First Corinthians 13 is one of the most beautiful texts — morally and lyrically — not only in all of Scripture, but in all of literature, period. It is a peerless, if not exhaustive, description of what we all know in the depths of our being is the “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31). Even translated into English, it is a masterpiece.
But one example from this masterpiece illustrates the great difficulty in translation: trying to keep as close to a literal translation as possible, while accurately conveying the author’s intended meaning. The phrase I have in mind is “[Love] does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). This quote comes from my preferred English translation, the English Standard Version (ESV), and is arguably an accurate translation of the Greek phrase. A more literal rendering might be simply “[Love] does not seek its own” with the context filling in the blank after own. And way is not a bad choice for the blank.
But the phrase “[Love] does not insist on its own way” can reasonably be understood by readers to mean that it is never loving for us to argue for or defend (insist on) the accuracy of our own perspective or conviction. And while we know that we should not insist on our own way in some situations, we also know that we should in others, to the degree that our way is not our own but God’s.
Paul didn’t mean love never insists on a particular way. If he did, the biblical record demonstrates that he didn’t live by this rule of love.
What Love Must Insist On
In Galatians 2, Paul recounts a time in Antioch when he publicly “opposed [the apostle Peter] to his face” (Galatians 2:11). Peter had come up from Jerusalem to observe the remarkable events taking place in the Antioch church, one of which was Jewish and Gentile Christians intermingling as equals. At that phase of the Christian movement, this was a new phenomenon.
At first, Peter joined right into this amazing experience of fellowship, happily sharing meals with his new Gentile family members in the faith. This wouldn’t have been surprising, considering it was through Peter that God first clearly revealed that the gospel was also for Gentiles, and that they weren’t to be considered unclean anymore (Acts 10:1–48; 15:6–11).
But then “certain men came from [the apostle] James” (Galatians 2:12) and likely informed Peter and Barnabas that Christians were being persecuted in Jerusalem because of the word coming from Antioch that the apostles were eating with Gentiles. So, Peter and Barnabas, out of fear, and wanting to keep their brothers back home from conflict and controversy, reverted to the Jewish practice of separating themselves from uncircumcised Gentiles.
Paul would have none of this hypocrisy, because “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” and was sending confusing and damaging signals to the Antioch Christians (Galatians 2:14). So, he rebuked Peter in front of everyone.
In other words, he insisted on his own way. Paul believed love — love for Gentile and Jewish believers, love for Peter and Barnabas, love for the local Galatian church as well as the universal Christian church, and love for Christ and his gospel — required that he insist that Peter, who “though a Jew, live[d] like a Gentile and not like a Jew, [not] force the Gentiles to live like Jews” (Galatians 2:14).
When the glory of God and the truth of the gospel and the joy of believers are at stake, there are times when love must insist on a particular way.
What Love Must Not Insist On
To avoid readers’ confusion, most other English translations, as well as paraphrases, seek to convey Paul’s meaning with phrases like love “does not seek its own” (NKJV) (leaving the object implicit), “is not self-seeking” (NIV), “is not selfish” (NCV), or “does not pursue selfish advantage” (Phillips). This is what Paul was getting at: love does not selfishly insist on its own way. And we see this self-denying expression of love recur in numerous ways throughout his letters:
Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. (1 Corinthians 10:24)
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)
If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:13)
We have not made use of this right [to request or require material/financial support from you], but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. (1 Corinthians 9:12)
Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10:32–33)
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
Paul believed love — love for one’s neighbor, whether Jew or Greek; love for one’s brother or sister in the faith, whether Jew or Greek; love for the church of God, both local and universal; and above all, love for the triune God and the gospel of Christ — demanded that he not insist on his own personally preferred ways, or even on his legitimate freedoms as a Christian and an apostle.
When the glory of God and the truth of the gospel and the joy of believers are at stake, there are times when love must not insist on its own way.
More Excellent Way
At times, love must insist on its own way; at other times, love must not insist on its own way. How do we know if our insisting or not insisting is being motivated by the incomparably beautiful love of 1 Corinthians 13? The short answer would be this: through knowing our Bible well and humbly seeking honest input from those who know us well. If we’re listening, the Holy Spirit will use both to expose our selfishness quite quickly.
But there is another, more subjective test to apply: look for the element of self-denial.
Note that both kinds of love from Paul’s life, when he insisted or refrained from insisting on his own way, were costly to him. It was not a fleshly, enjoyable experience for him to publicly call Peter to account, or to be a catalyst for controversy in Antioch, or to risk the frustration and suspicion of influential men in Jerusalem. Nor was it a fleshly, enjoyable experience for him to endure anything rather than cause a brother to stumble or impede the gospel in any way. Paul wasn’t exaggerating when he said, “I die every day” (1 Corinthians 15:31). And yet, this life of daily dying gave him great joy (Philippians 3:8; 4:4).
While not necessarily an infallible test (1 Corinthians 13:1–3), we are likely on the right track if our insisting or not insisting requires us in some way to lay down our preferences, comforts, conveniences, reputations, freedoms, rights, and perhaps our very lives for the sake of someone else’s good. For this joy-producing self-denial (Acts 20:35), which is the common element in all the wonderful descriptions of what love is and isn’t in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7, is the “more excellent way.”