1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.…
It is the aim of religion to lift men out of their natural unregenerate selves, and, so far as their human nature is capable of such exaltation, to make them more like God: to produce and increase in them some feeble counterpart of that moral goodness which we worship in the perfection of the Divine Being. Now charity is the road which alone brings us on this heavenly journey, and each one of the several exhibitions of the same blessed spirit, which are detailed for us by St. Paul in the chapter now before us, is one more added to the golden steps that carry the Christian higher and higher towards the throne of God. I said that by the practice of charity men are made more like God, for, if we take those parts of the description of it which are applicable to the case, we shall find that they are a description not only of what man ought to aspire to be, but of what God Himself is, so far as He reveals Himself in His dealings with men. I do not mean that the picture was so intended, but that so it is. "Charity suffereth long and is kind" — and do not we find by daily experience that this benign long-suffering is one of the attributes of the Most High? If it were not so, where should we sinners be to-day? "Charity envieth not." Of course the Creator cannot envy His creature, but it is conceivable that He might grudge him good: the heathen often surmise this of their gods: but our God "giveth to every man liberally' and upbraideth not." Charity "is not easily provoked." "God is a righteous Judge," says the Psalmist, "strong and patient, and God is provoked every day," and yet, as he implies, still withholds the chastisement, "if a man will not turn," then, and then only, "He will whet His sword." Charity "thinketh," or better, "imputeth not the evil": and so our Father, instead of saddling us with our sins the instant we commit them, is ever ready to help us out of them, to rid us of them if only we will be rid, not to impute them to us, but to forgive and forget them for His dear Son's sake. Charity "never faileth." It is the very spirit of God's treatment of man. It is because His love fails not, and never can fail, that we dare either enjoy the present or look forward to the future. Now the more excellent a way is, the harder it is to reach it and to walk in it: and if the principle of charity be at the root of God's dealings with us, it need not surprise us that we find much difficulty in producing any genuine copy of the Divine pattern in our dealings with one another. And yet we must do so, or fail altogether in godliness. It may therefore be of service to take some three or four of the chief aspects of our many-sided life in which the exercise of charity is called for, and ask ourselves how far we exhibit or fail to exhibit it in them.
1. Take first our religion. If there be any subject in which our charity should be deep-seated and unquestionable, one would think it should be this. The solemn nature of the matter treated of, the deep importance of the issues, the sense of human feebleness and ignorance in face of the infinite and the unseen, the consciousness of our own personal failures and inconsistencies — these things, one would think, should make us very tender, both in judgment and act, towards other "seekers after God." And yet nowhere is charity more starved and stunted than it is among the differing professors of a common faith. Imagine a number of travellers all bound for the same distant and as yet unvisited country, each furnished with a map of the road. The maps agree as to the main direction, and indeed have most of their chief features in common, but they vary often in minor particulars. Will they all fall to quarrelling and hate one another because of these differences? What hard thoughts, what harsh unsympathising judgments, the staunch Churchman often forms of his Dissenting brother, and his Dissenting brother forms of him! How suspicious and antagonistic is the attitude of Protestant to Catholic! But it may be urged, How can I look lovingly on my neighbour, and tolerate his ways and his opinions, when I believe them to be thoroughly mischievous? Am I to stand by and see error triumph unopposed? Certainly not; it is our duty to oppose it: but there are two ways of opposing it. The one is dogmatic, dictatorial, pugnacious. It will admit no possibility of weakness or imperfection in its own position, no element of good in that of the adversary. It hates compromise. It struggles for triumph, not for truth. The other is based on meekness and moderation. It believes that it has possession of a truth, but it claims no exclusive patent for proclaiming it. It sees, and cheerfully pays honour to, the truth and goodness which are mixed up with the error of an opposite party. It yearns not for triumph, but for harmony. Certainly, a man whose opposition is animated by this spirit is a very dangerous and effective combatant. He is not indifferent to truth: he is its devotee. What he is indifferent to is the triumph of a faction. The character looks fair and noble, surely, when thus sketched in the general, but when we come to try to work something of the pattern of it into the texture of our own daily lives, it will not harmonise with the stuff already there, and the business bristles with difficulties. Pride has to be overcome, dislike reasonable or unreasonable, ancient prejudices, our own self-esteem. This person or this party, whom you or I dislike, does not seem like other persons or parties.
2. We will turn now to another wide field of action-politics. The more deeply men feel, the more impatient of opposition are they apt to be, and the more angry at anything that runs counter to their own persuasions. Next to religion there is nothing of a public kind about which men feel more deeply than politics, and hence the frequent need in this sphere also of the blessed influences of a Christian charity. Difference of opinion has too often culminated in personal animosity, and it has seemed more hard than ever for political opponents to see any good in each other's views, or any nobleness in their aims. If this be so, it becomes the special duty of the preacher to assert aloud the claims of charity to be reverenced and practised in the political arena. She would not stop the strife, but she would moderate it. It is as unchristian as it is foolish to impute bad or low motives to an opponent where there is any hope that we may be mistaken.
3. The next field over which we will cast a glance is that of literature. Surely in the great republic of letters, if nowhere else, every citizen will be candid and courteous towards his fellows! But it is not always so. Even great and good men have yielded to the temptation to be uncharitable here. It is a noble saying of Aristotle's, when he is about to canvass Plato's Theory of Ideas, that both being dear to him, it is a sacred duty to prefer the truth to Plato. Let us have the truth, here as in all other subjects, before all things; that of itself never can harm us, but let us have it spoken in love. The exclusive pursuit of truth is not inconsistent with the purest charity. The calm and patient examination of another's arguments, the respectful consideration of his position, the readiness to be convinced of error where it can be shown to exist, the reluctance to impute ignorance or stupidity, the absence of all tinge of personality, the scorn of snatching a momentary victory at the expense of truth, which we mark in some great controversialist — how much more noble and powerful they are than whole reams of brilliant but insincere invective.
4. The relations which we have so far looked at have been all more or less of a public character: before concluding let us give our thoughts for a while to the demands of charity in the private region of domestic life. It is an old and a true saying that "Charity begins at home." Here if anywhere the Christian should exhibit that spirit of forbearance, of unselfishness, of unwearying, uncalculating kindness, of optimism in judging of the characters, motives, actions of those about him, which are the parts of charity. The occasions for its exercise are as numerous as the hours of the day. Happy the family where this sweetest and wholesomest of influences reigns supreme, and is shared in by all its members. Such a household becomes the nursery of true public virtues. How unhappy are that man and woman who have linked their lot for life together, and yet have made no preparation to carry out the Divine behests of charity in the insignificant things of daily life. They may bear a brave face to the world, but what profit is that to them, if the simple sweetness of the domestic hearth be marred by peevishness, or hardness, or a cutting tongue, or wilfulness, or mere want of sympathy? We have thus traversed, in however cursory a manner, some of the great fields in which charity works. There are other fields on which we have not entered, nor is there much need to do so, for though "there be diversities of operations it is the same Spirit which worketh all in all." If it be true that he that offends in one point of the law is guilty of all, no less is it true that he that has grasped what the genuine spirit of charity is in any one great relation of life will be able to understand it in all.
(E. H. Bradby, M. A.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.