What does it mean to say that love never fails? Surely the designs of love are often frustrated. The goals unmet, the desires unfulfilled. This is true even of the pure, self-emptying love that Paul is describing here. Because to love is to seek another outside oneself, it necessarily requires a relinquishing of control. It is risky.
So if it is true that love never fails, it must not mean that love is always returned, or that the good which the lover desires for the beloved always comes to pass. Indeed, it often seems to be the opposite. Broken relationships are more the rule than the exception.
There are a few ways that love might be said to never fail. At the end of the day, when all is said and done, a character tuned to love triumphs over self-righteousness and judgement and hate. Love is transcendent. Perhaps more to Paul’s point here, love is the one theological virtue which is forever. Prophecies, tongues, knowledge, even faith and hope are goods for this time. But love is for today and tomorrow and always.
Paul’s “all things” phrases cannot but pierce someone reflecting on how they have loved. Love never despairs, it never gives up, it doesn’t grow disenchanted and fade away. The words carry their full force only as we meditate on the failures of love in our own life. This is the love that God has for us - “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”.
But it is Paul's contrast of love with knowledge that strikes me the most. Surely real, objective truth will endure? But that is not the kind that we have: “now I see through a glass darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know even as I am fully known” and “when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part shall be done away”. To claim that love is greater than knowledge is to accept the hazy limits of our own knowing, and our own judging, and our own discriminating. And when we depart from love, that is what we use our knowledge of people for - as a weapon, as an argument, as a way to place people in groups, as a stand-in for the full knowing which we don’t and can’t have. Love would be easier if we had that kind of full knowledge.
This kind of love is otherworldly. It rises above all of the power-seeking and jockeying for position and self-serving that characterize human relationships. Most of us only catch glimpses of it here and there. But to glimpse it is to know that it exists, and that is enough to seek it.