In 1 Corinthians 13:13, Paul writes, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
It seems that, at least on some level, Paul is laying out the most important qualities that a Christian can possess, and he is, at the same time, ranking them in ascending order of importance with love being the most crucial characteristic.
Love is an attractive quality. It draws people in and points them to Christ. Because “God is love” (1 John 4:16) and because we were made in His image (Genesis 1:26), this should not surprise us. The attractiveness of love and its power to draw the world toward God can be seen in Jesus’ words to His disciples in John 13:34–35. He says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
People see Christ in us when they see love. In this way, love attracts the world to the kingdom.
Hope is a similarly attractive quality. Hope acts as a light drawing people in. In a world that is often hopeless, the anchor of Christian hope (Hebrews 6:19) gives us a reason to stay joyful and calm in the midst of the most difficult of trials. It also attracts a curious world that cannot quite understand this hopeful quality to our lives. Peter perhaps speaks best of the attractiveness of hope when he writes: “In your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
When people see Christians whose lives shine with the hope of Christ, they want to know more about Christ, the source of their hope. Hope, like love, draws people to the kingdom.
Even the most hardened of hearts are attracted to those whose lives shine with love and hope. They may remain cynical about faith and religion, but love and hope break down almost any barrier. Hope and love draw people to God despite their resistance to Him.
Faith, on the other hand, is more of a mixed bag. While faithfulness is almost universally revered and admired, faith alone, without the attractiveness of love and hope, can oftentimes (and ironically) turn people away from God rather than attracting them to Him. Look, for example, at the Pharisees. No one questioned their faith, but their ability to draw the world into the kingdom is far more debatable. In fact, Jesus often criticized them for keeping people out of the kingdom by the way they lived out their strong faith (Matthew 23:13), rather than drawing people into God’s fold.
This is why, even in a chapter that concludes with faith as one of the three most important and enduring qualities a Christian can have, Paul starts 1 Corinthians 13 by pointing out the shortcomings of faith alone (v.2). However, faith is the foundation of the Christian walk, the starting point from which hope and love spring. Peter illustrates it this way: “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love” (2 Peter 1:5–7).
Notice that Peter uses faith as the base upon which these other Christian qualities are built. But the pinnacle quality, the final one listed, and the goal this list is driving toward is love. Faith is the foundation, not the end. It is an essential quality, but it is not a self-sufficient one.
If these things are so, it is interesting that much of the time our Christian walk is focused on faith, rather than hope and love. We spend time, appropriately, nurturing our faith in our devotional lives by studying the Bible, memorizing verses and meditating on the Word. But do we spend as much time, if not more, nurturing the hope that is our anchor and the love that shows we are truly Jesus’ disciples? After all, it is not our belief in God alone that justifies us; it is our actions of love flowing out of that faith (Matthew 25:31-46; James 2:14-26).
Similarly, our churches tend to focus a great deal of time, energy and programming on the development of faith. Our Sundays are oftentimes overwhelmingly focused on faith, with Sunday school teaching the faith and the worship service having the faith-building sermon as its focal point. But discipleship is more than teaching and nurturing faith. It is cultivating hope and modeling love.
As a result of this overemphasis on faith with an accompanying neglect of hope and love, our “right thinking” remains strong while our “right living” suffers. Our faith makes us feel good, but no one else. Is it any wonder that in our personal lives, we so often fail to see spiritual fruit while our churches struggle through seasons of spiritual drought? Lacking the magnetic qualities of Christian faith and love, we go years without seeing anyone come to know Christ as a result of our personal, Christian walk or of our churches’ best evangelistic efforts. Our theology remains sound yet spiritually infertile.
The answer, of course, is not in abandoning our strong faith but in shifting our focus from faith-maintenance to hope- and love-development. Jesus said that when He was lifted up, He would draw all people to himself (John 12:32). We must lift Jesus up in our lives and churches by living out the hope and love that Jesus showed. This, in conjunction with our sound faith, will act as a spiritual force, inexorably drawing people to Christ. This is “the most excellent way” that Paul referred to (1 Corinthians 12:31). Unfortunately, we have chosen an inferior way that lacks the power to transform our world, not because of any deficiency in our gospel, but because, without the attractiveness of hope and love in our lives and congregations, we struggle to gain an audience that wants to hear about our good news. We must commit to the greatest of these qualities and stop settling for an ineffective and unproductive, yet solidly orthodox, knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:8). When we start to practice the hope and love of Christ, resting on a solid foundation of faith, not even the gates of hell will be able to stand up against the Body of Christ.
Lyle McCoon Jr. resides in Indianapolis. He is an alumnus of Greenville College and Asbury Theological Seminary.
- Why do some Christians not seem hopeful and loving despite their emphasis on their faith?
- How can we live out the hope and love of Jesus more in our lives?