When Good Deeds Are Not Good: 1 Corinthians 13:3

Young and senior women holding hands

By Contributing Writer, Tyanne

“If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.”- 1 Corinthians 13:3

As we continue in the “love chapter” of First Corinthians, we are jumping from virtues that are uniquely spiritual, such as speaking in tongues and having prophetic powers, to virtuous acts that are universally embraced by spiritual and non-spiritual people alike.

These virtuous acts of giving away all possessions and sacrificing one’s own life for a cause, are two of the most highly valued and rewarded actions throughout the world, and the same is true in the kingdom of God.  

Are there any gestures more highly regarded on this earth than those mentioned in First Corinthians 13:3?  I can come up with none.  So when I come upon a verse that tells me there is such a time when these acts mean nothing and will accomplish nothing, I know that the crux of such a verse is monumental.  

The heart of such a verse must be absolutely mind-blowing, and utterly offensive to those who wish to deny its truth. 

The heart of such a verse — and the heart of this entire chapter – is the value and necessity of God’s love, and it is indeed monumental.

I have four points to make as we study this verse today, and my prayer is that they will point to the truth that God’s love, the love of Christ that dwells within believers by the power of the Holy Spirit, should be the most treasured, sought after, nourishing, fulfilling, necessary possession in the hearts of men and women, and that without it we amount to nothing.

I. Sacrificial giving and denial of self are highly valued and rewarded acts in the eyes of men and women.

As creatures made in the image of a perfectly loving, generous, self-sacrificing God, even in a depraved state people find themselves deeply moved by acts that resemble God’s love and character. 

Whether we acknowledge the existence of God or not, whether we acknowledge that he is giving and sacrificial in His love, we are incomplete without the love of God and we are wired to yearn for it.  When we witness or experience something that imitates His love, our hearts and minds are provoked to feel something.

  • When Oprah gives a car and financial gifts to an unsuspecting family in need, millions of viewers rejoice and many cry joyful tears.
  • When the news reporters share of someone collecting money or goods to benefit an impoverished people group in another country, we are inspired and feel appreciation and affection for their efforts.
  • When a soldier’s life is ended in a heroic effort to save his fellow men in uniform, few would argue that this man is deserving of the highest honors and burial rites available.

In most circumstances, no matter what you believe or where your opinions lie, the actions mentioned above have significant value and are worthy of respect.  This recognition of “goodness” in such acts is sometimes the only common ground one can find with people from other walks of life, and this commonality has undoubtedly established the high value of sacrificial giving and self-denial in the eyes of all people groups.

II. Sacrificial giving and denial of self are highly valued and rewarded acts in God’s eyes.

“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” – Proverbs 19:17

I indicate within my first point that the actions in the third verse of chapter 13 are reflections of God’s love and character.  Not only do we see the people of this world giving great honor and respect to those who give generously or lay down their lives, we also see in Scripture that God himself gives great honor and respect to these same actions.  He is honored when we strive to be like him – a stronghold to the poor and the needy, obedient unto death.

“In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.” – Acts 20:35

“Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” – Hebrews 13:16

His commands are clear that his children are to give to the poor and help the needy, and He is pleased by these sacrifices.  We also see that giving to others results in repayment from the Lord and a higher blessing than those who are receiving.

In addition to the acts of giving, we also are told that the poor will inherit the kingdom of God (James 2:5, Luke 6:20-21), and we might conclude that one who gives away all that he owns to become poor is a likely heir of the kingdom.

But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. – 1 John 3:17-18

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world – James 1:27

Scripture also tells us that the sincerity of one’s love and faith can at times be evidenced by their good works, such as giving and caring for the poor.  Faith without works is dead, and genuine faith will overflow with fruitful works, according to James 2:14-26.  In the case of 1 John 3:17-18 above, it is the failure to give to a brother in need that makes the presence of God’s love questionable.

“And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” – Philippians 2:8

Additionally, we know that we serve a God who has set an example of obedience to the point of death.  While He may not call us all to die as martyrs for His name, we will likely be called to suffer in some way and do so with humility as we follow the example of Christ.  I Peter 4:13 tells us we should rejoice as we share in the sufferings of Christ, and we can do so knowing that suffering in His name brings honor and glory to God.

Still, according to the verse we are studying today, these acts are of no significance to God if they are not done with His love in our hearts.

III. God’s love is far greater than these acts.

“Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” – Psalm 63:3

If the virtuous, even heroic, actions mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13:3 are so highly valued in the eyes of both man and God, then one might assume that anything claiming to cancel out their worth must have power and influence far beyond the greatest acts this world has to offer.

It must, and it does.  The love of God within us is better than our good deeds, it is better than our sacrificial giving, it is better than life itself. 

The presence of God’s love is a force that transcends all else.  It is not simply an ingredient that is necessary for a truly good work, it is the summation of all of God’s virtue and holiness, and it is the birthing place of everything that is truly good in the eyes of God.  We can not fully fathom the greatness of this love, but without it we can only experience imitations of its fruit.

When God’s people obediently and lovingly give up everything to serve the poor and the needy, it provides only a tiny glimpse of the love God has given to us through our savior, Jesus Christ.  When a man who is filled with God’s Spirit lays down his life for a friend, it is truly evidence of God’s love in him, and yet his actions pale in comparison to the greatness and completeness of God’s perfect love.

The good works of men, even when they are truly righteous before God, are only great because they are the overflow of something far greater: the love of God.   

IV. We gain nothing through sacrificial giving and denial of self unless the love of God dwells in us.

The implications of these words, “but have not love, I gain nothing,” are that this great love I speak of is not just greater than all else, it is essential in the worth of even the greatest of human actions.  It is a prerequisite to the fulfillment of any of God’s commands mentioned within my second point, and it is the necessary starting point of ALL acts of obedience.

In Charity and Its Fruits, Jonathan Edwards states,

Whatever men may do or suffer, they cannot, by all their performances and sufferings, make up for the want of sincere love in the heart. — If they lay themselves out ever so much in the things of religion and are ever so much engaged in acts of justice and kindness and devotion, and if their prayers and fasting are ever so much multiplied, or if they should spend their time ever so much in the forms of religious worship, giving days and nights to it, and denying sleep to their eyes and slumber to their eyelids that they might be the more laborious in religious exercises, and if the things that they should do in religion were such as to get them a name throughout the world and make them famous to all future generations, it would all be in vain without sincere love of God in the heart.” (Emphasis added.) 

Without love, it is not possible to please God with our efforts.  Though we may strive to be the most generous, self-sacrificing person on this earth, gaining the respect and applause of our peers, we can earn no favor in the eyes of the Lord unless we possess His love in our hearts.

It is a non-negotiable condition in defining what is good and profitable and what is not in the eyes of our Creator, and without it we remain dead in our empty works. 

In our fallen world, without a mind that has been transformed by God, we might consider extreme generosity or a person’s willingness to give up his or her life for a cause as infallible evidence that they are “good” people and that they deserve only “good” things in life (and after death).

We might even be striving in our own abilities to accomplish good deeds, believing that our ultimate purpose in this life is to do such things.  While I have emphasized in the first two points that these actions are indeed valuable and bring glory to God, their true value is completely dependent on the presence of God’s love within us.

Concluding Thoughts

The truth within this single verse, combined with a biblical definition of the love to which it refers, packs implications that deeply challenge common (and treasured) viewpoints held by the people of this world.  In our time, good deeds are considered unquestionably good when they produce something for the greater good.  For one to question the true goodness of these actions is to insult their integrity and the sincerity of their motives.

Even so, we must not allow the message to go unheard.  This lie that our good works can earn us something eternal, something of worth beyond our earthly lives, has fooled too many lost souls.  It is keeping dead people dead, and promising them life where there is no life to be found.

This passage is often misused by popular culture to make a powerful statement about the value of a love defined by men, a man-centered love that is based on human feelings and affection rather than the presence of God’s spirit and the love that He gives to us.  God’s love is far too great to be reduced to something created by the minds sinful people.

As you meditate on this verse, I encourage you to deeply consider the implications it holds for those who do not believe and are not alive in Christ.  Consider the precious treasure of God’s love that they are living without, and the pit of empty works they are pursuing as they seek to fill a yearning in their heart for God’s love.

Prayerfully challenge yourself to live as a light in this dark world, interrupting the lies that have hypnotized those who are lost and boldly proclaiming the love that is far greater than anything “good” this world has to offer.

Proclaim His love, and do so with biblical truth.  It will be offensive and many will be insulted, but how can they believe what they have not heard?    

Tyanne is a young pastor's wife and mother to one with hopes for a full quiver. Through her savior, Jesus Christ, she seeks to bring honor and glory to God in all areas of life, but especially in how she acts as a helper to her husband, a mother to her children, and a servant to the Church. She gets fired up about things like theology, Bible dictionaries, and the doctrines of grace. She is an artist at heart and enjoys creating through painting, crafts, and photography when time allows. You can find her over at Lamp on a Stand, where she writes to promote biblical womanhood, Christ-centered living, and sound biblical teaching.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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4 thoughts on “When Good Deeds Are Not Good: 1 Corinthians 13:3

  1. This was EXCELLENT Tyanne. I love this:

    “The truth within this single verse, combined with a biblical definition of the love to which it refers, packs implications that deeply challenge common (and treasured) viewpoints held by the people of this world. In our time, good deeds are considered unquestionably good when they produce something for the greater good. For one to question the true goodness of these actions is to insult their integrity and the sincerity of their motives. Even so, we must not allow the message to go unheard. This lie that our good works can earn us something eternal, something of worth beyond our earthly lives, has fooled too many lost souls. It is keeping dead people dead, and promising them life where there is no life to be found.”

    • Thank you, Natalie. Digging into this one with the help of Jonathan Edwards really stretched my thinking (and my faith) in ways I wasn’t expecting. I have already been challenged greatly in just three verses of this chapter, and I’m looking forward to the rest of this month so much! God’s love is just so breathtaking, all the time, no matter how much we think we understand it. How incredible that He would choose to give it to us?!

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