Love is of supreme importance in the church and is the context in which we must exercise our spiritual gifts as we serve the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:31b–13:3). Yet, we can hardly exercise love if we do not know what it consists of. In today’s passage, Paul begins to define love, telling us first of all that “love is patient and kind” (13:4a).
That love is patient and kind should not surprise us. After all, patience and kindness are signature attributes of God, who is love (Rom. 2:4; 1 John 4:8). Indeed, the purpose for which God shows kindness and patience is instructive for us. Paul says in Romans 2:4 that the patience and kindness of the Lord are meant to lead us to repentance. For love to be patient and kind means, among other things, that it seeks godly responses from the beloved, just as God’s patience and kindness seek the godly response of repentance.
One commentator notes that patience and kindness represent passive and active features of love, respectively. Patience enables us to restrain ourselves in the interest of the good of others. When we are patient, we hold back from showing wrath even when wrath might be justified in the hopes that the beloved will see the error of his ways and thus escape our fury. That love is patient means that love does not respond in kind when others wrong us and does not seek revenge, knowing that perfect vengeance is the province of our Creator alone (Deut. 32:35; Rom. 12:19). Patient love will not hurry things along and insist that love have its effect immediately but will look for the proper time to act. Matthew Henry comments that love “will put up with many slights and neglects from the person it loves, and wait long to see the kindly effects of such patience on him.”
Kindness is a more active quality than patience. It actively seeks the good of the beloved and does what it can to bring that good about. Kindness should be distinguished from niceness because kindness does not shy away from speaking a word that might be seen as harsh if that word is necessary for correction. Indeed, to receive rebuke from a righteous person is a great kindness (Ps. 141:5). At the same time, a kind love is not unnecessarily harsh and seeks to convey hard truths with sweetness (Prov. 16:21). In sum, kindness looks out for others ahead of oneself. For example, Ruth exercised kindness in pursuing Boaz for the sake of Naomi when she could have looked for a younger husband (Ruth 3:10).