Question: "What does it mean that love is not self-seeking (1 Corinthians 13:5)?"
Answer: Love is the greatest gift that God gives. In 1 Corinthians 13, we have an elegantly beautiful description of God’s type of love. To help us understand all that love entails, the apostle Paul includes some things that love is not. For example, love “is not self-seeking” (verse 5), also translated as love “does not insist on its own way” (ESV).
The Greek phrase literally means “does not seek the things of itself.” Self-focus, which is the antithesis of love, marked the Corinthian church. This was evident in the church’s divisiveness regarding leadership (chapters 1–3), its attitude toward Paul (chapter 4), its attitude toward legal issues with other Christians (chapter 6), its attitude toward the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11), and its attitude toward spiritual gifts (chapter 12). Paul wanted these believers to stop focusing on their own needs and preferences and serve God and one another.
The corrective to self-seeking is God-seeking. The remedy for selfishness is love. Jesus said, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second [commandment] is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Mark 12:30-31). Love for God and others is to mark the believer; not love for self.
Some have mistakenly interpreted “love your neighbor as yourself” as teaching self-love in order to love others. That is, we must love ourselves first, before we can truly love others. But this is not the teaching of the passage. Self-love is assumed to be the default condition; Jesus was teaching that concern for others must equal the natural concern we have for ourselves. Also, Jesus was appealing to the Torah, specifically Leviticus 19:17-18, which reads, “Do not hate your brother in your heart. Rebuke your neighbor frankly so you will not share in his guilt. Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” The context deals with treating others fairly, without vengeance, and with love. It has no reference to self-love.
This focus on others and their needs corresponds to Philippians 2:4, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” The command appeals to the selfless actions of Jesus Christ as the ultimate example. The New Testament often mentions the need to turn from self and toward helping other people.
A person who demands his own way, who tramples on others’ rights for the sake of upholding his own, or who insists on having his due is not showing love. Love is considerate of others, always. The one who loves is willing to forgo recognition and lay down his rights for the sake of the loved one. Jesus showed love in this way: He “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). No self-seeking there.
Christian love is not about us but about others. Putting love into practice involves following the example of Jesus, considering the needs and interests of others, and denying our personal desires in order to serve those in need.