“And above all these” (Επι πασι δε τουτοις) means upon all or over all; in context of the previous verses an image jumps to mind of an outer garment enveloping the other clothing. Thinking of biblical dress, this could refer to the belt (girdle) or cloak (mantle). A belt was made of leather, 2 to 6 inches wide, sometimes with a shoulder strap to carry heavier items. A cloak was a robe worn over the other clothing as an outer garment for warmth and appearance.
Like a belt, love should encircle everything we do, holding any “weapons” we might use. As Christians we are to turn the other cheek, but when we do need to speak truths that could wound we are to do so in love. Like a cloak, love should warm every action we perform, thought we think, and word we speak. Everything we do should have the appearance of love. If the body of Christ surrounded everything with love, we would certainly live in "perfect harmony" – even if we disagreed.
If you were in the 1 John study, you will remember the repetition of the thought that true believers are known primarily by their love for God and others. This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother (1 John 3:10). But it isn’t enough to merely complete biblical check off lists, striving to show the compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness patience, and forgiveness commanded in the previous verses.
In recent times I have done many “good things”. (Don’t get excited, I’ve done my share of “bad things” too!) So last night when I was meditating on this verse and praying about the devotion, the Lord spoke a hard truth to me. Why do I often show compassion, kindness, and the rest? Obligation. It hit me like the falling wall of Jericho. I thought I had put some distance between myself and legalism, cultivating a desire to put into action the teachings of Jesus out of a deep love for him, not as an effort to maintain my salvation through my good works. But when I examined my heart, it turns out that many things I do are because I feel obligated, not because love overflows from my heart. For me it was a crushing realization.
Without love, though there might be other virtues, there is no truth or grace in anything we do. We must be willing to love as Jesus love. The more you learn to love as he loved, the more of this world you will find that you need to give up. There are few better examples of this love than Mother Teresa and her fellow workers in India. About her personal suffering she said, “"Without out suffering, our work would just be social work, very good and helpful, but it would not be the work of Jesus Christ, not part of the Redemption. All the desolation of the poor people, not only their material poverty, but their spiritual destitution, must be redeemed. And we must share it, for only by being one with them can we redeem them by bringing God into their lives and bringing them to God."
Without love, everything we do is selfishness, legalism, or hypocrisy. Even the greatest good we do stems from our own selfish desires to look good or assuage some unconscious guilt within our hearts.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
1 Corinthians 13:1-8