I think Paul’s ode to love is best approached from the vantage point of another love song, “The Pina Colada Song.”
Have you ever paid attention to those lyrics? I never did until I took my two boys to see Guardians of the Galaxy and “The Pina Colada” song, from Star Lord’s Awesome Mix Volume I, started to play while Rocket and company escaped from their galactic prison.
“The Pina Colada Song,” it’s original title is “Escape.”
Escape. As in, from Marriage.
“If you like pina coladas and walks in the rain…” Have you listened to this supposed love song?
The man and wife of Rupert Holmes’ 1979 #1 hit sound flip about forsaking everything brides and grooms vow one another. Each of them, unsuspecting of the other, takes out a Want Ad, searching for someone who is perfect for them, a companion who likes the feel of the ocean and the taste of champagne.
I guarantee that if your average wife stumbled across her man on Tinder the ensuing dialogue would not be FCC friendly. And I’m pretty sure if the husband ever reacted to having been found out by calling his wife his “lovely old lady” a parole hearing would soon follow.
It’s a song about two imperfect people on the precipice.
And if you pay attention to the lyrics there’s an ironic twist on what we mean by the term ‘soul mate,’ for when the imperfect spouses meet each other through the want ads, what do they do?
They say: “I never knew you liked getting caught in the rain…”
And then they laugh.
Each of them laughs at the imperfect other.
On the one hand, Rupert Holmes’ “Escape” is an awful love song, a ballad about betrayal narrowly averted.
But on the other hand, Rupert Holmes’ hit single- maybe it’s a better marriage song than love song. After all, “Escape” is a pop song about being found out and being known in weakness is the very essence of marriage.
Like Jesus on the cross, the crucible of marriage strips you of all your defenses and disguises so that all your imperfections and insecurities are laid bare for the other to see.
Marriage is a risk that requires vows precisely because marriage makes you vulnerable.
Not only is being known in our weakness the essence of marriage, it just so happens to be the experience that sinners (i.e., humans) most loath. Like Adam and Eve hiding in shame, we spend most of our lives hoping to avoid being found out as the frauds we all are. Adam and Eve covered their shame with fig leaves. We do it by filtering our lives through a social media sheen, or by saying “I’m okay.”
The passion- as in, the suffering- of intimacy isn’t that I get to know someone as they really, truly are; it’s that I am known by someone as I really am. Marriage, therefore, holds a mirror up to you and reveals to you the stranger that you call you.
And one of the things marriage constantly reflects back to us is how far we fall short of the sort of love Paul commends in 1 Corinthians 13.
No doubt we’d all like a partner who is patient and kind and slow to anger and humble- I know my wife likes having such a partner. But, if you think Paul’s love song is saying that you should be patient and kind, you should never be boastful or arrogant or rude, then it’s just a matter of time before what’s advice to you becomes an expectation on your spouse.
Your partner should be patient with you. Your partner should be kind to you.
As St. Paul says elsewhere:
expectation always elicits the opposite of its intent.
Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.
And so, in short order, your expectation produces resentment in your partner because love that is always patient and always kind is an impossible obligation to meet.
And it produces frustration in you.
You soon wonder why sometimes she’s quick to anger or envy.
You wonder why she’s not always patient like she should be; until, you start to see only what she is not and you stop seeing her altogether, such that you don’t even know whether she likes getting caught in the rain or the taste of champagne.
That way of listening to Paul’s love song (your love should be patient, you ought to be un-envious) is to hear it according to what Paul calls the Law.
The Law is shorthand for an accusing standard of performance.
In the Bible, the Law is all those thou shalt and shalt nots. Be perfect as God is perfect, Jesus says. That’s the Law. And the Law, Paul says, is inscribed in every human heart (Romans 2.15).
So even if you don’t believe in God or follow Jesus or read the Bible, the capital-L Law manifests itself in all the little-l laws in your life, all the shoulds and musts and oughts you hear constantly in the back of your mind, all those expectations and demands and obligations you feel bearing down on you from our culture.
There’s the Law of Social Media where you must crop out all your unhappiness and imperfection. There’s the Law of Beauty where you’re measured against the standard of an ever-shrinking waist line you must attain. There’s the Law of Parenting where your kids bento-boxed lunches should contain gluten-free, free-range, organic crustless goodness or you may as well be a slumlord in a Dickens novel. There’s the Law of Weddings. And there’s the Law of Marriage- The Law of Marriage which tells you that you and your partner ought to pretend your life is like the picture that comes with the frame, perfect, unabated bliss, and if you’re not happy all the time, there must be something wrong with the two of you.
Martin Luther said that the Law always accuses; that is, it points out our shortcomings. And when we hear Paul’s love song according to the Law that’s just what it does.
When we hear 1 Corinthians 13 as advice or suggestions or, worse, commands, it just accuses us for how impatient and unkind and rude and conceited and quick to anger we know ourselves to be a whole lot of the time.
But Paul’s love song isn’t meant to be Law; it’s meant to be the opposite of the Law. It’s meant to be Gospel.
It’s the Law that says “Be loving.”
But it’s the Gospel that says “You are loved.”
And Paul’s song is the Gospel not the Law because the love Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 isn’t married love. It’s Christ’s love. ‘Faith, hope and love abide, but love never ends…’ For Paul, only Jesus, who was before creation and who was raised from the dead, is without beginning and end. He’s talking about Jesus.
“Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
Jesus does not insist on his own way.”
This love song…he’s talking about Jesus.
Jesus bore all things, bearing in his body our shame.
Jesus believed all things. He did what we could not do, though forsaken he never lost faith.
Jesus endured all things, in our place, while we were yet his enemies.
The love Paul sings about in 1 Corinthians 13 is the love of Jesus, the love whose arms were stretched upon a cross so that your hearts, whether you believe in him or not, might be crucified by love.
This love song isn’t the Law.
It’s the Gospel because it’s not commanding you to love this way.
It’s announcing to you that you have been loved this way.
You have been loved with a love that is patient and kind and slow to anger. This prior love of God- it makes the present-tense love between partners possible. This prior love of God, made perfect in Jesus Christ- it makes the imperfect love of husbands and wives permissible. The Gospel makes the imperfect love of marriage not only permissible but a kind of sacrament, a sign pointing to the perfect, prior love of God.
The Gospel frees you from the Law.
It frees you from all those shoulds, musts, and oughts that pop into your head. It frees you from adhering to anyone else’s standards for what your marriage must be. Because of the Gospel, you’re free to be patient and kind with one another, and you’re free to give grace when you’re neither patient nor kind. You’re free for your marriage to be nothing more and nothing less than who you are and what, together, you become. You’re free, in other words, to be ordinary because the most extraordinary thing about you has nothing to do with you.
Which means, the Gospel frees you from fear.
In marriage, you can be known in your weakness, unafraid, because the Gospel tells you that God knows the very worst about you and God loves you anyway and God has already forgiven you.
Which means, this love song, the Gospel, it frees you to forgive.
It makes it easier for you to forgive your spouse.
Because when you know the person you’re PO’d at has already been forgiven by God unconditionally, it feels more than a little stingy to keep holding your ledger in the red.
Because, after all, the rings married folk exchange, what are they if not outward, visible signs of what no one else can see:
How flawed and imperfect we all are
And yet how God in Christ has answered the Want Ad posted in our souls
Has met us in our loneliness
Has found us out in our deepest failures
And by the happy joke we call Cross and Resurrection, laughed.
They’re signs of the Gospel promise that bride and groom are imperfect people who are free to laugh with each other over those imperfections knowing that every mistake they make has already been mended by the crucified love of God.
And knowing that- it leads not to happiness but to joy.