When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church he had to deal with not only their problem of dividing over men… (each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ” 1:12)… but with their immorality, abuse of the Lord’s Supper and a number of other problems as well. One of those problems was a misunderstanding and misapplication of spiritual gifts. In their misguided pursuit of what they considered the “best gifts” – those things by which they could be prominently seen before men as they displayed their abilities – they had completely missed the real “best gift.” Apparently they considered the ability to speak languages they hadn’t learned to be the best gift. It was, at least, the most conspicuous gift.
Actually, their problem was pride. That was true in not only this matter of speaking in other languages, but was a large element in their other issues as well. Paul assessed this as their problem regarding the fornication among them in chapter 5:2. He says of them, “…you are arrogant!” In their pride they had minimized the gospel. Some among them – those who thought of themselves as being wise – said the gospel was foolishness!
People miss out on so much when their vision of Christianity is obscured by an inflated image of themselves. This is what Paul was speaking about in the first three verses of 1 Corinthians 13, the great chapter on love..
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
His assessment amounts to this:
It doesn’t matter if one could speak all the languages in the universe – if he does not speak with love he is just making a lot of noise. If one could prophesy more than any other prophet and had the gifts of understanding and could interpret mysterious things, he amounts to nothing in God’s sight if he does not have love. If one were to give away everything he owns and then gives his body as a burnt offering, if it is not from love, he gains nothing from all his sacrifices.
The things Paul names here are things people could do and boast about. They were proud of what they could do and were ostentatious in exhibiting their gifts. In having these showy gifts they felt they had “arrived” – they were better than those who did not have what they had. In their thinking, God had especially blessed them above others.
Sadly, this problem of religious pride was not confined to the first century Corinthians. There are many examples of it today. People look down on others who are not “members” of their church because they believe their church is the one and only “true” church. The scorn those who do not subscribe to their “version” of “sound doctrine.” Lest anyone think I am picking on them or their religious group, this is a universal tendency among practically all religious people. Everyone wants to think they are right and that God favors them above all others.
Sadly, almost everything people boast of as making them unique originates with man. They have, of all people, truly and properly discerned the truth. We have achieved! We have arrived! We have restored! We got it right! God must favor us above all others! All others have missed it and are wrong. Ultimately this kind of thinking elevates man and de-emphasizes God.
Inevitably, with this kind of thinking, there is no room left for the exercise of love for our fellow man. When the emphasis is on ourselves and out attainments, we simply do not have the capacity to think of others and their needs – pride in our achievements consumes our will and our energy to do so.
Notice how Paul says love behaves. Notice how much of what he says strikes at the issue of pride…
“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 at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-6).
All the things that love does not do are the evidences of pride or self-centeredness. When the emphasis is self, God and others are minimized and marginalized. Self and what I have accomplished takes center stage. Love, by its very nature, looks beyond self. Love demands that there be an object of that love. Love for God causes us to trust Him – pride causes us to trust in ourselves. Love binds people together – pride drives people apart.
Pride and love cannot dwell together in the human heart. They are the antithesis of each other. If we would be children of God, we must rid ourselves of all the false pride and all the things that lend to it.
We must, as Paul exhorted the Philippian saints, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4). When we humble ourselves as Jesus did then God will do the exalting!
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” (Philippians 2:5-9).