How to Love Your Spouse according to 1 Corinthians 13


Most wedding presents couples receive end up well worn, chipped, or replaced over time. Few gifts outlast the passing anniversaries first set in motion with the words of 1 Corinthians 13—the love chapter. Written as an inclusive letter for all relationships in the church of Corinth, this particular chapter holds practical help for married life. Hidden within its familiar lines, the secret to loving your spouse in a 1 Corinthians 13 way waits to be unveiled.

You may expect the three keywords displayed on wall hangings at Hobby Lobby to unlock the mystery of loving well: faith, hope, and love. Actually, our faith and hope will be realized in heaven. The strongest of the trio, love, will be experienced in an everlasting way. The thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians helps us envision what love looks like in life.

In unveiling its truth, we find how to love well in earthly life with our marriage partner.

The four core verses of this chapter describe the nature of lasting love. In the list of characteristics, we learn to frame our thinking from a place of putting “you before me.”

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

But before we get to those 4 iconic verses, let’s focus on the 3 verses that precede it first. Although less commonly quoted, the first 3 verses of the chapter paint a clear picture of how the 1 Corinthians 13 quality of love goes all the way in loving through actions.

If one partner justifies behaviors, patterns, or decisions lacking in committed care for their mate, their excuses should sound the alarm. We restructure our relationship when we come to it committed to the “you before me” approach–the real heart of 1 Corinthians 13 love.

Let’s look at the first 3 verses of the “love chapter” as an introduction to the core message that applies to marriage.

1. Words without Actions Are Just Noise

We can talk like an angel, but if we only speak the words, it’s half the love. The first verse says, “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” (1 Corinthians 13:1b). In other words, words of love that are not backed up by action are just a lot of noise. Like worldly, shallow chatter, hollow talk splatters around a relationship instead of sincerely penetrating from one heart to another.

Language without action is worth little. Actions validate our words of promise, the ones spoken at the altar and repeated every day in a thousand small ways in countless ordinary moments. Texts saying, “I’ll remember,” or quick kisses at the door saying, “Love you too,” or phone calls assuring, “I won’t forget.” Isn’t it ironic that ordinary moments define extra-ordinary love?

Agape comes with authentication. To love your spouse with the sincerity of 1 Corinthians 13, use language paired with follow through. Do what you say to love like you say.

2. Gifts and Talent Mean Little without Humility

You may, “Have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and … have all faith,” (1 Corinthians 13:2) but without real love concerned more about giving than receiving, those stellar qualities are only half of what you may have hoped they’re worth. This introduction to legitimate loving points to something more than assets on paper.

What makes a spouse a “great catch?” Is it their career, their future, their genes, their connections, or their photogenic style? A partner may be skillful, smart, and spiritual enough to move mountains, but if they lack love, they can add, “I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2b) to their signature on anniversary cards.

If a partner comes with an eligibility profile to die for, lean in to sniff for an aroma of pride. It may not be there, but when it is, it stinks. Cultural pressures sometimes convince couples to idolize the pursuit of extra education, promising investments, and strategic relationships to build a life together. Sadly, intellect isn’t the secret formula for lasting love. Knowledge isn’t enough to be loving; it needs to be implemented with humility.

3. Sacrifices without Selflessness Are Empty

“I’d do anything for you,” the yearning heart pledges. “I’d give my life for you,” the lover promises. But sacrifices and even a whole life offered from one to another makes little difference if it’s void of love. “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” (1 Corinthians 13:3).

When the agape love is gone, even big sacrifices have little impact. A dozen roses might as well be a bundle of thorns when given from an unloving heart or an unkind hand. A dinner on the table may as well be poison for the palate when offered out of bitterness or sprinkled with cutting words. True love gives from selflessness.

A spouse’s sacrifice delivers half the impact when given without love. A partner might have all the right words, a strong intellect, and sacrificial gestures, but without the authenticity, humility, and selflessness of genuine love, it falls far short of loving all the way.

So what’s the key to doing marriage in a love chapter way? How does it look when words, intellect, and sacrifices fulfill the qualities of good love? The secret lies in three words, just not the three words on typical decorative wall hangings.

The 3 Words of 1 Corinthians 13 – “You Before Me”

Agape love in a relationship, especially in a married relationship, means coming to your partner with a “you before me” attitude. This kind of heart turns the eyes and thoughts in an outward direction. Love looks for how to uplift the other person first, rather than the self.

In a letter to the church in Philippi, Paul also addressed relationships saying, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

You before me.

Notice the preposition “before,” indicating the position and the priority of one contrasted with the other. It’s not “over” or “instead of.” These 3 words in this order may not appear in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, but they come together in these 4 core verses.

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

These verses contrast loving all the way, halfway, or not at all. Observe the pattern of how love looks in action compared with how it doesn’t look in action. Love operates with a “you before me” approach.

This is what “you before me” looks like in action:

Love does this:

-Exercises patience—endures with long suffering 

-Shows kindness—behaves with mildness, acts kind

-Rejoices in truth—delights in what’s true according to God

-Bears always—protects and preserves

-Believes always—trusts with confidence

-Hopes always—waits with joyful expectation

-Endures always—perseveres, remains without fleeing

Love doesn’t do this:

-Envies—harbors hot feelings of jealousy

-Boasts—vainly brags about self

-Acts arrogantly—puffs up with pride

-Dishonors others— behaves rudely

-Insists on its way—seeks self first

-Acts irritably—gets angry and provokes easily

-Keeps a record of wrongs—remembers and resents offenses

-Rejoices in wrongdoing—delights in evil things

No, love isn’t perfectly loving all the time, but it’s committed to maturing for the sake of loving someone well. Genuine love disciplines its behavior, to make progress in doing what’s loving and to stop doing what’s unloving. Consistently, these actions demonstrate a heart decision to put “you before me.” You go first. You be the most important one. You before me.

This kind of regular, reliable decision-making prefers someone else and puts their benefit first. People see when two people love each other well. Since our culture thrives on relationships where narcissism makes its way into our conversations and marriages all too often, examples of authentic, active love may be hard to come by. Look for signs of real love.

God’s perfect design for perfect love comes together when two individuals both determine to put “you before me” and they both end up being important to the other. This positioning of priorities shows up in conversation, in family worship, in paying bills, in making travel plans, in parenting children, in discussing holidays, in resolving conflict, and in countless other ways.

It begs to be given free rein from the very threshold of the home to the family room to the bedroom. The “you before me” love of 1 Corinthians 13 runs through the entire tapestry of two lives woven into one flesh.

The intellect, the words, and the sacrifices we eagerly bring to our relationships will pass away. They’re guaranteed to fade with age and pressure until they ultimately vanish. They will let down every married partner in every marriage. In doing life together, our humanness eventually emerges.

Acts of service, confession, forgiveness, and understanding forge bonds keeping us together in a shared pursuit of mindfulness for the other person’s well-being.

Love that learns to put “you before me” is worth working for. It outlasts attractive qualities and knowledge, charming language, and passionate promises. Loving your spouse according to 1 Corinthians 13 really does boil down to three words, just not the three words on the wall hangings.

You might need to make your own décor as a reminder. Real love vows to take the path of “you before me.”  

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Brooke Cagle

Julie Sanders headshotJulie Sanders loves helping women find God’s peace in today’s challenging times. She is the author of Expectant, The ABCs of Praying for Students, and the creator of How to Prayer Walk for Your School. She and her husband call Central Oregon home, but serve leaders globally and cross-culturally. Julie can be found at juliesanders.org.





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