St. Paul’s description of love in the First Letter to the Corinthians 13:1-13 is one of the favorite passages of the New Testament. We are always inspired by it because we want to be people who give and receive love. Brides and grooms often choose this passage for their wedding because it makes explicit what they hope for in their marriages. It would be a mistake to think that Paul is writing about the feelings of affection. “Love” for Paul is the deeper commitment to give to others, which is not an emotion but the virtue of charity.
Experience teaches us that our emotions are frequently inconsistent. By contrast, a virtue is an almost permanent disposition. The virtue of charity is the stable commitment to the other.
St. Thomas Aquinas, and other theologians, use the word caritas, charity, to distinguish the virtue of love from love as an emotion. Love as an emotion is a very good thing but the virtue of charity stabilizes the emotion and enables people to love each other, despite the circumstances and difficulties.
How do we get this virtue? Paul describes charity, along with faith and hope, as the “greatest spiritual gifts” that God gives us. According to Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians, explains charity is tied to God’s sanctifying graces that are given to us, “Charity is inseparably connected with sanctifying grace.”
Sanctifying grace is God’s action upon us that sanctifies us, makes us holy. Very often, we associate holiness with special gifts, such as wisdom, prophecy, miracles. These are usually described as “charismatic graces” from the Greek word charisma that Paul uses to describe special gifts in the community. Yet Paul insists “the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).
Thomas tells us, “Charity outranks the others, i.e., the charismatic graces, because without charity the other gifts are not enough.” Since we are often fascinated by the unusual, we might be awed by a person who prophesies or does miracles and overlook the obvious charity that often surrounds our lives but Paul alerts us that charity is greater than the other gifts.
Thomas describes charity as the life of the soul: “For the soul lives through charity, which lives through God, Who is the life of the soul.” The First Letter of John declares: “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14).
Some people are able to speak eloquently. This too is a gift but if it is without love then the words have no life. Paul tells us that we would be like “a noisy brass gong and a clanging cymbal.” These instruments make noise, but as Thomas observes, “Although they produce a clear sound, they are not living but dead. So, too, the speech of a man without charity, no matter how erudite, is considered dead.”
Thomas notes that a brass gong produces a simple sound and a cymbal multiplies the sound. Some pronounce the truth simply while others multiply the truth with many arguments and images and even draw many connections. Nevertheless, Thomas informs us, “All of this, without charity, is regarded as dead.” God knows what is in our hearts (1 Cor 2:11).
The Christians in Corinth, to whom Paul was writing, were fascinated by the charismatic graces, such as, prophecy, wisdom, faith and knowledge. Paul is not being dismissive of these gifts but fears that they might be distracted from the greatest gift, which is love.
Thomas grants that prophecy is a gift from God. The Second Letter of Peter informs us: “No prophecy every came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pt 1:21).
Wisdom, understanding all mysteries, is also a gift, as Paul says: “We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Cor 2:7). All true knowledge comes from God, as Thomas notes, “whether humanly acquired as by the philosophers or divinely infused as in the apostles.” Knowledge is a gift from God: “It was He who gave me unerring knowledge of what exists” (Wis 7:17).
The Gospel of Matthew asserts that faith, even as small as a grain of mustard seed, can move mountains (Mt 17:20). Thomas observes that the more a grain of mustard seed is rubbed, the more its strength becomes evident. Thomas notes that being able to move mountains is not the ultimate test of faith. Many saints had perfect faith but they did not move mountains because “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor 12:7). Thomas explains, “in that time, place and manner, miracles are worked by the grace of the Holy Spirit as the needs of the Church require.”
Thomas reminds us that even if one has a perfect intellect but lacks charity, he has nothing: “I am nothing, according to the order of grace.” Knowledge, in itself, is not enough. The Letter to the Ephesians states: “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph 2:10). Without charity, our works are useless, as Paul declares: “Knowledge puffs up, but charity builds up” (1 Cor 8:1).
However, Thomas assures us that since true wisdom and true knowledge are gifts of the Holy Spirit, “They are never possessed without charity.” Thomas realizes that person might have faith strong enough to work miracles and to prophesy but the person may be without charity. Thomas recalls the passage in Matthew: “Did we not prophesy in your name and do many mighty works in your name?” Jesus’ answer was: “I know you not” (Mt 7:22).
Even though a person might do great things or speak great things, his works and words are fruitless. Thomas reflects, “The Holy Spirit works wonders even through the wicked, just as He speaks the truth through them.”
Paul proposes the possibility of giving away all one owns. Paul recognizes that doing good actions is an important part of the Christian life. In the Letter to the Galatians, he writes: “Let us not grow weary in well-doing” (Gal 6:9).
The tradition of the Old Testament has many such references to doing good. Ps 112:9 declares that the just person gives not only to one person but to many: “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor.” Isaiah calls us to concern for the poor: “Share your bread with the hungry” (Is 58:17). Jesus teaches us to be attentive to the needs of others: “When you give a feast, invite the poor” (Lk (14:13). Jesus instructed the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Mt 19:21). Nevertheless, even such a total giving, without love, would be empty for the individual him- or herself.
For Paul, even handing one’s body over without love gains nothing. Paul recognizes the excellence of martyrdom. As Thomas notes, among all the evils that can be endured patiently, martyrdom is the greatest. Jesus announces “Blessed are those who suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:10). The Letter to the Ephesians says of Jesus, “He gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:2). Nevertheless, love is the key factor even to such heroic actions. Thomas comments that “eternal life is … promised only to those who love God.”
Thomas explains that virtue is always related to actions, ether in doing good or enduring difficulties: “For every virtue consists in acting, one is well disposed for enduing evil things, or in accomplishing good things.”
Charity enables a person to be patient in enduring difficulties. Thomas notes that a person will endure all difficulties “with ease” for the person whom he or she loves: “Similarly, a person who loves God patiently endures any adversity for love of Him.” Thomas thinks of the words of the Son of Songs: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it”(S.S. 8:7)
Paul declares that love is “kind.” Thomas reflects: “Charity inclines a person not to keep the good things he has, but makes them flow to others: ‘If anyone has the world’s goods and sees a brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide him?” (1 John 3:17). The letter to the Ephesians instructs us: “Be kind and merciful to one another” (Eph 4:32) and the Book of Wisdom reminds us: “Wisdom is a kindly spirit” (Wis 1:6)
Paul attests that “Love is not jealous.” Thomas observes that two things pertain to a virtue, to refrain from evil and to do good: “Depart from evil and do good” (Ps 34:14) and “Cease to do evil, learn to do good” (Is 1:16). Charity avoids all evil and accomplishes the good.
Evil against one’s neighbor can exist in the will or emotions or externally. It exists in the former, especially when a person through envy grieves over his neighbor’s good. This is directly contrary to charity which inclines a person to love his neighbor as himself, as it says in Lev (19:18). Hence it pertains to charity that just as a person rejoices in his own goods, so he should rejoice in the goods of his neighbor. It follows from this that charity excludes envy… As to the outward effect: it does not deal wrongly, i.e., perversely, against anyone. For no one deals unjustly against one he loves.
Love is not proud or arrogant. Thomas comments, “Pride is a disarranged desire for one’s own excellence… this is opposed to charity, by which one loves God above all things.” Love is not inflated with self. Thomas sees a connection between self-inflation and pride: “For that which is puffed up does not have solidity but its appearance; so the proud seem to themselves to be great, while they really lack true greatness, which cannot exist without the divine order.”
Paul teaches that love is not ambitious, seeking its own interests. Thomas comments: “Through ambition one seeks to be foremost; which charity also excludes, seeking rather to serve, as it says in ‘Through love be servants of one another’ (Gal 5:13).” Sirach instructs: “Do not seek from the Lord the highest office nor the seat of honor from the king” (Sir 7:4).
Love doesn’t seek its own interests, Thomas comments: “Love does not seek its own. This is understood precisely, i.e., it does not neglect the good of others. For one who loves others as himself seeks the good of others just as his own. Hence the Apostle said above: ‘Not seeking my own advantage, but that of many’ (1 Cor 10:10).” Even with his own converts, Paul regretted that some seek their own interests: “They all look after their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:21).
Paul states that charity is not quick-tempered. Thomas observes: “Charity excludes the disorder of anger, It is not irritable, i.e., is not provoked to anger. For anger is an inordinate desire for revenge. But it pertains to charity rather to forgive offenses than to seek revenge beyond measure: ‘Forbearing one another, if one has a complaint against another’ (Col 3:13).” The Letter of James reminds us: “The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (Jas 1:20).
Paul declares that love is “not resentful.” Thomas distinguishes between spontaneous thoughts that arise from the emotions and “disordered choosing.” Aristotle (Ethics, III) states that choice is the desire for something one has thought about and weighed. In other words, true resentment is not simply a feeling. Thomas recounts: “A man sins from choice and not from emotion, when by a plan of his reason his affections are bestirred to evil. Charity, therefore, first of all, excludes perverse counsel. Therefore, Paul says: ‘Charity thinks no evil,’ i.e., does not permit devising how to complete something evil.” This is an important distinction because sin is not in the spontaneous thoughts but in the choice to keep them or act upon them.
Thomas observes: “Charity thinks no evil, because it does not permit one to think evil about his neighbor by various suspicions and rash judgments: ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?’” (Matt 9:4).
Charity does not rejoice over wrongdoing. Thomas explains that, first of all, one does not rejoice over one’s own evil: “One who sins from passion commits sin with some remorse and sorrow, but one who sins from choice rejoices in the fact that he commits sin, as it says in Pr (2:14): ‘You rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perseverance of evil.’ But charity prevents this, inasmuch as it is the love of the supreme good, to Whom all sin is obnoxious.”
According to Thomas, love does not rejoice over the evil of another: “Charity does not rejoice over evil, namely, committed by a neighbor: in fact it laments over it, inasmuch as it is opposed to our neighbor’s salvation, which it desires: ‘I fear that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I may have to mourn over many of those who sinned before’ (2 Cor 12:21).”
Thomas calls attention to Paul’s words that charity rejoices in the truth. Charity makes a person do good to his neighbor. Thomas reflects: “In regard to his neighbor, a person does the good in two ways: first, by rejoicing in his good. In regard to this Paul says: it rejoices in the truth, namely, of the neighbor or of life or doctrine or justice, inasmuch as he loves his neighbor as himself: ‘I rejoice greatly to find some of your children following the truth’” (2 Jn: 4).
Paul affirms that charity “bears all things.” A person also endures the difficulties caused by the neighbor, as much as is fitting. Thomas comments, “Love bears all things, i.e., without disquiet it tolerates all the shortcomings of the neighbor of any adversity whatever: ‘We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak’ (Rom 15:1); ‘Carry one another’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ,’ namely, the law of charity (Gal 6:2).”
Thomas applies Paul’s instruction that “love believes all things” to faith in God. Thomas explains that faith, along with hope and charity are theological virtues because they have “God for their object.”
According to Thomas, charity believes all things that are revealed by God. Genesis says of Abraham: “Abraham believed God and it was reputed to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). In Thomas’ opinion, to believe all things said by other humans is “lightheadedness.”
Paul teaches that charity “hopes all things.” Thomas understands this to mean to hope all the things promised by God. Sirach says, “You who fear the Lord hope for good things” (Sir 2:9).
Thomas explains Paul’s following words, that charity endures all things: “And in order that hope not be discouraged by the delay, he adds: endures all things, i.e., patiently awaits what God has promised in spite of delay, as it says, “If it seem slow, wait for it” (Heb 2:3) and “Let your heart take courage and wait for the Lord” (Ps 27:14).
Paul asserts that “Charity never ends.” Thomas acknowledges that some have maintained that love, once possessed, can never be lost. Thomas insists that a person can lose charity: “You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember, then, from what you have fallen, and do penance” (Rev 2:4).
Thomas notes that a person will not lose charity if he acts upon it: “This is so, because charity is received in a man’s soul according to his mode, namely, that he can use it or not. But as long as he uses it, a man cannot sin; because the use of charity is loving God above all things, and nothing remains for the sake of which a man should offend God.”
In fact, Thomas teaches that the more God is known, the more He is loved: “It is made perfect, because the more perfectly God will be known, the more perfectly will He be loved.
Paul reflects upon the imperfect knowledge of God that a child has. Thomas describes the knowledge of God that mature people have: “We know God in this life, inasmuch as we know the invisible things of God through creatures, as it says in Rom (1:20). And so all creation is a mirror for us; because from the order and goodness and multitude which are caused in things by God, we come to a knowledge of His power, goodness and eminence. And this knowledge is called seeing in a mirror.”
Thomas notes that the reflection that appears in a mirror is sometimes clear and open but, at other times, it is obscure and enigmatic. Paul says, “in heaven we shall see face to face.” The First Letter of John says similarly: “We shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
Thomas wonders how Jacob could have said, ““I have seen God face to face” (Gen 32:30). In this life, Jacob could not have seen the essence of God but Jacob saw God through his imagination, which Thomas considers to be a higher grace than even hearing words from God.
Paul concludes with the three theological virtues whose object is God Himself, faith, hope and charity. Thomas comments: “The cause why he does not mention all the gifts but only three is that the three join us to God; the others do not join to God, except through the mediation of those three; also the other gifts dispose for the birth of those three in our hearts. Hence, too, only those three, namely, faith, hope and charity, are called theological virtues, because they have God for their immediate object.”
Thomas explains that we have a relationship with God in our present lives, “the goods of nature, which we partake of here are from Him.” Thomas speaks of this as friendship with God: “There is a natural friendship, according to which each one, inasmuch as he is, seeks and desires as his end God as first cause and supreme being.”
Faith opens up a deeper level of relationship: “There is the love of charity, by which only an intellectual creature loves God. But because nothing can loved unless it is known, for the love of charity a knowledge of God is first required. And because this is above nature, there is required, first of all, faith which is concerned with things not seen.”
Thomas raises the question about the role of hope when, “the gifts exist for perfecting the affections or intellect, and charity perfects the affections, and faith the intellect.”
Besides faith, hope is needed because we may be tempted to give up: “In order that a man not fail or fall away, hope is required through which he tends to that end as pertaining to himself.”
Thomas concludes this is why Paul proclaims: “So faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor 13:13).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.
The quotations from St. Thomas’ Commentary on the First Letter to the Corinthians are taken from the website: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/