I Corinthians 13 is arguably one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture. It is the chapter of love. Chances are you are familiar with this passage. I have read this passage many times and often return to it to remind myself of the preeminence and definition of love in the Christian walk.
Yet recently I have realized that I have been lacking in my love for people (which is ultimately a lack of love for the Lord). Besides the ever-present, ever-ugly love of self from which I chronically suffer, I believe a contributor to this lack of love has been the heartwrenching blows that ministry often brings. In the past few months our friend and former elder at our church committed suicide, two practically orphaned boys in our youth group, one with severe cancer whom I care about deeply moved to Texas to live with their openly gay uncle, close and dear friends have forsaken their commitment to the Lord and returned to the addictions that used to bind them, students from the youth group who have graduated and become infatuated with the glitter of the world, friends I have looked up to for years for their radical faith have become worn down and lukewarmed by the grind of daily adult life...etc. I write these things not for you to have pity on me but to express to you some of the real pain of ministry. Many of you have no doubt experienced similar or even more intense pain. And perhaps some of you have responded to that pain in a similar manner as me...numbness. The price of numbness is empathy. It is hard to look out at my neighbors, students, and church family and see their spiritual needs when I am too busy trying to protect myself by divorcing my emotions from my ministry. Empathy means feeling the pain of others. There's a lot of pain out there to be felt.
So what does I Corinthians 13 have to do with this? Many things. But the point I want to emphasize in this already rambling post is this: Paul wrote this great masterpiece of love to the Corinthians! Out of all of the churches that Paul ministered to it was arguably the Corinthian church with its rampant gross sin that ripped Paul's heart to shreds more than other. And yet he did not allow the battle scars of ministry to jade him or make him numb towards those in his care. On the contrary, he emphasized even more strongly the preeminence of love among the spiritual gifts to this group of believers. The letters to the Corinthians can be blunt and even somewhat harsh at times but one cannot accuse Paul of failing to lace those admonitions in love and empathy. When ministry became hard, when loved ones fell into sin Paul became more empathetic, not less. What a lie it is to believe that I am protecting myself from ministry failure by trying to be strong and unshaken by the pain around me. No. my strength comes from the One who made Himself weak and suffered with and for the broken. Empathy is essential for the Christian walk and ministry because the empathy of my Savior was essential for my salvation. My God is empathetic with me. That incomprehensible reality demands and frees me to be empathetic with others.
learning to love