“I can speak in the tongues of men and of angels . . . .”
Yes, fine. Do that.
But never think it can be a stand-in for what really matters!
“And I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and I have all faith, so as to remove mountains . . . .”
Oh my, that’s much more spiritual power and cognitive range than most of us have or can ever offer! Those powers and insights place you among the most extraordinary people of faith who have ever lived! Do that! Go for it!
But if that’s all you have, be careful not to mistake it for a true and fruitful spirituality.
“I give away all I have, and I’m prepared to deliver up my body to be burned . . . .”
What wonderful, utterly selfless expressions of devotion! Which person out of 10,000 will ever be strong enough and bold enough to be so self-sacrificial! By all means, seek to be such a person!
But please remember that it will be utterly empty and bell-clanging self-promotion if done apart from the motivation God himself cultivates in us.
These startling thoughts are what Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians [1 Corinthians 13]. He faced the challenge of dealing with a young church that was all show and no potency. It was a church that loved eloquent speakers. Indeed, it seems that some of them merely put up with Paul. They saw him as inferior to the brilliant Apollos whose oratory was captivating compared to Paul’s blunt summaries and simple fixation on the cross.
Indeed, the Corinthians had keen theological tastes: they loved to hear the best and brightest thinkers—those alert to the latest insights from nearby Athens. And they were a church with the benefit of a strong Bible heritage—including many former members of the impressive synagogue of Corinth—who were able to offer strong expositions of the Scriptures.
But Paul was not impressed. In fact, his statements must have stunned his readers. He dismissed what they loved most: more power, more knowledge, more ascetic self-control and more impressive activism than others achieved. These were capacities and values admired by all! Yet Paul was not only unimpressed, he confronted them for being “people of the flesh . . . infants in Christ” [1 Cor 3:1].
What, according to Paul, was their problem?
The answer was blunt and basic: they lacked love!
Yet they “loved” of course: they loved position, prestige, presence, placement, power, money, and anyone who loved them! All such comfortable, agreeable loves allowed for self confidence to grow and their personal potential to prosper. But by Paul’s measure of authentic, Christ-like love their growing capacities of intellect and training; their ability to gain a “faith” that could “move mountains”; their ability to achieve dramatic spiritual discipline . . . all these things were useless without a selfless love for others!
So here is the punchline for our own day: have we—the present church—learned what the early Corinthians had missed? Hopefully so! We at least know better by now. Many weddings, for instance, are launched with a nod to Paul’s descriptive summary of love in this chapter:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
His summary offers a floodlight in a dark world! And we become lights in a dark world, at least to the degree that we embrace what the Spirit offers us through Paul’s words. Our knowledge, our powers of faith, our disciplines, are all a basis for blessing others as we grow in our love for both our Lord and for our neighbors whom Christ brings to us to be loved.
Yet is there not still an immaturity in all of us? A desire to have a spirituality that impresses others? A tendency to treat our faith as a performance meant for friends to see? An ambition for an emerging status that others will appreciate and applaud?
I, for one, still struggle with this “flesh.” So do most others I know. On the other hand I know what it is to be loved well and deeply. Yet in my own experience such love is not very common. Not as common as one would expect, given all the strong Christians to be found in our day: strong and active believers who are doing some impressive mountain-moving projects!
Where did that love go . . . or how did it fail to grow up in us in the first place? Do our efforts to achieve great goals get in the way of caring? I, again, am all too slow to follow the distinct impulses I have to care for others, impulses that come to heart by the Spirit’s moving in me. It takes too much time and emotional energy.
Paul more than almost anyone understood that love is expensive. Yet he loved well and stubbornly. Why? Because authentic love is always expansive; birthed by a deep devotion to others that pours through us from God’s own heart. Such love is the touchstone of our lively relationship with the God who, in his Triune communion, “is love.”
So we will do well to listen to Paul’s ultimate priority with open hearts as he concluded his invitation to the Corinthians . . . and to us: “So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”