First Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture, for in it the Apostle Paul gives us a marvelous exposition of the character of godly love. He starts by showing the importance of love, writing that if we have all kinds of gifts, abilities, and achievements but lack love, we are nothing (vv. 1–3). Then, in verse 4, he begins to describe what godly love looks like, saying, “Love is patient and kind,” or, in the wording of a more traditional translation, “Love suffers long and is kind” (NKJV). I find myself intrigued by this pairing— patience and kindness. Why did Paul place these traits first in his description of love, and why did he pair them?
Paul tells us that love is patient, that it “suffers long.” I like this more traditional translation because it conveys the idea that loving others can be difficult. Loving people means we do not write them off the first time they offend us. In our relationships, we tend to be far more patient with some people than with others. If a longtime friend does something to irritate or annoy me, I usually say, “Oh, that’s just his way, that’s his personality, we’re all human, none of us is perfect.” I make allowances for him. But if I meet another person and find that he behaves in exactly the same way my friend behaved, I might want nothing more to do with him. We tolerate things in our friends that we will not tolerate in strangers.
Longsuffering love does not keep a scorecard. The first time you offend me, I could say, “Strike one,” and then give you two more strikes before you’re out. But if my love suffers long, you can get to the seventy-seventh strike, and I’ll still be hanging in there with you.
Why does Christian love suffer long? It is because Christians imitate Christ, who imitates God the Father, and longsuffering is a chief characteristic of God. The Bible often makes the point that God is slow to anger, that He is longsuffering with His stiff-necked people. For instance, God describes Himself this way: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). Likewise, Paul speaks of “the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience” (Rom. 2:4).
If you are a Christian, how long did God endure your unbelief before you were redeemed? How long has He endured your abiding sin? If not for the longsuffering of God, we would perish. If God treated us with as much impatience as we treat other people, we would be suffering in hell right now. He has endured our disobedience, our blasphemy, our indifference, our unbelief, and our sin, and He still loves us. That is who God is. That is how He manifests His love. He shows His love by His patience, which is a long-lasting patience.
We are called not only to be patient but to suffer long. We are not to be patient with people’s sins, foibles, and shortcomings only as long as they cause us no pain. Suffering long means loving when we are experiencing hurt and pain. It means that we “keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). In this way, we reflect the love of God, who suffers long.
Why, then, does Paul couple patience/longsuffering with kindness? It is possible for us to suffer injury or hostility for a long time while being hostile and plotting revenge in return. But that is not what the Bible means by longsuffering. Longsuffering includes kindness, for we are to be kind in response to the cause of our suffering. Kind people are not rude, not severe, not mean. They have generous hearts. They are sensitive and tender to other people.
My father, I believe, was a model of this trait. He was truly kind. He demonstrated to me the kindness of God. I hated it when I came home from school and found I was in trouble for something I had done. My mother would say, “Your father wants to have a session with you.” I had to go into my dad’s office and close the door, and he would say, “Well, son, we have to have a talk.” He would take me apart without ever raising his voice, without ever manifesting anger to me, and somehow, after he took me apart, he was able, very gently, to put me back together again. Afterward, I would leave his office walking on air. I felt happy, but I also knew I needed to do better the next time. He inspired me because his manner was so kind.
A truly kind person is a rarity, I’m afraid. But kindness ought to be linked with longsuffering as a manifestation of love. Simply put, love is neither impatient nor unkind. This is a picture of the love of God, the same love that the Holy Spirit cultivates in God’s people.