It’s possible to be giving and not loving. So, giving alone cannot be love.
You know how long it takes to feed a baby who’s just learning to eat? This is the gist of the Greek word used for “give” in 1 Corinthians 13:3. It alludes to feeding bit by bit and carries a connotation of digestion. It’s not the same as when Jesus told the Rich Young Ruler to sell everything and give it to the poor; that was an immediate giving over.
In fact, 1 Cor. 13:3 refers to continual giving, so it would probably end up being more than the Ruler could have given all at once. This is the actual taking care of someone, day by day, meal by meal — lifelong giving of everything to those in need. It’s an even deeper kind of giving than the “shot in the arm” type: it’s a care-giving. It is longsuffering commitment to provide for those in need during one’s entire life until absolutely all possessions are finally given over. It’s adopting the needy and naming them in your will.
And this is not love. According to 1 Corinthians 13:3:
Suppose I give everything I have to poor people. And suppose I give my body to be burned. If I don’t have love, I get nothing at all.
This verse presupposes that it’s possible to give in this lifelong, careful, unlimited way, without loving. In fact, it even yields nothing for the person doing the giving. Nothing.
Do you find all this as completely dumbfounding as I do?
The surrounding verses tell why, giving two reasons – or two that I could find. First of all, anything we do, as Christians, must be deeply connected to the Church and its edification (1 Cor. 12-13). Giving, even if it is careful and longsuffering and boldly generous, must be centered within the Body of Christ to be loving. So, it has to be done within a community that actually knows each other and is family that cares for one another (1 Cor. 12:26), not just called family for functionality. It is family that suffers and rejoices with each other.
The second reason is because giving to people, alone, cannot be lasting. Love always remains because it is patient, kind, generous, humble, polite, unselfish, joyful, protecting, trusting, hoping, unfailing (1Cor. 13:4-8). Love always remains because God is love (2 Cor. 13:11 & 1 Jn. 4:8).
Love, not giving, is the greatest gift every Christian can strive for (1 Cor. 13:13). It’s also the greatest thing we can give.
The three most important things to have are faith, hope and love. But the greatest of them is love. Follow the way of love (1 Cor. 13:13-14:1a).