Series: Love Is
A question everyone has to face in life is, “What are you seeking?” What is your aim in life? In this sermon we’ll look at what 1 Corinthians 13 says love does not seek: Love seeks not its own. Love is not selfish.
Loving the Way Jesus Loves, Phil Ryken
We’re continuing our series this morning in 1 Corinthians 13, a chapter of the Bible all about love, and today we will learn what love seeks, or more properly, what love does not seek. What you seek is one of those “big questions” of life: It’s the question of what you are after, what’s your purpose, what’s your goal in life. The common answer of our world is that you can’t know whether there’s really a god out there who made you with a purpose, but what you can know is that you want to be happy. So don’t waste your time trying to figure out what God’s purpose for you is; instead, spend your time figuring out what makes you happy. Don’t let anyone else tell you what that is, and once you identify what makes you happy, seek it. Of course, don’t hurt others in the process, but your goal, what you’re seeking, is ultimately what you have determined makes you happy. Here’s how one popular self-help book puts it: “Meanwhile, the truth is, the only questions you ever need to consider when making decisions about your life are: 1. Is this something I want to be, do, or have? 2. Is this going to take me in the direction I want to go (not should go)? 3. Is this going to screw over anybody else in the process?” On the other hand, here’s how 1 Corinthians 13:5b, the section on which we’re focusing today, puts it, in a more literal translation: Love seeks not its own, or in my own words, love is not selfish. So we’ll talk about selfishness, what love does not seek, and then we’ll talk about selflessness, what love does seek.
Now right away as I talk about selfishness I need to clarify. To seek your own happiness is not selfish; it’s human, and there is nothing wrong with that, any more than there is something wrong with wanting food. Selfishness is when our pursuit of our own happiness, or our self-love we could call it, becomes inordinate, not by becoming too great, which is technically impossible, but by becoming too great in relation to our other loves. Augustine, the ancient African church father, defined sin as disordered love, and selfishness is a prime example. The problem in selfishness isn’t that you want to be too happy or that you love yourself too much, it’s that you love God and neighbor too little. God created us with the intention that we would be truly and maximally happy, with such a large happiness, an expansive, inclusive happiness, that finds its happiness in the glory of God and the good of others.
When love is absent, however, the love described in this passage, love to God and neighbor, our love shrinks and contracts in on the self. Self-love is all that’s left, and our happiness becomes small, petty, and exclusive, confined to our own private interests, such that we seek those, and perhaps agree to not screw others over in the process, as in the quote I mentioned above, but the thing we are still seeking, our goal, is our private interests. When I say private interests, I mean things that only make us happy. When I watch a TV show, I’m serving my private interests: No one is the happier at the end of the show but me. My bank account, the praise I receive from others, ease, convenience; when those sorts of interests become the controlling influence in my heart, that is selfishness. The heart of it is well expressed in Isaiah 47:10 – “I am, and there is no one besides me.” That’s what this text means when it says love does not insist on its way: Love does not seek its happiness in its private interests.
If you do seek your happiness in your private interests, if you do what our world recommends and just decide for yourself without reference to God what will make you happy, you’ll never be really happy, because there are things you think will make you happy, that may even give you a moment of pleasure, but won’t leave you happy in the end. We all kinda know that, right? Like my go-to example is I think eating donuts will make me happy, and they generally do, but if I give my life to that, in the end I will end up with all kinds of diseases and will be decidedly unhappy. Money is another classic example: Study after study shows that people think more money will make them happier, but once you get beyond basic survival needs being met, the variance in happiness between someone with more money and less is non-existent, and often those with more money are actually more miserable. In fact, these same studies show that the happiest people are the ones with the strongest relationships, the ones with love in other words, because guess what? You were actually created with a purpose! My body wasn’t made to run on donuts and you weren’t created just to get rich or serve your private interests, so if we try to find happiness through these things, we’ll never have it! You were created for an expansive love for God and others, so that true and lasting happiness is found in the inclusive, expansive happiness that comes from that love, love not just of self, but of God and others.
And it is this love that selfishness contracts and ruins. In a marriage, it looks like this: Husband and wife get home at the end of the day, or maybe sign off at the end of the day, and they each have their own idea of what they want their night to look like. They each have a mental list, so to speak: One wants a certain thing for dinner, to spend a certain amount of time with the kids, to get some work thing done, then watch a certain TV show. The other wants a certain something else for dinner, to spend a different amount of time with the kids, to not work at all, and to read instead of watching TV. Now, they may be willing to bend on some of those things to make the marriage work, but it’s a strain to do so, because what each really wants, if they got to choose how the night goes, is the things that serve their private interests. It’s one of the hardest things about marriage: I’m supposed to serve her interests, I told God, the officiant, and the whole crowd of people at the wedding that I would, but I still want to serve my own. If hers happen to line up with mine, great, but if not, my happiness is gone, so much so that people sometimes end up concluding that to be truly happy they’d have to leave the marriage.
Sex is ruined in similar ways by selfishness. Sex is actually a beautiful picture of the expansive, inclusive happiness God created us to have: It is designed to bring a man and a woman together, so that their happiness becomes one: The husband made happy by the happiness of his wife, the wife made happy by the happiness of her husband. But since we’ve actually made it an ideal in our culture to make your private interests supreme, sex is viewed as something merely there to serve your private interests: If you would enjoy sex with another person, do it: There’s no need to commit yourself to them in a covenant of marriage. As long as they consent to you treating them like an object for your personal pleasure, go ahead and do so. Or we cut out another entirely by using pornography and masturbation to exclusively satisfy ourselves; a visceral picture of selfishness. And in marriage sex can similarly devolve when we’re primarily thinking about how to take from our spouse pleasure for ourself, instead of looking to give pleasure to our spouse.
For all these reasons you may hear Christians frequently say that marriage is a sanctifying experience because it does give you such a tangible opportunity to expand your happiness to include at least one other. But I gotta say, nothing infringed on my pursuit of my private interests like having a kid. You really should serve your spouse’s interest, but at least some spouses, mine included, will let you get away with if you don’t. My wife is gracious, but if my son’s interests aren’t being met, he lets you hear it, and boy did the Lord show me my selfishness those first few months. That whole, “Here’s what I want to do with my time” thing? That’s like, a big deal to me. And suddenly I felt like all I did was work, parent, eat, and sleep. I had a lot of “What about me?” moments then.
Now I know a lot of you aren’t married and don’t have kids, and that can be especially difficult when you really want those things. Some of you don’t even want marriage or kids, and that may be fine, but if that’s you, would you at least consider whether it’s because you see them as an infringement on seeking your private interests? That’s not love. On the other hand, the Apostle Paul himself, in this letter, commends the single life, which he himself lived, because it does actually open unique doors for love. The catch with it is you do have to a bit more intentional about it. I finish work for the day and my wife and son are there, whether I like it or not. Now I can still choose to be selfish and you’d be surprised how good I am at that, but at least the decision is in my face. If you’re single, though, you can live by yourself, and spend a lot of your day on things that benefit no one beyond yourself without anyone else noticing. That’s the unique danger of singleness or even childlessness.
But, as I said just a moment ago, there are also unique opportunities for love. Love is meant to be large and expansive, but a temptation for a married person with kids is to expand their love to their spouse and kids and then contract it so it goes no further. And the deception of that is it can actually still be driven by selfishness. A parent can invest a lot of resources in their kid, so that’s beyond their private interests, right? Right, except the parent also knows that if the kid succeeds in life, it improves the parent’s honor and status as well. True love extends beyond those identified with us, and Paul saw his singleness afforded him greater opportunity for that kind of love. He saw in singleness not greater freedom to indulge self, but fewer boundaries on love, since he wasn’t bound to a wife. If you are married and do have kids you do need to prioritize love for them, but married or not, true love longs to expand, and singles are often freer to do so: to the church, the neighborhood, the city, the country, and even the nations.
Consider the upcoming election. Selfishness will tend to drive you in one of two ways: If your private interests are already fairly well attended to, you’ll tend to be pretty disengaged from politics. On the other hand, if you think one candidate will really further your private interests, you’ll tend to vote only for that candidate. Neither of those are love. Love will vote with the interests of others in mind, while selfishness is always looking to contract the circle. It’s like the man who Jesus told to love his neighbor and he asked, “But who is my neighbor?” Ok, so that’s a lot about selfishness, but what does selflessness look like?
Selflessness is not giving up seeking happiness; that’s impossible. Selflessness is when our happiness expands beyond ourselves and includes the glory of God and the good of our neighbor. It’s when our goal, the thing we’re seeking, is the glory of God and the happiness of others, not merely our own happiness, and not screwing others over in the process. It’s when God’s glory makes us happy. It’s when the happiness of our neighbor makes us happy. It’s when I long to not only see me and mine spiritually fed, but to see the nations reached with the gospel. It’s when that makes me happy. It’s when I delight to serve the interests of another racial group at the expense of my own. It’s when I go to the voting poll with God’s glory and the good of my neighbor in mind. Or let’s flash back to my living room with the newborn. It’s been a long day, I want to watch a TV show, but the baby’s crying. What do I do? My selfishness says watch the TV show; you deserve it, and my wife can tend to my son. In the end, I’ve served one person’s happiness: My own. The world tells me I should probably go tend to the baby, but if over time I’m really just not happy, I should probably leave the marriage. In the end, I’ll also have served one person’s happiness.
A step toward love on the other hand might be to say, “Ok, I’d really rather watch my show, but I know the right thing to do is to tend to my son.” In the end, my son’s interests were served, and perhaps even my wife’s, so let’s say there are 2 people happy at least, but I’m not: I’m a little mad I didn’t get to watch my TV show. Again, probably a step in the right direction, but not the final destination. True selflessness, love when it is fully grown let’s say, looks something like this: Husband says, “Ok, I really want to watch my TV show, but what makes me even happier than this TV show is when I show my wife and son what God is like, and when I see them happy, so I’m going to tend to my son.” At the end of that, instead of just you being happy, or just prioritizing your wife and son’s happiness over your own, actually all 3 of you are happy. That’s the kind of happiness for which we were created. That’s a love that does not seek its own.
I think of those of you who have served in so many ways during this pandemic. Steve Layton, a member here who works as an audio engineer, spent multiple hours every week at the beginning between coming to our service recordings, editing the audio, now helping us get set up here, and still serving regularly, in order to make worship happen. Shannon Capps practically put in full-time hours in the month of July to make outdoor worship services happen. Phil Harner did so much to help us deliver meals to our neighbors in need that he even got pulled in to help some other churches do it. Kat Rausch planned a Citygroup leader appreciation event and is overseeing our school supply donations to the Spring Garden School. Michael Murray, my fellow elder here, spends time when he’s not working praying for you all, preparing a call to worship and prayer of confession, checking in to see how you are doing, meeting with me to decide how best to lead the church. There are so many more people I could name, but in each of these cases the people serving have not received a dime for their efforts. They haven’t furthered their careers. Their private interests have not been served in any way, and sometimes that makes it hard, right? For all of us there are days we don’t want to do such things, and yet I know in the case of those 5 and in the case of many others, there are also days where it makes them genuinely happy to see God glorified in our church. There are days when it makes them genuinely happy to see you happy. And, by the way, they all happen to be single, a living demonstration of Paul’s principle that singleness often opens avenues for love beyond the capacity of many married individuals. Our church wouldn’t be what it is today if it weren’t for single folks like them, and at the same time I know they would readily tell you ways they see selfishness still there in their own hearts and are slightly uncomfortable that I’m doing this to them.
It’s there in all of us, but there is one in whom there is none. God is love, which means before there were ever any humans for Him to love, there was love within Him, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, none seeking the own, but expanding their love to include one another, expanding it so far in fact that we could say, as a children’s book I’m reading with my son now puts it, love made us. God’s love expanded to create us, but when we sinned against Him, when we turned in on ourselves and shrank our love down to this narrow, infinitesimally small point called the self, God was not bound in any way to continue loving us. Justice required only a punishment for sin. But God is so great in love that He freely chose to keep expanding His love out to us, before we loved Him, when we were still stuck loving only ourselves.
I mean you really gotta think about this: If you were omnipotent, what would you do with all that power? Would you really use it to deliver people who hate you from their misery and make them as happy as you are? Yet God chose to become human to do just that. We even talk sometimes about, “Man if I just had unlimited money, I’d quit my job and go live on a remote island somewhere,” where I could basically just live an entirely self-directed life in service of my private interests. But Jesus comes, actually has that power, and instead willingly chooses to put himself in relationships with people who let Him down, and spends His time restoring the happiness of miserable people. His love so expanded to include this that it even included taking our sin and guilt upon Himself on the cross. One of the most common ways the New Testament talks about what Jesus did on the cross is in this simple statement: “He gave himself.” Selfishness seeks itself above all else; Jesus gave Himself. He didn’t come to seek His own happiness and not screw over others in the process; the Bible tells us He actually came to seek and to save those who are lost, to seek and to save us, and He gave Himself to do it! Not only did He serve our interests; He sacrificed His own.
And now risen from the dead and exalted to heaven, He is happy, gloriously happy in the presence of His heavenly Father…but His happiness has expanded. It now includes whoever believes in Him. Believe in Him, and He will forgive you your selfishness, share with you the joy of a restored relationship with your heavenly Father, and put His Spirit in you, to open your heart back up and expand it out in a love that includes the glory of God and the good of your neighbor in your happiness. You’ll start to say things like this: “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). You’ll still want to be happy, but your happiness will now be found gazing upon the beauty of the LORD. There is no way to be happier.
You’ll start saying things like this: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). If you really believe the end of that verse, that the Son of God loved me and gave himself for me, you will get a peculiar happiness out of living for Him and for all those made in His image over time. And much like envy, you can move toward that as you choose to serve the interests of God and others rather than simply your private interests, even on the days when it feels like it won’t make you happier. You don’t need to love yourself less; you need to expand your love so that it is inclusive of God and others, so inclusive that you will be happier to lay down your private interests than to serve them, if it means increasing the glory God receives and the happiness your neighbor receives.