What Love Thinks
Series: Love Is
When we talk about love, we often talk about feelings and actions, but what about thoughts? The mind is powerful; what we think matters, and love thinks no evil.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Greek New Testament Commentary), Anthony Thistleton
1 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), David Garland
Loving the Way Jesus Loves, Phil Ryken
Something we talk about a lot today is the power of the mind. More and more people who might not typically consider themselves religious are interested in meditation, mindfulness, and the power of positive thinking, because no one can deny the power of the mind. Nonetheless, when we talk about love, we often talk about feelings of love, or perhaps we talk about loving action, but what about what love thinks? That’s what the section of 1 Corinthians 13 at which we are looking today talks about: It tells us what love thinks, or more properly, what love does not think. It is possible to engage in outwardly good actions, while harboring all kinds of unloving thoughts in your mind. According to the Bible, that’s not love. True love changes not only the way you feel and the way you act, but the way you think, because Love thinks no evil. I know the ESV just says love is not resentful here, but you should have a footnote that says “does not count up wrongdoing,” and that’s the more accurate idea. I’m getting my translation from the old King James which said, “Love thinketh no evil,” and there are at least three pieces of that biblically: Love does not assume evil, love does not meditate on evil, and love does not plan evil. Let’s take them each in turn.
The image of this part of the verse is accounting imagery, hence the footnote, “love does not count up wrongdoing.” In other words, love does not put or keep wrongs in the accounts of others. There are times when you have to put a “wrong” in another’s account, when the wrong they have done is so clear that no other explanation is possible. Next week we will see that love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, which means love is able to call wrong wrong. However, love will be slow to count something a “wrong” when another explanation is possible. Love does not assume evil of others in what they say or don’t say, what they do or don’t do. Some other ways to say it would be love is not judgmental, it does not have a critical spirit: It’s not eager to find the flaws in everything, or when it can’t find them, to invent them.
I’m ashamed to think of how many times my wife does something perfectly reasonable to any outside observer, but I assume she had some hidden intention to hurt me or stick me with more work. I feel wronged, so I assume wrong, and then I go even further to assume an evil motive behind the wrong. That’s a critical spirit, that is assuming evil, and it is astounding to think about how many times thing like that take place in our relationships, especially with spouses, close family members, or others with whom we spend a lot of time. We’re with them so much we become expert faultfinders and no matter what they do, we find something wrong with it. We also do it with total strangers when we engage in any form of prejudice, assuming evil of others on the basis of their race, their socioeconomic class, or their appearance, refusing to make any room for differences in culture or even personality. We do it with people we envy, when we make up something evil about them to help us feel better. We do it when we hear an evil report of others and assume it’s true, and are even hungry to hear more and help spread it. We do it in disagreements, when we assume someone disagrees with us because of some evil in them. Once again, in our political moment, that’s happening all over the place: It can’t possibly be that you’re voting for this candidate because you really think, on balance, they’ll make a better president for all the people of this country.
And boy do we do this to the politicians themselves and others in positions of authority. If a politician says, “I’m doing this because I think it’s best for the country,” or if a boss says, “I’m doing this because I think it’s best for the business,” even if a pastor says, “I’m doing this because I think it’s best for the church,” we are quick to say, “Ha! Yeah right man; you’re doing it for you.” And it’s really simple in this case to see that love is not like that, because none of us naturally treat ourselves like this, and all of us naturally love ourselves. When someone accuses you of wrong, what do you suddenly become really good at? Finding other plausible explanations. “No; I didn’t mean in that way.” “I’d had a really long day.” “I never learned about that.” “This is how I was raised.” Whatever the merits of each of those, the point is we are ready and willing to assume the best of ourselves, to offer such explanations in defense of ourselves, and to want others to not assume the worst about us, because we love ourselves. If we love others, then, we will be glad to do likewise for them.
So why don’t we extend that to others? Why are we so quick to assume evil when other explanations are available? There are three basic sorts of reasons: One experiential, one theoretical, and one spiritual. The experiential reason is that we have seen real evil, and some of us have been victims of real evil. Love does not deny or minimize that. However, apart from the Lord’s help, experiences like that can make your radar hyper-sensitive. You start to assume the worst about everyone, so that no one will have the power to hurt you like that again. It’s understandable on some level, but the problem is you’ll never love anyone that way either, because love requires opening yourself up and taking the risk that you’ll get hurt.
So that’s the experiential reason: We’ve seen real evil; by the theoretical reason I’m referring to a culturally influential set of theories today known as Critical Theories. The word “critical” is in the title, right? That’s because these theories exist to deconstruct truth claims, in order to expose the ways those making them are using them to gain or preserve their power. In some cases, that’s a very helpful way of exposing racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, because once again: Sometimes there is real evil. However, critical theory is a bit like antibiotics: It kills some bad bacteria, but ironically, unless you can criticize it, it kills a lot of good bacteria too. If you swallow critical theory whole without bringing it under the Lordship of Jesus, you will start to assume evil of everyone, especially anyone in a position of authority, and do you see where that leads? Who’s in the ultimate position of authority? God. And who was it that first suggested that His claim to authority, His law, was actually a way of oppressing us? Satan. He told our first parents, “You will not surely die when you eat the fruit, but God knows when you eat it, you will become like Him.” Do you see, he’s deconstructing God’s power claim? He says God’s laws are there to oppress you! Satan thought evil of God, he pitched the idea to our first parents, they began to assume evil of Him too, and we have all done so ever since. Satan doesn’t just want you to believe not all that glitters is gold; that’s wisdom. He wants you to believe nothing that glitters is gold, because there is no gold, no real goodness, no good God.
That brings us to the final reason we assume evil, the spiritual one. I’ve already mentioned how we envy others, so we invent evil about them. But bigger picture, we just don’t like that God is in control. We want to be God, so we knock Him down a peg by believing Satan’s lie and assuming evil of Him! Do you see how different that is from love? Love for God says, “I like that you’re God and I’m not.” Love for God rejoices in His power; it doesn’t criticize or deconstruct it. Love for God says, “Behind everything is a real goodness. That’s the ultimate reality.” And love for neighbor extends to them the same excuses, the same benefit of the doubt, we extend to ourselves and expect others to extend to us. So that’s all just the first way love does not think evil: It does not assume evil when other explanations are genuinely available. The next way is love does not meditate on evil.
Meditate on evil
So sometimes you look for every other possible explanation, and there are none. Someone really did sin against you. Maybe they even openly confess it, but in either case, you’ve been wronged. What do you do with it next? Remember the image here is of the accountant, and what do accountants do? They keep the books. The account keeps a record of the wrong, but love does not. Again, we aren’t talking about minimizing or pretending it didn’t happen; we’ll talk more about that next week. What I’m talking about when I say love does not meditate on evil is love does not stew on wrongs committed against us. Love doesn’t sit there and say, “How could they possibly do this to me? And especially when you consider, and in fact they didn’t even, and after all I’ve done for them,” etc.
Do you see now why in a passage about love, the Bible has to address our thoughts? Because think about how harboring thoughts like this, meditating on evils others have committed against you, how that will destroy your love. The mind is powerful, right? And if you rehearse in your mind over and over again the ways someone has wronged you, you will find they become increasingly less dear to you, because what you’re doing in your mind is forming a false narrative: The part where they wronged you may be true, but if that’s the only thing on which you’re meditating, there are a lot more true things on which you aren’t meditating: You aren’t thinking about how you have sinned against God, you aren’t think about how the seeds of the same sin are present in you, you aren’t thinking about how they intended it for evil, but God intended it for good, you aren’t thinking about their humanity as an image of God, and so forth.
Ok, so you shouldn’t just pretend wrongs haven’t been committed, but you also shouldn’t meditate on them. What’s the alternative? One alternative is to just overlook it entirely. “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense” (Prov 19:11). That’s not a cop out; it is glorious to overlook an offense. We live in a sinful world, and if you get all worked up every time you see sin, you will spend your whole life worked up, instead of spending your whole life loving God and loving others. But, there are sins that can’t be overlooked. Here another alternative is lament, where you do actually think about the evil done and say it out loud, but we say it out loud to God, not to ourselves in our minds, and we don’t hold back, but we do accompany it with a request for God to act and make things right, and we accompany it with a choice to trust God with it, also saying aloud what is true of Him and what the hope is that we have in Him. Alongside that, love chooses to forgive, which means love commits to not keep meditating on the evil, but instead to meditate on all the reasons I have to love the person who wronged me, and to in fact pray for God to do good to them, and do kindness to them myself as wisdom directs. That last part, what we plan to do toward those who have wronged us, is what we’ll talk about last: Love does not plan evil.
One of the other ways to translate this part of the verse is “Love does not plot evil.” It’s again getting into our thoughts: What are we thinking we will do to someone? This is kind of the final part of a sinful thought progression before it translates into sinful action: We first assume evil, then we meditate on the evil, then we plan evil in return, to get revenge. Romans 12:19 says, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” So it is good to leave it to the wrath of God; you can ask Him to judge, and you can even ask those He’s put in place to judge to judge: You can ask the government to enforce laws, you can ask the church to enforce discipline, you can and should put up healthy boundaries if someone keeps wronging you, but the key is you do not plan in your own mind how you as a private citizen will repay the evil you have received with an evil of your own. You do not even entertain the thought, but instead think, and plan, how you will wisely do good to the one who wrongs you.
And we know this is what love does because this is what love did with us. In our case, God did not have to make assumptions. It is we who only have access to outward appearances, but God judges the heart. As Hebrews 4:13 puts it, “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” He doesn’t have to assume evil; He sees all of our evil with piercing clarity. And He has no evil of His own; He cannot say, “Right, but I sin too.” He cannot say, “I make excuses for myself; how could I not extend them to them?” because he has no need for excuses. He’d been wronged by us before, and He knew if He continued in relationship with us, that we would wrong Him again. He faced the choice we mentioned earlier: Never be wronged again, or love. He could judge us all, send us to hell, never be wronged again, and still be totally just. But He chose love, knowing we would wrong Him again, and in fact, we did. He became a human, and we killed Him. Yet, after all that, when God did the accounting, listen to how He did it, according to Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians after this one:
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” The message of reconciliation, what we commonly call the gospel is this: Though your trespasses are really yours, and you are really guilty of them, God is not counting them against you. He has removed them from your account and placed them in another’s, just a couple verses later in the same passage from which I’ve just read: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Though Christ knew no sin, for our sake God accounted our sin to Him, so that in Him, His righteousness might be accounted to us. On the cross while we were killing Jesus, God was accounting our sins to Him, so that the moment anyone believes God might account to us His righteousness. Instead of accounting us evil, though we were, God has accounted us righteous, because Christ was. Instead of thinking evil of us, God thought righteous of us in Christ, and because He did, we are now righteous in His sight.
So be reconciled to God today. Instead of assuming evil of everyone else, deal with the evil in yourself, the one you actually know is there. Believe this message of reconciliation, and God will no longer count your sins against you, and will instead account the righteousness of Jesus to you. He will remember your sins no more. You know what the Bible means it says that? It doesn’t mean God becomes less God, like there are things He doesn’t know; it means He no longer meditates on them. When He looks at you, He doesn’t think about your sins; He thinks about the righteousness of Jesus, now imputed to you. Though He had every right to, He did not plan evil against you; He planned good, and His plan remains good. This is His promise to all He forgives: “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them” (Jer 32:40). If you are in Christ, the only plans God is making is how to do good to you.
So how you going to criticize that? How are you going to deconstruct that? How can we think evil of God when He’s shown Himself to be so good? Satan’s wrong; there is real goodness, there is real gold, because there is a real God. And guess what? By His grace, sometimes, people aren’t actually out to get you. Sometimes, they’re actually trying to do good. And even when it’s actually evil, how can we, who have perpetrated such evil ourselves against one far greater than ourselves and been forgiven, how can we who know what it’s like to have our sins remembered no more dwell and mope about the ways others have sinned against us? How can we plan evil against others when God only has good plans for us? Next time you see what you feel to be evil, seriously consider if another explanation is possible, and if it is, go with it. Make no mistake about it: If you live this way, you will be wronged. But you will also love. The choice is yours: Live a life where nobody wrongs you, or live a life of love. You can’t have both. God made His choice; what will you choose?