I recently bought some furniture from IKEA, and was reminded of how dangerous a store that can be. I don’t mean the risk to my back from trying to get those two-ton boxes onto the self-service cart (ah, the joys of particle board!), but the risk to my wallet. Unless you already know exactly what you want, you have to wind your way through the showroom, passing displays of everything they sell. It’s amazing how things I had no prior intention of buying suddenly become the need of the moment. It takes an almost heroic effort to stick to what’s on the list.
You’ve probably had the experience of going into a store to buy something and then seeing something you like better. That’s what I really want, you tell yourself, as it magically leaps into your cart.
That’s the kind of thing I worry about when I read 1 Corinthians 14.
Try reading chapters 12 and 14 straight through, leaving out chapter 13. At the end of chapter 12, he tells the Corinthians to target the greater spiritual gifts; at the beginning of 14, he says, “use your ambition to try to get spiritual gifts but especially so that you might prophesy” (14:1, CEB). Many of the Corinthian Christians apparently considered speaking in tongues as their “favorite” gift as far as spiritual prestige was concerned. I can easily imagine them thinking that Paul was trying to sell them on the simple superiority of prophecy instead: Listen, people, this is what you really want. And 14:1-5 could be read that way, except for that pesky little opening phrase: pursue love.
It is love that makes sense of everything Paul says about the spiritual gifts; it is love that drives the way he repeatedly hammers on the importance of mutual edification, of building one another up. Paul isn’t saying, “No, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. Speaking in tongues isn’t the best gift, prophecy is.” He’s trying to reorient them to the most excellent way, the way of love, the way of putting the needs of the congregation above one’s one self-aggrandizement, above the limited perception of gifts as marks of one’s spiritual maturity.
There’s nothing wrong with the gift of tongues; it can be a spiritually edifying experience for the individual. But as Paul will continue to insist in the coming verses, the way of love means pursuing what’s most profitable for building up the body of believers as a whole. That is the only reason Paul gives here for preferring prophecy to tongues.
How much does it matter? What if we’re members of congregations that care little about either prophecy or speaking in tongues? I’ll say more in upcoming posts. But for the moment, the point to consider is this: to what extent do any of our public expressions of spirituality have love and edification as their goal?