And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.1 Corinthians 13:3
What does Paul mean by surrendering one’s body to be burned? There are basically two options as summed up by Stendahl. The first is obvious, and the way I’ve always read the passage and probably still do, but the second one he mentions is interesting, and it is worth considering, if only for a moment. Give it a read:
We are told that without love no deeds—not even the greatest deed of giving oneself to be burned as a martyr or as a sacrifice on the altar—would count for anything, would be of any ultimate use.Stendahl, Krister. Paul among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1976. Print. p.54
So, we know what giving one’s body to be burned looks like in a martyrdom context. Of course, there could be some difficulty in this reading because of potential manuscript differences, but that’s a bit beyond what we’re trying to accomplish here. Regardless, for the purpose of this short meditation, what would it look like for one to give themselves as a sacrifice upon the altar?
Such practice was obviously taboo, but the imagery is brilliant. Is it possible for one to devote themselves entirely to “worship service” without any love, which renders their worship pointless?
You may know someone who leads worship through leading a long, playing an instrument, or even saying a prayer, and, in doing so, they give it their all. But their attitude hints that there may be selfish intentions in their worship. You may know this because it was you at one point.
Just because we sing songs about God passionately, lead lengthy prayers, or even give everything we have to the poor, that does not mean we are doing so with love. In fact, the KJV’s translation “charity” may just be the very thing Paul is critiquing (in modern use of the word). Stendahl observes,
To distinguish between “charity” as works of charity, actions of love, in contrast to a mere attitude of the heart or feeling is good, and well in keeping with Paul’s intention. “Charity,” however, has come to mean condescending almsgiving, the self-serving gift of the rich to the poor—and that dimension is certainly not what Paul had in mind.p.54
Our worship, like acts of charity, can be self-serving. Love, on the other hand, can be nothing but selfless. The distinguishing feature between love exhibited by God and love shown between casual friends is that love is who God is. When love is who we are, it is an indication that we are born of God. Some misunderstand biblical love because they believe it is something one can conjure up on their own. Those that view love this way often have a transactional, perhaps ritualistic, view of conversion that has little to nothing to do with being born from above. Being born from above is not simply water + Spirit = born from above. It isn’t an equation or set of steps; it is a transformation.
One man recently critiqued me publically while he was debating someone else for suggesting that there are those among various “denominations,” as if he isn’t a member of one, who exhibit this kind of love. This man, unfortunately, doesn’t understand biblical love. Stendahl, again, offers a wonderful explanation and example.
One cannot love by willpower alone. No one can tell himself, “Now I will love,” and then proceed truly to love. Love is beyond our control.
It is, perhaps, easy to see the difficulties inherent in such a mechanism as it relates to humility, one of the trickiest, funniest virtues of the Christian life. There is a well-known story about a man who wanted to be humble: “He was very happy when he managed to be humble. But he was very sorry that he was happy that he was humble. And he was very happy that he was so sorry that he was happy that he was humble …”p. 55
When we worship God, become martyrs, or sell ourselves into slavery to give the proceeds to the poor (as the earlier MMS suggest), we must have love. Love is what a person becomes when they are born of God. And without love, we are nothing.