It’s also, according to Paul’s first letter to the church and Corinth, not love. That’s right, zeal and passion are not love. In 13:4, we read, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude” (NRSV). I think I can often skip over these easily, saying to myself that, yeah, duh, of course love is patient and kind. That people who are being rude jerks are not loving people. But that word “envious”... Well, thanks to King James and his team of courtly translators, a complicated and revelatory concept has been reduced to something a bit toothless. The word that the King James translates as “envious” is, in fact, zealous. That’s right, folks: love, according to St. Paul, is NOT zealous.
Wow. Seriously, just ponder that for a moment. All those things that movies and novels hold up as the ideal for a dreamy romance? Not love. Passionate burning in pursuit of your lover? Not love. Jealously wanting to possess someone all for yourself? Definitely not love.
Thankfully, Paul’s language is not completely sapped by King James’ translators. In verse 5, Paul continues, “[Love] does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful” (NRSV). “Does not insist on its own way” is rendered by King James as “seeketh not her own.” Romance is all about seeking for oneself. I’m not knocking romance; romance is great and fun and hot and sexy. But it isn’t love.
You know where I’m really challenged? That part about not being irritable. King James’ scribes rendered that phrase as “is not easily provoked.” The Greek word for this, παροξύνω, literally means to prick, sharpen, or spur. Love is not pricked, sharpened, spurred, or irritated. This has mostly been easy for me in my love for my spouse. I am with a wonderful partner who is calm and pleasant and caring and gentle, and there have been very few instances in our life together where I have felt easily provoked by her.
But now I am the parent of a toddler.
I am easily provoked by my child daily. It takes little effort on her part to prick, sharpen, spur, prod, irritate, exasperate, or generally enrage me. In those loving moments, when she’s being adorable and delightful, it is easy for me to love her with kindness. I mostly have no problem seeking her good and not mine. But is my love for her “not easily provoked”? No. It’s actually quite irritable.
Why is this, you may ask? Well I’ll tell you. It’s because my love for her is zealous. Fiercely, powerfully, passionately zealous. Which is, as we’ve heard from Paul, not really love. At least, not the kind of agape love that he is talking about here. I so want what’s best for my child, with every ounce of being, that it is easily a zeal. And that’s what makes me so irritable. I burn with the desire to be a good parent to her, to do what is best for her, that I actually stop focusing on her and turn inward. In those moments when she’s pitching a fit and I feel like the worst parent in the world, I become so wrapped up in what I want – to be the best parent in the world – and I lose sight of what is best for her. It’s weird, isn’t it? My ferocious desire to seek what’s best for her can become so intense that I actually stop doing what’s best for her. It’s an insidious trap, and it’s fueled by my zeal, not my love.
I suppose that love cannot be patient if it is zealous. Zeal does not wait and it does not tolerate. It will not be outdone or subverted. Zeal is about dominance, authority, and force. But love is a soft power. In verse 7, Paul writes “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (NRSV). Endures all things. Literally in Greek, this means “stay behind” or remain. Love lasts no matter what comes its way. No matter what kind of tantrums or fits are thrown, love remains.
I will admit that in that moment when I face down that three-year-old drama of asserted will and defiance, I am not patient. I am easily provoked. And I have a hard time being kind. But I can attest to my love remaining. It’s under there somewhere. It’s a soft power, even when my turbulent zeal bubbles over it and dominates. But love bears this and trusts that softness and gentleness will win out and hopes beyond all hope that when all else burns away, what remains will be love. It’s what allows me to hug and kiss my sweet little girl moments after she’s kicked me. It’s what teaches her to trust that she, too, is loved and therefore worth loving.
It’s hard to remind myself of these things when I’m staring into the scrunched, red face of a screaming toddler, spewing spittle and flailing her clawed fingers. I confess it: my zeal gets the better of me. But I know that in those moments what I’m feeling is not my love. Hard as it is to admit this, the recognition of this fact helps me to search beneath my heated, fiery need to be the best parent in the world to find that deep abiding love that trusts me to find a way to caring for someone else. Lord help me.