11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. – 1 Corinthians 13:11
I’ve always been a little puzzled about why Paul includes this in his famous “Love Chapter.” Of course, we most often hear this at weddings as it is (mis)interpreted as an ode to romantic love. In its truest interpretation, Paul is talking about how we, the church, ought to treat and get along with each other. In the middle of talking about how love directs our relationships with others, Paul reminds us how easy it is to give in to childishness.
What are the characteristics of love that are thwarted by childishness?
Generosity. When a child gets a hold of something and claims it as their own, all thought of sharing goes out the proverbial window. “It came to ME. It’s mine. My own. My Precious.” Using Tolkien here might seem a little overblown but isn’t that the exact thing we try to combat in our children. We try patiently (mostly) to show them the benefit of sharing, of mutual enjoyment and benefit.
Adults are not immune from this form of ingratitude. Sharing-challenged adults (and congregations) may often say about their ministries, buildings, and endowments, “It came to US. It’s ours. Our own. Our Precious.” Do I mean to suggest that these things can become idolatrous when we forget Who gave them to us and Why? Yeah, I probably do. And Paul might mean to suggest it, too. Because ingratitude and possessiveness are signs of a childish spirituality.
Let’s see, what else?
Selflessness. Related to generosity perhaps but a more pervasive attitude that what matters more than anything is…me. What I want. What makes me comfortable. What is meaningful to me. It is not uncommon for a child to exhibit behaviors and attitudes that lead us to remind them that they are NOT, in fact, the center of the universe.
Love pushes us toward the Other. We witness to a Jesus who emptied himself of any and every claim he could have placed on us based on his deserved sovereignty, majesty, and power but made himself a servant to teach us how to do the same. Instead, and in his name, we dare to claim our own concerns, traditions, and needs are more important than our neighbors, the strangers we are called to welcome, or even the brothers and sisters in Christ who share our faith.
I think that Paul inserted this verse in his essay on love because, as the shepherd of his communities of faith, he knew how easy it is to get possessive, ungracious, and childish about “stuff.” He wanted to remind the Corinthians, and us through them, that we need to “grow up” and live in love. Love that is not arrogant or rude, insisting upon its own way, and being irritable or resentful when it doesn’t get it (or is otherwise mildly inconvenienced). A love that is patient and kind is the love that Jesus modeled and calls us to work toward in our faith.
It’s a constant struggle for every human being alive, be they child or adult. But at some point in our walk with Jesus, we have to be willing to give up a childish spirituality of me-centered faith for a more Christ-like other-centered journey. And, as often is the case, “now is the acceptable time.”