Loving the Unlovable: The Challenge in 1 Corinthians 13
Updated: Jan 5
1 Corinthians 13 presents you and me, as Christians, with one of the most difficult challenges we will ever face: loving the unlovable. This chapter from Scripture is about showing Biblical love to everyone, which is hard enough by itself, but when you consider that “everyone” includes those who don’t seem to deserve your love the challenge becomes even more difficult. By unlovable I mean people who do not appreciate your love, do not reciprocate in kind, and are demanding and entitled. In my book, Christians on the Job: Winning at Work without Compromising Your Faith, I tell the story of Maria, a young woman who struggled to show Christian love to someone who was unlovable. You might find her story edifying.
Maria’s father was a pastor who taught her that putting 1 Corinthians 13 into action meant treating people the way she wanted to be treated. Up to now, she had always followed her father’s advice and benefitted from doing so. But having to deal with a coworker who was self-serving, dishonest, entitled, and manipulative was testing her commitment to 1 Corinthians 13. Maria was finding it difficult to show Christian love to someone who was so unlovable. Her coworker was a master of office politics who used gossip, rumors, and lying to curry favor with their supervisor while undermining the work of her teammates.
Maria knew she was supposed to be long-suffering, kind, and patient with this wolf in sheep’s clothing, but what she wanted more than anything was to give her coworker a piece of her mind. If not that, she wanted to at least avoid her. When Maria discussed the problem with her father, he took out his well-worn Bible and read 1 Corinthians 13 to her. Then he told her, “Maria, you haven’t really shown Biblical love until you have given it to the unlovable.”
As human beings, it is tempting to associate only with people whose worldviews agree with ours. This is natural. After all, there is comfort in common ground. However, as Christians, you and I are called to interact positively with people of all worldviews; believers and unbelievers. Associating positively with unbelievers does not require you to condone inappropriate behavior, nor does it mean compromising your faith in order to get along with them. Rather, it means interacting in ways that reflect the image of Christ rather than segregating yourself from those who don’t know Him.
One of the best ways to shine the light of Christ for others is to set an example that reflects His image in how you do your job and interact with coworkers. Ideally, when our coworkers see us in action, they will see a reflection of Christ. Think of it this way. We are children of God the Father. Consequently, there should be a family resemblance. As children of God, we should reflect the image of Christ in all we do. This is best done by setting a Christ-like example. The Bible is replete with guidance concerning the importance of setting a good example. In fact, James 4:17 makes clear that knowing the right thing to do but failing to do it is a sin. Therefore, not only is setting a Christ-like example the right thing to do, failing to set such an example is a sin.
For Christians, doing the “right thing” as stated in James 4:17 means doing what is pleasing to God. This verse makes no exceptions for the times when you are dealing with unbelievers. Unfortunately, you cannot count on your coworkers being Christians. Inevitably, some are going to be agnostics, some will be unbelievers, and some will be wolves. Wolves in the workplace, like their namesakes in the wild, are predatory. They are concerned only about satisfying their own appetites, ambitions, and self-interest. Those who do not follow the pack or, worse yet, get in the way of it sometimes become its prey. When you are attacked by a coworker who is a wolf, it is only natural to want to respond in kind. I fully understand the fight-back impulse. In fact, I struggle with it myself. In situations like this, the Marine in me comes out and I want to counter-attack. Not only do I want to bite the wolf back, I want to bite harder.
As appealing as this kind of response can be when you are attacked by a predatory coworker, it is the opposite of how we, as Christians, should respond. A better response is one that is pleasing to Christ, one that reflects His love as defined in 1 Corinthians 13. Learning to respond in this way will not be easy. In fact, if you are like me, it will be downright difficult. However, it might make you feel better to know that setting a Christ-like example does not mean allowing predatory coworkers to use you as a doormat. Rather, it means standing firm in your faith and setting the type of example that might convince coworkers there is a better way.
Misty was especially good at showing 1 Corinthians love to customers as well as coworkers, even those who were determined to be unlovable. She worked in a competitive business—new car sales—where her coworkers were the competition. The owner of the dealership had a rule that almost guaranteed sales personnel would poach customers from each other, lie to each other and customers, and engage in other nefarious acts. It was known as the up-or-out rule. When quarterly sales figures were reviewed, those in the top quartile of sales were given bonuses. Those in the bottom quartile were given pink slips. The rule created a dog-eat-dog environment at the dealership. Surprisingly, Misty thrived in this environment, and not by poaching customers from her coworkers or lying to buyers. In fact, just the opposite.
Misty treated her fellow sales representatives the way she wanted them to treat her. In addition, she was honest, forthright, and helpful to customers. She worked hard and smart at keeping her own sales numbers up, but she also helped coworkers who were struggling. Misty understood that much of the bad behavior she witnessed in her fellow sales representatives was driven by desperation. Like her, they needed their jobs to support themselves and their families. As a result, she would occasionally hand off customers to fellow sales representatives who were in danger of receiving a pink slip. Misty’s kindness did not go unnoticed. In fact, Misty’s commitment to demonstrating the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 insulated her from the bad behavior of her fellow sales representatives.
When Misty was the top sales representative four quarters in a row, the owner of the dealership asked her, “What is your secret?” She explained her approach to dealing with customers and coworkers. Shocked by what he heard the owner questioned the other sales representatives. Each of them had a story to tell about how Misty was not just a good sales representative, but a good coworker. When Misty was top sales representative for the fifth quarter in a row, the owner decided to change his approach. He would get rid of the up-or-out rule and replace it with a sales approach based on collaboration, cooperation, and mutual assistance. In other words, he implemented Misty’s approach to sales. Within six months of implementing the new approach, the dealership increased its overall sales by 17 percent.
1 CORINTHIANS 13 AS THE FOUNDATION OF YOUR CHRIST-LIKE EXAMPLE
I Corinthians 13 is the Bible’s classic exposition on the subject of love. Consequently, when trying to set a Christ-like example in the workplace, this chapter of Scripture is an essential reference. A Christ-like example must rest on a foundation of Biblical love, and 1 Corinthians 13 contains Christ’s definition of the concept. Any other foundation will crumble like sand. Only if your example is based on the kind of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 will you be able to endure the inevitable faith-related trials that crop up in the workplace. Further, only if your example is based on this kind of love will it pass the test of James 4:17 (Knowing the right thing to do but not doing it is a sin).
The type of love described in 1 Corinthians 13 has nine characteristics, all of which have specific application in the workplace. These nine characteristics are:
Not jealous or envious
Becoming in its actions
Seeks the good of others rather than seeking its own
Keeps no records of wrong done by others
Setting an example that exemplifies these characteristics will be difficult in the best of circumstances. However, it will be especially difficult when working with wolves in sheep’s clothing who wouldn’t think twice about devouring you if doing so served their interests. However, the closer you come to incorporating the love of 1 Corinthians 13 into the example you set for coworkers, the more effective your example will be. Even more important, the closer you come to incorporating the love of 1 Corinthians 13 into your example, the more pleasing your example will be to Christ.
The best advice I ever received concerning setting a Christ-like example in the workplace came from a wise Christian friend. He was a colleague who had enjoyed a long and successful career. My friend was finishing his career as I was starting mine. Frustrated over the behavior I observed in some of my coworkers, including my boss, I sought this good man’s counsel. He told me that in the long run the best way to deal with the sinful behavior of coworkers was to: 1) Refuse to participate in it, and 2) Show them a better way by setting a consistent Christ-like example.
When I responded that setting a Christ-like example among my coworkers would be difficult, he didn’t argue. In fact, he agreed with me. But then he asked me if I was familiar with 1 Corinthians 13. When I commented that 1 Corinthians 13 was about love, he just smiled and nodded. He was silent for what seemed a long time. Finally, my friend told me something I have never forgotten. He said, “There are going to be people who will treat you poorly on the job no matter what you do. But it is harder for people to treat you poorly when you treat them with love.” As things turned out, he was right. Not everyone responds positively to a good example, but many do. In fact, my experience has been that more people will respond positively than won’t.
Lessons abound in 1 Corinthians 13 for those of us who are called to set a Christ-like example in the workplace. Verse 1 tells us that no matter how honestly or articulately we speak if our words are not spoken in love, they are like a “noisy gong” or a “clanging cymbal.” When you disagree with colleagues, doing so in a considerate, respectful manner without becoming disagreeable will provide a powerful example of Christian forbearance for them. It will, no doubt, also be a welcome change for people who are accustomed to being attacked by those who disagree with them. The number of people who have learned to disagree without being disagreeable is, unfortunately, small.
All too often workplace disagreements go awry as the volume increases and the narrative becomes personal. Those who disagree in a disagreeable manner often sound like a “noisy gong” or a “clanging cymbal.” Learning to disagree without being disagreeable is a prerequisite for those who want to set a Christ-like example. The ability to do this is a skill that will be welcomed by your coworkers, even those who don’t practice it themselves.
Verses 4 - 6 describe love as being “patient and Kind.” These verses go on to explain what love is not. It is not envious or boastful, “arrogant or rude,” set on getting its own way, or “irritable or resentful.” Further, love rejoices in the truth rather than “wrongdoing.” Few among us, regardless of our religious convictions, would be averse to receiving this kind of love. The reason Paul’s words resonate even today is that in the workplace as in life there are likely to be impatient, unkind, jealous, boastful, arrogant, and rude people who insist on getting their own way, and seem to take pleasure in behaving badly. These are the wolves in the workplace. They are the types of people Paul wrote about in Romans 1:29-31 where he mentions “gossips,” “slanderers,” “haters of God,” “insolent,” “haughty,” “boastful,” “inventors of evil,” “disobedient to parents,” “foolish,” “faithless,” “heartless,” and “ruthless.” I cannot read these verses without thinking that Paul must have worked in some of the organizations where I have worked.
By setting a Christ-like example that personifies 1 Corinthians 13 you can be a welcome antidote to people who seem to take pleasure in behaving badly. Ironically, even those who are impatient, unkind, jealous, boastful, irritable, arrogant, and rude themselves do not like to work with others who are guilty of these same sins. Likewise, those who insist on having their own way and who become irritable when their selfish actions are thwarted do not like to work with selfish people.
When people set themselves up as little gods, they tend to overlook their own transgressions while condemning the same transgressions in others. This is an easy trap to fall into, which is why we were given the admonition in Matthew 7:5 to take the log out of our own eye before condemning someone else for the speck in theirs. It is always easier to recognize faults in others than in ourselves. Remembering this Biblical truth will set you apart from your unbelieving coworkers in ways even they will appreciate.
In committing to model Christ in ways that exemplify 1 Corinthians 13, you are agreeing to demonstrate a love that serves others before self. But how does one translate this kind of love into practical action in the workplace? The following list contains examples of specific things you can do to translate 1 Corinthians 13 into practical action on the job:
Help others who need help
Listen attentively to others when they need to talk
Be willing to forgive and ask for forgiveness
Rejoice in the successes of others
Be humble and share the credit when receiving recognition for a job well done
Support others who are right even when doing so is difficult
Be willing to sacrifice to help co-workers, your team, and the organization
Refuse to mistreat others
Refuse to encourage others to do wrong
Refuse to take pleasure in the misfortune of others
Refuse to embarrass others by saying or doing things that make them look or feel foolish
Refuse to abuse others emotionally or physically
Refuse to wish misfortune on others
Refuse to take part in office gossip
As you can see from these examples, being a 1 Corinthians 13 Christian will never be easy. The most difficult part, of course, is to be loving, patient, and kind to those who do not reciprocate. However, while it is true that exemplifying the behaviors recommended in verses 4 – 6 is no guarantee of reciprocal treatment, it is also true that it is harder for people to treat you poorly when you treat them well. Patience and long-suffering will no doubt be necessary as you struggle to set a Christ-like example day after day. When you become frustrated with setting a good example in an environment where people do not reciprocate, think of what is written in Galatians 6:9 where we are told to avoid becoming weary in doing good because our reward will come in God’s good time if we persevere.
A caveat is in order here. As was mentioned earlier, setting a 1 Corinthians 13 example in the workplace does not require that you meekly allow people to abuse you. As Christians, we are not called to be helpless dupes. Rather, setting a Christ-like example means showing others the image of Christ in how you respond when they treat you badly. In workplace disagreements, those who fight fire with fire just make a bigger fire. As Christians, we are to confront and reject sin in any setting. But how we go about this is important.
When responding to those who treat you badly in the workplace, remember the admonition in Proverbs 25: 21 – 22 where we are told to feed our enemy if he is hungry and give him water if he is thirsty. This verse reminds us that doing these things will “heap burning coals” on the head of our adversary on the one hand and bring us rewards from God on the other.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com