Gifts without love are meaningless

Wedding season has begun in earnest, kicked off by the royal celebrations. As many of us look forward to celebrating with friends and family, I’m pondering one of the bible passages most commonly read in wedding ceremonies and how it applies to us as a church family.

It was only when I sat down with a friend to help her choose a bible reading for their upcoming nuptials and was asked to explain the context of 1 Corinthians 13 that I realised that the familiar passage on love was really meant for much more than marriage. Taken out of its place between chapter 12 and 14, we miss Paul’s point, conveniently narrowing down the passage to verses 4-8 so it makes for a more wedding appropriate reading.

But Paul wasn’t talking about a couple. In chapter 12 he has been instructing the Corinthian church about the use of Spiritual Gifts, and he continues to refer to the gifts throughout chapter 13 and into chapter 14. The chapter breaks that were added in the early 13th Century by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, can sometimes mean we lose the flow and connection between chapters, as I had done here.

So how does this passage about love fit into the teachings about Spiritual Gifts within the church?

Paul gives examples of dramatic displays of spiritual gifts, inspiring demonstrations which most of us could never imagine performing and would be seriously impressed to see (I mean have you honestly ever dreamed you would be able to move a mountain?). He then tells us that they are worth nothing, when they are done without love. They will not win hearts for the Kingdom, because without love, they are empty. This evidence of God’s power, these impressive acts will ring with insincerity when we are simultaneously envious and critical of each other, living lives that do not match our words. What kind of a witness to God is that?

impressive acts will ring with insincerity when we are living lives that do not match our words

Love is a fruit of the Spirit. These eternal qualities are developed in us by the Spirit as we grow in maturity in our faith. Paul is reminding us that we need to be striving to grow spiritual fruit through the development of our character, alongside the use of our spiritual gifts:

‘…serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” …the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ Galatians 5:13-14, 22-23

Spiritual gifts used without love do not reflect who God is, or have a kingdom impact

If we are seeking to use and serve with our spiritual gifts, but do not do so from a place of love, if love for the Lord and for our church family is not evident in our daily life, then our acts are missing the vital ingredient. Our attitude matters. Spiritual gifts used without love do not reflect who God is, or have a kingdom impact. ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16) and the love we show each other is the evidence of our faith; as Jesus said: 

‘By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ John 13:35

We are called to use our gifts in love. We are called to glorify God and edify each other with love. And Paul gives us a detailed list of what this love looks like:

‘Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.’ 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

I invite you to pause and dwell on this passage. Highlight the different attributes of love that you see. How many of us can look at this list, in the light of how we serve our church, and feel confident that we live up to this definition of love? How many of us strive to do so? Which elements do you struggle with?

There is usually some reason, some excuse we give as to why we have fallen short. But be honest with yourself because this is important; our character matters. Take some time now to ask the Lord to help you to grow in these areas over the coming weeks.

Jen Thornton
Learning Mentor for Empowering Leadership and Gift-based Ministry