This is a tough one: the teaching that love “believes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7, ESV). What does it mean exactly? Are we always to believe what others say to us? Should parents believe their child in spite of all the evidence that he is lying? No, that can’t be it. We are also called to be “wise as serpents” (Matt. 10:16) and “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21).
So, what are we to do with this verse?
Love Believes God
The immediate context helps. Love “believes all things” appears in the middle of three sections in Paul’s discourse on love (verses 4-6, 7, 8-10). In this middle grouping “believes” is matched with three other characteristics of love. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Notice the symmetry. There is an outside pair (bears and endures) and an inner pair (believes and hopes). The outside pair—bears and endures—speaks to our relationship with other human beings. The inner pair—believes and hopes—are responses that we typically have to the Lord, not to people. They echo the triad of faith, hope and love that Paul will identify in 13:13.
With this possible pairing in mind we could paraphrase the Apostle like this:
Love is not for the faint of heart. It is a hard road. Whenever you hear the call to patience (v. 4) you know it will be hard—but love is a very good road. So let me say it again: you will bear with and endure relationships in which you feel unloved. Expect this to happen in the church. Expect this to happen even in the home! And when it does you will be tempted to be angry and resentful. But the way of Christ and him crucified is best. He bore with us and endured with us when he was rejected, and his good plan is that we be given the same opportunity. How will you bear and endure? You will do so by believing and hoping—in Jesus alone. If you are believing and hoping in the other person, love will fall flat, but if your trust is sequestered in Jesus Christ, you will have power to love that you never anticipated was possible.
Love Doesn’t Always Believe People
So you are allowed to raise questions when your sixteen-year-old child says that he smells like alcohol because he happened to be walking down the street with friends and a drunk with an open bottle stumbled and spilled beer all over him. Better yet, you must raise questions. Scripture is clear. Lying is endemic to our nature; a parent who questions this child’s credibility is a blessing to the child.
We believe in Christ, and we hope in Christ. Meanwhile, we are pleased to have friends who bear and endure with us because they believe and hope in Christ too. They are prepared to ask us hard questions and know, at times, not to “believe all things” when we answer.
1 Corinthians 13 does not to tell us to blindly believe everything we hear. It assumes that our relationships, even in the church, will not always be marked by love and honesty. When they aren’t, those rejections and challenges are exactly what we need in order to remember the One who endured rejection by believing and placing his hope in his Father.
Love is Patient and Kind
Then what? When in doubt, look for ways to show kindness (1 Cor. 13:4). We bear with and endure. In other words, we are patient with all. And we dream up ways to show love through kindness.
This is so hard, so unnatural, and so good.