1 Corinthians 12.31:
Desire the greater gifts. Even still, I am showing you a way beyond measure.
1 Corinthians 14.1:
Pursue love and desire the spiritual utterances, especially that you may prophesy.
I am reminded of a conversatio recently that I had with a friend who was trying to discern whether they were a prophet or not. They and I had multiple spiritual conversations about the things of God. While I have always been something of a cautious skeptic about what people make of the spiritual gifts, they were the type that was willing to learn but was perhaps too willing to believe anything. They shared with me that they had gone to a training that taught them about the gifts, including how to prophesy. Among the things they shared with me, they mentioned how they had experienced an event that they thought was them prophesying. To avoid any risk of anyone identifying this person, I won’t give the specific details of what they said that they prophesied, but as of yet none of them have come true. While I didn’t consider them to be a false prophet, because I could see how they were seeking to fulfill what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 14.1 and that they were not claiming an actual prophetic authority, I tried to subtly urge them away from the direction they were going. Fortunately, they love the word of God more than they love their own sense of power, so I am confident they are not going down a dark end.
Yet, so many do go off down a dark hole when it comes to the charismatic gifts. Stories are replete of false prophets, hucksters, and greedy manipulators that live out on the edge of charismatic Christian faith that openly embraces the dynamic, living power of God to act and speak, including through other humans. This is why Jesus warns people of false prophets, whose evil, in the end, isn’t some “false doctrine” as these are people who rightly claim “Jesus is Lord” so much as they portray themselves as being under the power and authority of peaceful God while their own desires lead them to be destructive (Matthew 7.15-23). When one believes in the living, dynamic, active, ongoing work of God in our lives, it can be very easy for false prophets to cast mental graven images onto God for their own benefit, to even believe that Jesus blesses them in their apparent success.
Why is it that people turn down this end? While I can believe that some people just set out to manipulate what they believe to be a gullible populace, I don’t think that is the case for most people who grievously err. Jesus’ portrayal is not that of people who intentionally and knowingly mislead others. The image of a ravenous wolf in sheep’s clothing is to portray a picture of a person’s inner desires that is divergent from their outward expressions, not necessarily as a form of intentional deception. When Jesus further continues his comments on these false prophets who bear bad fruit, he characterizes them as people who believe that they belong to the kingdom of heaven because of the powerful deeds they had done. In the end, the problem for them wasn’t their duplicity, but that their heart as metaphorically represented by the fruit-bearing tree wasn’t good.
Somewhere along the way, people who go down the pathway of the manipulation and abuse of spiritual power, whether it be of the charismatic or in its more institutionalized form, either never really had a time where their lives where pruned to produce good fruit (John 15.2) or along the away they got caught seeking after and desiring other things that they used their religious authority to try to provide for themselves. Perhaps, like a Kris Volloton, they tried to convince themselves that they did have these gifts, but kept holding onto to the idea of them because of the status they bestowed on them. Perhaps they had a vision from God at one point in their life but then got seriously derailed, such as a Paula White. Maybe once they got to step into the halls of influence and power, they rationalized away all the ways they used their power to do something they believed to be for God when they were seeking for themselves. Whatever it is, there is no one single cause, at the end of the day there is always one overarching explanation for why people with spiritual power use it so wrongly for so long: their hearts were not effectively trained to use God’s gifts with real love and true discernment.
I imagine so much of what stands behind the dysfunctional use of Christian religious power and authority can be connected to the problems we see happening in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. These were a people that Paul considered incredibly gifted, and yet he also saw something deeply problematic with them. They showed disregard for upholding even the most basic of sexual mores within their fellowship, perhaps even justifying engagement in sexual liasons outside of their marriage bonds. They were contentious with each other, suing each other and excluding each other from the dinners that also celebrated the Lord’s Supper. They were more concerned to integrate the wisdom they had learned from the outside world into their Christian faith to justify their dietary practices rather than consider how their actions may be hurting those who were “weaker” in faith. They were deeply gifted, yet they were deeply self-absorbed, seeking various ways to figure out how they could get Christian faith to adapt to and benefit their lifestyle rather than how their lifestyle can be transformed into the way of love of the Gospel. It is interesting that with all of the problems Paul saw facing the Corinthians, he spent the most time addressing the matter of spiritual gifts. Why?
I am speculating here, but perhaps Paul recognized with all their dysfunctions, the Corinthians needed to learn the right way to use their gifts to build each other up. These other sins are concerning, to be sure. Yet, these self-gratifying Corinthians were at the risk of doing something worse, using the very gifts God had given them for their competitive, self-aggrandizement. To sin is one thing, but to sin through the use of the very gifts that God has given is something else. While the communal worship of the Corinthians had not yet turned towards a dark corner, or we would expect that Paul would have stronger words to say in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Paul feels the need to cut the potential dangers off at the pass. Having given a brief taste of what wisdom spoken among the mature looks like (1 Cor. 2.6-3.4), he provides a positive pattern for how to approach the use of the gifts in the body of Christ.
Yet, what is interesting is that Paul sandwiches the well-known chapter of love, 1 Corinthians 13, within the discussion on the gifts. On the one hand, one might be inclined to think that Paul is trying to show how you use the gifts in love. As Witherington notes, Paul transitions into a piece of epideictic praise of love.1 To that end, it is true insofar as it goes to suggest Paul is trying to direct the Corinthians in how their gifts should be used.
Yet, perhaps something more is going on here. When Paul urges people to pursue the greater spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12.31, which Paul considers prophecy to be the highest, he then says he will show that is beyond the exaltation of the greater gifts. Paul’s discourse doesn’t point towards love as the motivation for the gifts, but as something that is of such honor and glory that it makes the honor of the greatest gifts pale in comparison. Love is something to be pursued for its own sake, for its own value, for its own purposes.
Then, further attention to Paul’s praise of love can be favorably compared to the way wisdom could be exalted. Love for Paul is not simply talked about as something one does, as if Paul is describing the motivations behind specific actions, but it is something that one metaphorically possesses, much like wisdom. It has a capacity that is said to be everlasting, in contrast to prophesy, tongues, and knowledge. Love allows people to go beyond the partial knowing the way things are (γινώσκω) but it allows people to recognize (ἐπιγινώσκω) others as they are (1 Cor. 13.12). Thus, love is understood more like a power that impacts the capacity of what a person does.
What Paul’s discourse suggests that love is a capacity of action and understanding that is of much higher honor and longer-lasting than the greater gifts. While not disregarding them, as each can be used to build up the body of Christ, the Corinthians’ valuation of them comes from a perspective of valuing what is temporal. The gifts are temporal manifestations for the benefit of the present time, but they are just that: temporal.
So when Paul urges them to pursue the charismatic gifts, it is said with the implication that love is to be sought as a power that is even greater and more glorious. At Paul then transitions back to discussion the gifts in chapter 14, he repeats his exhortation in 12.31 in 14.1 with one important additions: as one should pursue love and desire spiritual utterances, one should prioritize prophesy above the rest of the gifts. Why? Because the gift of prophesy is more conducive to building up than tongues. While tongues are not bad as they can build up a person, prophesy is of much higher value because it builds others up. In other words, prophesy is a more powerful act of love towards others, whereas tongues by themselves are largely an act of self-love. The effect of what Paul has argued is to essentially show the value of the gifts based upon their capacity to love others.
If Paul thinks of love as something that is sought more like a power rather than a personal motivation, this leads to a different conclusion about the nature of the spiritual gifts. The spiritual gifts are ultimately powers that come from the highest power of love. The gifts of prophesy, knowledge, wisdom tongues, etc. are all capacities that emerge from love, God’s love for us and our love for God and the body of Christ. To that end, the way to pursue the charismatic gifts isn’t by seeking to try to acquire the gifts themselves, but pursue love more deeply and richly.
In the story I shared from a friend trying to explore the prophetic gift, what little information I gleaned about the training they attended was that it seemed directed towards moving people towards the types of experiences one would expect a prophet to have. If that were indeed the case, then that means the training seemed to be based upon having an idealized version of the form of prophesy in mind and then seeking to acquire that, either through practicing, openness to the experience, or some other variety of practices to train one in the direction of a prophet.
We can even do that without such formal “training” in that there is a specific image of what we thing prophesy or tongues or wisdom looks like and we orient our thinking, our feeling, our actions to conform with the idealization of the gift. Something might emerge from us that we think fits the pattern and that we want to label the charismatic gift, but what has emerged has comes from whatever human desire that is in place that motivated us towards the specific form. Those “gifts” become more expressions of desires that are not rooted in God’s love, but of something else. These “gifts” become expressions of the powers of human motivation, but not the power of Christ-shaped loved. Yet, in claiming the name of Christ, a person who has adapted themselves to have the appearance of the gifts has become an expression of two different things: on the surface they express themselves as from God, but inwardly within their hearts their actions are a from the well-spring of other desires than those rooted in love.
At this point, it may become more apparent how people can go down the route towards becoming a false prophet and the general misuse of the ‘gifts’ of God. People adapt themselves to the form of the gifts out of other desires rather than that of God’s love. The more these other desires take root, the more the use of the “gifts,” either in their initially genuine or counterfeit forms, become dictated by them. This leaves a person mastering what they think the form to be, but the form is not used in the way that God inspires and teaches in and through love. Yet, because the person believes the form to be genuine, they rationalize and justify what they do as coming from God while they seek something else. They may exhibit great power and capacity as a consequence of continuing to learn how to adapt the form to achieve desires for goals, but they are not living from an expression of God’s will. Maybe at one time they were an agent of God’s love, but as some point they did not receive God’s discipline and training over their lives that would direct empower the use of the gifts in love, allowing desires rooted in sin to reign in them instead.
The genuine gifts from God are not something we train in. One does not learn to prophesy like one learns to be a physician. One does not learn how to speak in tongues like they learn to read an ancient language. Instead, they emerge from us as we seek after a Christ-shaped love. The experience of real love, both in the giving and receiving, becomes our teacher and our guide to the charismatic gifts. We may desire the gifts, bringing us to a place of being open to act from love in the various ways God may gift us to do so, but we actively seek after the ideal of love, not the ideals of prophesy, tongues, wisdom, etc. We adapt ourselves to the form of love in Jesus Christ, not the form of the gifts. When Paul describes the way the gifts differ in their giving in Romans 12.6-7, he says that the gifts are given based upon something else the person does. Whether it be faith, ministering, teaching, exhortation, etc. each of these attitudes and acts are grounded in the love of God and love of the body of Christ, which will then give rise to the gifts. So seek love; seek to love God more deeply and to love one another more deeply. Then as the commission and empowerment of God’s grace leads us to not elevate ourselves above others but rather to consider our relationships to one another (Romans 12.3), then the genuine gifts will emerge from that grace expressed through love.
In my own quest for discovering how to reconcile the highly cautious, sometimes skeptical person within me with the person of a charismatically-shaped faith, I have come to the conclusion that it is imperative that we get how love is the power of the true expression of the charismatic gifts. I have felt capacities emerge from me that I never tried to attain directly, even as I had a heart that desired them, as I sought more deeply to understand and live in love. Without a deepening, cross-shaped love, however, what will rule our hearts if we wish and seek after the spiritual gifts? If we think the gifts can be pursued apart from being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ in order for us to be function well as part of the body of Christ, then I can feel the skeptical person within me wanting to rise up and shout “No!”