Conservative Christians love their gifted leaders. We love inspirational sermons that make us think. We appreciate teachers who can deconstruct arguments and analyze trends. We love leaders who sacrifice. We flock to hear messages from those who have endured loss or lack for the sake of the ministry. And we LOVE great music—good bands, inspirational choirs, or talented worship teams.
But I’m not sure we really love what God loves.
1 Corinthians 13
1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Paul’s words indict our Christian culture. And it indicts me personally. It indicts me when I am self satisfied by how I articulated an argument, when I applaud my abilities to discern a root issue when I see a spiritual conflict, or when I quietly congratulate myself for a sacrifice I made for the ministry. Paul indicts me, and he indicts our Christian culture that fawns over well spoken, articulate, winners of spiritual arguments. Paul makes it clear that giftedness is NOT enough. Musical talent—not enough. Gifted speaking ability—not enough. Prophetic discernment—N.O.T. E.N.O.U.G.H. Hear Paul clearly. When these giftings are not accompanied by love, it is NOTHING. You are nothing. You gain nothing. Paul’s words, not mine. Your efforts become only disruptive noise in the landscape of the kingdom of God. Just noise.
I lose sight of this so easily. Giftedness so often gets more attention than love, and it is probably the number one thing that undermines all ministries, including mine. A friend from another state brought this to my attention this week after an eloquent analysis of her struggles to figure out how to think about a ministry in which she was involved. The Spirit finally gave her clarity as she read this passage from I Corinthians. Yes, this ministry seems to be making an impact. Sure, leaders there are gifted speakers able to hold the attention of large crowds. The music reflects great talent and gifting. But they aren’t loving. Their ministry is not characterized by the I Corinthians definition of love.
When Paul says that if I don’t have love, then I am and have nothing in terms of accomplishments for Christ, he doesn’t leave us wondering exactly what he means. He then clearly spells out what he means when he uses the term love.
Love is patient. It has a long fuse and is not easily angered. Which implies something has happened in my relationship with the one I am called to love that tempts me to not be patient and to get angry. Something is wrong, uncomfortable, or aggravating. There is an irritant in the relationship. Yet I keep my temper and deal patiently with the one who is angering me.
Love does not envy. There is a situation in which someone got something I want. Or got something they don’t deserve. And I am tempted to despise them for it instead of rejoice with them.
Love is not rude. It doesn’t cut down others with sarcasm. It treats others with the inherent value God has placed on them as created in His image. This is a big one. If someone is gifted enough in how they speak, we often accept very rude behavior from them (until it’s aimed at us). But Paul says here that such rudeness undermines completely the value of their giftedness for the kingdom.
Love does not rejoice in evil. We don’t gloat over other’s mistakes. Love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs. Love is ever ready to extend the benefit of the doubt to someone.
Love, after all, is the greatest command. So it makes sense to me why it is such a deal breaker when we want to accomplish something for God’s kingdom by way of our giftedness. Hear Paul’s warning clearly. Wherever you see your giftings, it will come to nothing apart from sincere love—not token words but the real, deep love for another that causes you to lay down your sword, endure for the long haul in trying circumstances, ever ready to believe the best of the one to whom you are called to love. For gifted Christian leaders, this often means slowing down—in fact, slowing down is inherent to the meaning of patience. Sometimes, you have to slow down and endure for the long haul, which may seem counterintuitive to your vision of your mission. Yet apart from such love, Paul’s warning is sober—you gain nothing of kingdom value. Your efforts just become noise, distracting from mission rather than facilitating it. I recently got to watch a ministry go through this type of slowing down out of obedience to this command to love. It took a great deal of patience, and yet the kingdom results were beautiful to watch.
Now, I’m tempted to end this post there, yet everything in me says that I need to say much more. I know people who are there. I can’t leave you (or me) with only an analysis of the problem. So here is the good news of God’s answer.
When Paul says the most gifted of people ARE nothing without love, a knife goes into my heart. He’s stabbing at our identity and that is a very sensitive place. Yet, he’s exactly right. Your giftedness does not bring you sustainable identity. In terms of identity, you are nothing if you are resting on giftedness alone. But repentance is for such a moment as this. And it works! Repent. Find the sole source of your identity in who you are in Christ, which has nothing to do with your talents or giftings. When you know who you are as God’s adopted child alone, then you are free to face your sin. You were rude, you didn’t bear long in love, and you believed the worst instead of the best of the one to whom you were called to love, all for the “sake of the ministry.” The gospel is for such a moment as this, and it gives us great hope. Simply confess your sin.
And from there, be encouraged to know that love is not a work that you have to muster up in yourself. It is a FRUIT of the SPIRIT. Love in your life will be the overflow of your connectedness to God and understanding of HIS love. Connect to the root, grasp what His love looks like, and then watch it flow out of you as a fruit of this healthy connection you have with Him. Meditate first on God’s love for you, which is definitely most obvious when contrasted to what you and I deserved instead. And from understanding His love, you will be equipped to really love those in your life – not fake, poser love that is a happy smile when all is going well but fades into hopelessness or condemnation when things go south. I Corinthians 13 love is by definition for when things go south – when conflict comes, when all is not well, when you are provoked, when life is not easy, when annoying long term problems continue week after week, month after month. Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” And love IS possible, but only through our union with Him.
*I’ve linked to this sermon before, but here is a great message on the fruit of the Spirit, love, that has its origins in God Himself.