According to Jesus, the world will know we are His not by the jewelry we wear or the decals plastered across our cars, but by the way we love one another. Just as a child’s behavior reflects on his parents, how well we love one another reflects on Jesus.
The notion is frightening. We all fail at loving, and we all know it. What’s more, those who know us best know it, too, which means Jesus is well aware of how thoroughly we fail.
Trying to be a better reflection on—and of—Jesus, we might turn to one of the Bible’s authorities on love and what it looks like: 1 Corinthians 13. There, it’s clear that Paul’s powerful love litany is much more than a go-to verse for weddings. It’s a tool to measure how well we love others and reflect on Christ.
If anything is immeasurable and unquantifiable, it is love. Love cannot be broken down into numerical formulas or ratings systems. However, Paul’s descriptions of love—what it looks like and what it doesn’t look like—serves as something of a mirror to help us recognize where we need to improve.
Standing before this mirror will only work if you’re honest. The purpose is not to puff yourself up or beat yourself up, but rather to measure against the only definition of love that matters—God’s.
So first, decide which love relationship you are assessing. Is it how well you love your spouse, your kids, your neighbor? Although we often think of Paul’s love letter as a guideline for marriage—and understandably so—Jesus makes it clear that love is not just about husbands and wives. It’s about all of His children. Family relationships should be a reflection of God and His love: think of Elizabeth and Mary or Esther and Mordecai. Friendship should be a reflection as well: think of Jonathan and David.
With that in mind, step in front of the mirror, and give yourself a grade.
Love is patient: A, B, C, D, or F
If God is love and love is patient, then God is also patient. He is patient with all of us—patient enough to wait for years before we answer His salvation call, patient enough to revive and resuscitate our faith when it’s gone cold, patient enough to keep whittling and chiseling away at the plaque that never stops building up around our hearts. Jesus’ patience with us is limitless. His patience is a sign of His grace. And He asks us to imitate Him by sharing His grace and being patient with those we love. They may not always deserve it, but neither do we.
Love is kind: A, B, C, D, or F
Not many of us think of ourselves as unkind. We treat our spouses, family, friends, and neighbors decently. We try to be generous and courteous. But sometimes we notice a sad reality about day-to-day living—that we’re often kinder to strangers, acquaintances, and coworkers than we are to those we love. Too often, we give our best to those who matter the least. And when those who love us and know us—that includes Jesus—observe this, that’s the opposite of kind. That’s cruel. As Jesus showed again and again—with little children, old widows, and untouchable lepers—a little kindness can make a huge difference.
Love does not envy: A, B, C, D, or F
There’s no reason for the God of the universe to envy. After all, “the heavens … the earth and everything in it” are His. And if we’re His, then there’s no reason for us to envy either. We’re blessed with “the riches of God’s grace,” as Paul puts it. So, do we delight in the successes and victories of those we love? Do we cheer them on? Or do we envy them for their accomplishments? Perhaps even worse, do we dismiss or marginalize their accomplishments? If so, we’re not reflecting Christ’s love.
Love does not boast: A, B, C, D, or F
The other side of envying what others have is boasting about what we have. If anyone ever had the right to boast, it was Jesus—the Son of God, the King of Kings, the Alpha and Omega. But He didn’t. Instead, He left the throne of heaven to serve us. He never lorded His position over His followers. In fact, instead of calling them servants or subjects, He called them friends. That’s the example He calls us to emulate. So, do we brag about what we have achieved? Do we seek the praise of others? Do we diminish others to elevate ourselves? Do we forget that everything we have accomplished is a team effort—that God has blessed us with gifts, that our spouses support us in using those gifts, that our friends cheer us on, that our parents and grandparents encouraged us, sacrificed for us, and prayed for us?
Love is not proud: A, B, C, D, or F
It’s been said that there are two kinds of pride. The bad kind says, “I’m too good to clean the dishes.” The good kind says, “I did a good job cleaning the dishes.” Are we too proud to imitate Christ through service and sacrifice? After all, He stooped low to wash filthy feet and filthier hearts. He served breakfast to His followers after His resurrection from the grave to glory. If we ever think a job or a person is beneath us, if we fail to seek forgiveness when we fail, if we can’t admit when we’ve been hurt or admit the hurt we’ve caused, then we’re guilty of the bad kind of pride and are not reflecting Christ’s love.
Love is not rude: A, B, C, D, or F
When you think about it, Jesus was the perfect gentleman during His days on earth. Just consider how polite He was to those who didn’t deserve it—people like His executioners and Pilate and the unrepentant thief. Max Lucado has observed that Jesus “always knocks before entering … . And when you answer He awaits your invitation to cross the threshold.” To avoid being rude we must consider how our words and actions are received by those around us. In short, we have to think about others first, which is what Christ calls us to do.
Love is not self-seeking: A, B, C, D, or F
Again and again, Jesus shows us that love—and that He—is other-centered, other-focused. He is never self-seeking. From His humble manger birth all the way through to the seaside breakfast He served after His resurrection, His example reminds us that God wrapped in human flesh “did not come to be served, but to serve.” Do we selflessly serve others? Or do we portion out our service based on what others do or fail to do for us? Do we go to work for our families or to escape them? Do we maneuver, manufacture, and manipulate events so that our little worlds serve us—or do we serve God and His children?
Love is not easily angered: A, B, C, D, or F
Anger is not a sin. After all, Jesus showed moments of anger when He walked the earth. But being easily angered is. So is wrath; so is rage. These are the opposite of love, and we succumb to them often. A short temper poisons relationships—with spouses, friends, and even our own children. It has a chilling effect on relationships because friends and family, knowing what will happen the next time a similar event or mistake occurs, pull back to protect themselves. As they retreat, a little of our love dies.
Love keeps no record of wrongs: A, B, C, D, or F
For many of us, our default is to keep a record of wrongs. This is not fair to those who love us. It’s worse than unproductive; it is destructive. And that’s why we must become as forgetful—and forgiving—as Jesus. He says to each of us, “I forgive your wickedness and will remember your sins no more” (Hebrews 8). He has showered us all with His forgetful mercy, and His love calls us to do the same.
Love does not delight in evil: A, B, C, D, or F
Few of us consciously or openly delight in evil. In fact, the Holy Spirit living inside us gives us a sense of shame and sadness when we sin. But if we have fun getting drunk, if gossip motivates us, if our anger constantly flares, if gluttony defines us, if we get a charge from lusting after someone or from enticing someone to lust after us, isn’t that delighting in evil? And if so, how does that affect our love relationships and reflect on Jesus? Like darkness amid the light, evil cannot coexist with love, with Christ.
Love rejoices with the truth: A, B, C, D, or F
During His years of ministry, Jesus never shied away from the truth, never sugarcoated it, and never shaded it. Which makes perfect sense; He is, after all, Truth incarnate. The Bible, in the same way, calls on us to speak the truth—but always in love. In other words, we can fail those we love by not speaking the truth or by speaking the truth without any tenderness or compassion. So we must learn to say the right things in the right way.
Love always protects: A, B, C, D, or F
There are many things we cannot protect our loved ones from—a crazy coworker with a gun, a tornado, an automobile accident. For these, we’re called to pray for the Lord’s protection, and to trust that Jesus will shield them from a sometimes-chaotic world. He loves to protect His children. The image of Him bravely standing between the stone-throwing mob and the woman caught in adultery is one of the most powerful and majestic in all of Scripture, and it’s a metaphor for the way He stands between us and what we deserve.
Love always trusts: A, B, C, D, or F
Trust is as important to love as water is to life. And trust always begins with one side taking a risk. That’s what Jesus did when He stepped into the box of time and space, and became like you and me. He took a risk on us. And incredibly, He continues to do that every day as He trusts us—even though we are flawed and fractured, petty and proud—to carry His message of love into the world. That’s a level trust that will take an eternity for us to imitate.
Love always hopes: A, B, C, D, or F
It’s good to know that love is hopeful and optimistic, because that means Jesus is hopeful and optimistic. It also means He wants us to hope for and believe in those we love. There is a time for realism, but pessimism, despair, and hopelessness serve only to undermine hope. They do nothing to encourage love to grow. In other words, pessimism smothers God’s love. How sad that must make Him.
Love always perseveres: A, B, C, D, or F
Just as Jesus has never given up on us, He doesn’t want us to give up on those we love. In fact, love is arguably a synonym for perseverance. If we don’t love someone, we don’t care enough to sacrifice time and effort for them. When we love we work at it, we invest energy and time and treasure. We don’t give up. We persevere, even when things are tough, just like Jesus did.
Love never fails: A, B, C, D, or F
The hard truth about love relationships is that even good friends, good parents, good kids, good husbands, and good wives sometimes fail one another. We let each other down, we get our priorities out of whack, we hurt each other. Part of being human, after all, is making mistakes, which is another word for failure. But our Lord never fails. He completed His mission, declaring on the cross in quiet triumph, “It is finished.”
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After you have finished your self-evaluation, ask someone who knows you and who knows Jesus—your spouse, pastor, or prayer partner—to offer their perspective of how well you love. You might find that you’re doing better in their eyes than in your own. Sometimes our toughest critic is the person in the mirror.
Alan Dowd, a writer and researcher in Fishers, Ind., is the author of more than 400 articles covering everything from faith to philanthropy to foreign policy.