:2, Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. What we focus on is the goal of advancing the happiness, safety, and welfare of our neighbor.

Thus if you infer to the opposite of self-seeking love you correctly think about others seeking love. It is the seeking of the things of others versus seeking ones own things. But this is only partly true. We need to broaden our perspective still further.

2B. We are to seek the things of Christ

The opposite of self-seeking in the most fundamental sense is not others seeking. It is seeking the things of Christ. Note the opposite of self interest stated in the book of Philippians: They all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:21). The most important contrast to self-love is Christian, Christ centered, love. We seek the interests of others because in the most radical way we seek the things of Christ.

Without this quest for the things of Christ, you are a person without love and thus without meaning, dignity, and value (1 Cor. 13:1-3). That says a mouthful and it is very important. This is one of the places where Christian love stands in direct opposition to every other kind of love. There is a seeking here that defines a Christian in contrast to a non-Christian. What it involves is fourfold: it involves radical subservience, regulation, commandments, and insistence.

a) Seeking the things of Christ involves a radical subservience. Unselfish Christian love means that all our interests, pleasures, longings, and comfort zones are viewed as subservient to something higher and governing. In this place they are sought (not necessarily abandoned) by living a life of love in devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ.

If sexual pleasure is sought, it is sought in the Lord within marriage in a bond of loving mutuality. Even the most intimate things serve the one with whom we have to do (Heb. 4:13, no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account). Money is sought in order to have the things of life as a good steward before the one who owns all. Money is a means by which we serve God in all buying and selling. Money is shared with others to promote the gospel. It is used to secure the necessary bread for daily living. Hunger is satisfied to the glory of God.

A classic verse begins with whatever you eat or drink (1 Cor. 10:31). It is not simply a metaphor for something else like hungering for righteousness; it is literal eating and drinking that serves the great goal of glorifying God. Emotional rest and physical refreshment are sought in a way that pleases the Lord. So they are sought for the enjoyment they give but that enjoyment serves a higher end, which is to live a healthy life of love to Christ. Take vacations for example. Why do you go on a vacation? What do you do on vacation? Christian love that is not self-seeking means that answers like vacations are for rest and relaxation are tied to a higher goal: the rest that vacations provide is needed so I can be a better servant of Christ.

b) It involves regulation not elimination. Self-love operates within the framework of Christian love. You may drive defensively to work because you are avoiding pain seeking the protection of yourself by promoting your own safety. You work to earn money and pay your bills to have food, clothing, and shelter. This enables you to satisfy your appetite and to keep yourself comfortable whatever the weather. What is it that distinguishes Christian love from self-love? What turns the self-love into godly, Christian love? It is not the elimination of these things. Rather, it is the regulation of them that transforms them. It is their regulation by a higher principle by the higher principle of devotion to God and therefore devotion to others for His sake that transforms them.

So as we pursue the matter of self-love seeking our own happiness, we also seek the glory of God and the happiness of others. We add others-love to self-love. But what is most important here is the ultimate resource. What is sought in this seeking is the main thing. Something higher is sought, something that governs all the self-seeking and relegates it to a truly subordinate place. This something higher is the seeking of the things of Christ (Phil 2:21).

Thus, love that does not seek its own things has a distinct context. It does not mean that Christian love gives no consideration for the needs of the self such as food for the stomach or clothes for the body. This verse (1 Cor. 13:5b) does not teach that the every day seeking to secure the needs of the body is ruled out. It means that all these pursuits are subservient to a higher goal. They are pursued in the name of Christ (whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him, Col. 3:17). This is another way to live a life of love in devotion to God with the whole heart, mind, and strength (the greater of the two great commandments). So self-love remains but it is limited, structured, and guided by love for God as primary. Love for God is seeking to please Him.

c) Seeking the things of Christ involves commitment to God's commandments. This involves earnest commitment to His commandments in their true spirit and intent. The commandments define good works that glorify God. They also lead to love for others in that they direct us to seek the needs of others and they tell us how to do so. So, on the bottom line, the motivation is not self-love or self-seeking because all self-seeking that remains is guided by a higher principle that governs all actions. What is done is therefore not done for self but for God (and by His command for others). This is the key to disinterested love.

But consider this about the promised joys. Why are they sought and how are they sought? They are sought in the pursuit of the greater end of gratitude, praise, and the glorification of God. Therefore how they are sought is guided by the revealed will of God found in Scripture in general and in the law in particular. Thus joy is not sought maximally but in the way of faithfulness to God to honor His name. It is left to God to give the joy He promises in the timing and the amount as He chooses. We thus risk all happiness that may be at our fingertips leaving it in God's hands to give. We do this in faith and love.

d) It involves persistence and insistence. Let me try to draw out an analogy from my experience with hornets. If you are an animal/insect rights advocate, you may want to block your ears. It may surprise you that I learned an art as a bricklayer. It was the art of killing hornets with a trowel. This was something I learned quickly working under overhangs where hornets liked to nest. I would get them before they got me. Why was I insistent in this way in my work as a bricklayer? It was because I was dedicated to avoiding pain remembering the sting on the thumb I received years ago. I was so insistent that it became second place for me to raise my trowel like a sword whenever a hornet came near. This should be our attitude toward unrighteousness. It should become second place for us to raise the sword and do immediate battle with sin and the pain it brings in its wake.

There is self-love in this struggle without question. But if going into a hornet's nest were commanded by the Lord leaving it to Him to protect us, then in we go with no trowel in hand. And this is exactly what the Lord often expects of us. We are sent into the midst of wolves and into hornet's nests sometimes. In this we do not seek our pleasure but obedience. We must commit out safety to Him (cf. Prov. 29:25-26; 25:8). By positive application, love insists on doing the will of God from the heart and to love others out of the resource of this devotion to God, even if they come at us like hornets. Seek not your own things but ask, seek, knock for kingdom righteousness. Persist in and insist on the things of Christ. This is love pure and simple.


With Edwards it can be said that the way to secure your wants, needs, and safety for time and eternity is to not seek them. Do not seek your own things in any governing or final way. Instead, seek Him. Seek the Lord Jesus Christ, His kingdom and His righteousness. Do not seek your own happiness as the governing standard of your life. Instead seek the interests of Christ by pressing ahead on the pathway of glorifying God and promoting the happiness of others along the way. He promises to bless you along the way on your journey and the journey will take you to heaven and to joy unspeakable and full of glory.

Thus the bottom line of Unselfish Christian Love is to love God in the neighbor staking your happiness in the will and loving care of your risen Savior. Love one another as I have loved you, this is my new commandment I give (Jn. 13:34; it is His commandment, Jn. 15:12). This is duty of all Christians that has a special application to husbands (Eph. 5:25). That it is His command informs us to look to Him in taking up the duty of this commandment. It is His command that we love as He loved. His commandment is surrounded by love, flows out to us from His heart of love, and it commands that we love like He loved! He has the authority to command obedience. But His commanding authority is drenched with love. The one who loves you personally commands you personally. What He commands is love. And the definitive example for our love is His love for us: love one another as I have loved you. Out of a heart of love He commands that we pursue and cherish unselfish Christian love.

Related Topics: Love

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