Sandwiched between two very practical chapters on the nature and use of spiritual gifts stands 1 Corinthians 13 – the “love chapter.” Too often, we divorce the “love chapter” from its literary context and read it at weddings. Of course, 1 Corinthians 13 applies to the relationship between a husband and a wife, but first and foremost, it applies to how members of a church should treat one another.
The Corinthians, it turns out, did not know how to treat one another. Their common life was characterized by “jealousy and quarreling” (3:3). They ate food sacrificed to idols, indifferent to the effect their actions might have on fellow Christians with “weaker” consciences (8:9-13, 10:23-33). In their common meals, the rich would “pig out” and leave the poor with little if any food to eat (11:17-22). And now, in chapters 12-14, we learn that some of them elevated one spiritual gift (speaking in tongues) above all others and opened that gift in such a way that others couldn’t open their gifts.
Against such spiritual selfishness, Paul shows a better way – love. Verses 1-3 describe three common ways that people attempt to be spiritual. Without love, however, Paul argues, such attempts are ultimately pointless. Let us examine these three verses more closely.
Verse 1 describes the way of experiential mysticism: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels….” Throughout the history of religion, even in the history of Christianity, people have tried to be spiritual by means of mystical experiences. Such experiences defy intellectual definition. They go the heart of emotion and leave the mystic with an overwhelming sense of being in touch with the divine. Such experiences tend to promote narcissism, for the mystic becomes so caught up in personal experiences that he or she forgets to care for others. When spiritual gifts become self-centered, the giver is no better than an annoying noise – “a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Verse 2 describes the way of intellectual excellence: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains….” Many people attempt to be spiritual by attaining knowledge and understanding of the heights and depths of the faith. They read endlessly, write without ceasing, argue fine points of doctrine, and strive mightily to figure things out. All of this is well and good, for God desires that we not only experience him but understand him as well. Nevertheless, the pursuit of intellectual excellence in Christianity is pointless if we do not gain knowledge and understanding for the benefit of others, as well as ourselves. It is possible, in the pursuit of truth, to lose one’s way and be rendered null and void as far as the gospel is concerned.
Finally, verse 3 describes the way of ethical stoicism: “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames….” Some people, realizing the dangers of experiential mysticism and intellectual excellence, resort to right living as the test of true spirituality. They engage in radical acts of selflessness and generosity and martyrdom. They give their all to the poor and their life to the flames. And yet, even they do not truly love. Perhaps their ethic is motivated by self-righteousness or duty or guilt. Whatever they case, they do good things in a bad way. They live selflessly, but without love. Such ethical stoicism is unprofitable: “I gain nothing.”
Experience, intelligence, and moral behavior are all equally important aspects of Christian spirituality, but first and foremost, there must be love. As the song says, “Without love you ain’t nothing, without love.”