In this first part of 1 Cor. 13:3, Paul does not use the normal word for give as he does in the 2nd part of the verse, but here it infers a piece-by-piece distribution. What this means is that this isn’t a one-time decision to give a lump sum gift to someone—“Here’s all that I have; it’s yours!” Instead of that, Paul is presenting a giving that involves a carefully planned dissemination of one’s possessions to multiple recipients in order to supply their basic needs like food. This person becomes known as a selfless giver and has even impoverished himself as a result of his comprehensive charity towards others.
So the question that arises is: How is it possible this kind of giving does not demonstrate love? Especially, in light of the undeniable fact that so many needs are being met and so many people are being helped. Well, there is certainly some tangible benefit to the receiver of the goods in this example, but the giver receives no credit at all.
This makes more sense when we remember that this scenario is specifically stated to be lacking love. On what basis? It’s likely that the giver doesn’t really have the receiver’s best interests in mind. The giver is using his or her giving to draw attention to themselves. Or perhaps the giver is trying to make up for wrongs done by purchasing their forgiveness through good deeds. Or maybe even the giver is sick and tired of the state of things in the world and just wants to check out of being in the oppressive system in order to avoid further frustration. You can see how the core components of love, namely sacrifice and God’s receiving glory, are absent from all of those motives.
So a helpful question for us to consider here is: Do you serve others in such a way that you try to set yourself up for some sort of recognition, while disregarding Jesus’ teaching that even your left hand should be ignorant of how your right hand is serving others? Or here’s another way to gauge the purity of our motive of love: What happens in your heart when you aren’t recognized or thanked for an act of kindness?
The bottom line is this: Is it good enough just to know that the receiver was benefited and God was glorified? If not, Paul teaches that we can go so far as to give away everything we have and still be lacking love and thus we have gained absolutely nothing.