“Now, we have faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.”
Why is love the greatest?
Answering this question requires an examination of what each virtue is specifically directed at (of course, the ultimate object of all is God). Now, please do not get me wrong. The virtues do not work independently of each other. They are all mutually beneficial to our soul. In fact, these virtues are traditionally represented as a living tree. “Faith is the root, hope the trunk, and charity the fruit. The root and trunk are valueless if they do not find completion in the fruit.” (catholicbook)
Now, to continue...
Faith has for its object the truths that God has revealed to us. We assent to these truths and live by them, not because we have seen them, but because God said so. In time, we will not just believe, but know because with God's grace, that which we only believed will be shown to us face-to-face. When that happens, there would be no more need for faith. We cannot need faith for what we already know. (catholicbook)
Hope has for its motive the attainment of eternal salvation notwithstanding the difficulties which beset our path (Catholic Encyclopedia). With Hope, we trust that eternal happiness will be granted to us by God who will grant us the necessary means to attain eternal happiness. In time, and again with God's grace, what was hoped for – Heaven/eternal Life, will be attained. Once its object is achieved, there will be no more need for Hope. We cannot desire what we already possess. (catholicbook)
Love/Charity has for its subject God as Himself. With Charity, God is loved by reason of His intrinsic goodness. Unlike Hope which looks at God as Someone that is good for us and therefore worthy to be attained, Charity looks at God as good in Himself. (Please refer to the Catholic Encyclopedia for clarity ) He is loved for Himself. Even after heaven is attained, Charity will not end – for God, the subject of Charity, has no end.
St. Paul says: “Love will never end. Prophecies may cease, tongues be silent and knowledge disappear. For knowledge grasps something of the truth and prophecy as well. And when what is perfect comes, everything imperfect will pass away. x x x Likewise at present, we see dimly as in a faulty mirror, but then it shall be face to face. Now we know in part, but then I will know as I am known. Now we have faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love.
I reserved the best explanation for last -
“Of the three theological virtues,charity is the most excellent. Faith and hope, involving as they do a certain imperfection, namely, obscurity of light and absence of possession, will cease with this life, but charity involving no essential defect will last forever. Moreover, while charity excludes all mortal sin, faith and hope are compatible with grievous sin; but as such they are only imperfect virtues; it is only when informed and vivified by charity that their acts are meritorious of eternal life. (Catholic Encyclopedia)
In 1 Cor. 13:13, St. Paul says “now we have faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest is love.” I have always been fascinated by this passage especially as it comes from the heels of what many consider to be a lovely, romantic discourse on love - “love is patient, etc.” . How romantic, one would thought. The whole passage often appears in the list of popular love quotations and is a choice reading for weddings. St. Paul, however, must have had something something in mind other than and beyond human relationships (even though they are covered in a way) when he composed this epistle. “Love”, after all, was lumped with some other stuff like faith and hope. It is good to know, perhaps, that the earlier versions of this letter used the term “Charity” instead of 'love'.
Faith, hope, and love. The Catholic Church refers to them as the Theological virtues. According to the Catechism -
“The theological virtues are the foundation of Christian moral activity; they animate it and give it its special character. They inform and give life to all the moral virtues. They are infused by God into the souls of the faithful to make them capable of acting as his children and of meriting eternal life. x x x They have the One and Triune God for their origin, motive, and object.”
On the other hand (and briefly), -
1. Faith is the virtue by which we firmly believe all the truths God has revealed, on the word of God revealing them, Who can neither deceive nor be deceived. (catholicbook)
2. Hope is the virtue by which we firmly trust that God, Who is all-powerful and faithful to His promises, will in His mercy give us eternal happiness, and the means to obtain it. (catholicbook)
It keeps us from discouragement; it sustains us during times of abandonment; it opens up our hearts in expectation of eternal beatitude.
3. Charity is the virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves, for the love of God. (catholicbook) To love God above all things, we must be willing to renounce all created things rather than offend Him by sin. We should often speak to God in acts of love, opening our hearts to Him.
This virtue of Charity allows us, first, to love God for who He is and without any expectation of any benefit from Him (though we receive many from Him anyway) and not because we fear losing any benefit we hope for. And this brings to mind that popular tune – “love me for what I am, for simply being me, etc”. If a human being deserves that kind of love, then all the more reason that it should be accorded to God. Second, Divine charity animates and orders all of our relations. In accordance with this, we love our family members not solely out of natural affection but also because of our love of God. Moreover, we love even those we would not normally love because love of God requires us to do so. On the other hand, “love' that is not compatible with love of God, i.e., causes us to offend Him, should be renounced so that we can truly and fully love God. Using human relationships for comparison, e.g., marriage, a spouse tries not to do anything that will offend the other or hurt the marriage. So it is with our relationship with God.
Anyway, I suppose that you get my drift here. And this non-theologian better stop here before I mess things up.
Now, viewed in this light, if St. Paul's letter is paraphrased, it will go like this -
“If I could speak all the human or angelic tongues, but had no love (of God), I would only be sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. If I had prophecy, knowing secret things with all kinds of knowledge, and had faith great enough to remove mountains, but had no love (of God), I would be nothing. x x x “
That little phrase gives broadens and deepens the whole passage, doesn't it? And it makes more sense.
Why is love the greatest? That will be answered in Part 2.
Thank you for dropping by. I appreciate your comments. Have a blessed day.