Pursue love, and desire spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy.
1 Corinthians 14:1
There is an inherent danger in seeking a spiritual experience rather than seeking the Lord Himself. It is the same as seeking the hand of the Lord over the face of the Lord – seeking the temporal blessings of grace rather than the eternal knowledge of the eternal God.
To Israel God said, “If you will return, O Israel, return to Me” (Jer. 4:1). Some in our day attempt to return to the rituals of the church, some to the commands of the Bible, some to the emotions of yesteryear, but all of these are forms of blessings from the hand of God and not God Himself, and this is the difference we must have the wisdom to see. “Seek Me and live” (Amos. 5:4) says the Lord.
Christ came that we might have true life, not strong emotion: Christ contrasted His work to the counterfeit work of prideful and false leaders of Israel when He said, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). One of the temptations the world and the devil places before us is the temptation to seek a false emotional experience and call it the work of the Spirit. And in this way they may steal us from allowing the Lord to do His true work in our hearts.
Emotions are uncertain and unpredictable. If they are our goal in our spiritual longings then we are off target. We will feel false guilt if we do not feel like we think we should feel. We will miss the true and deep work of God in our lives if we just seek after them. There is an emotional element to true faith that is real, genuine, and healthy – just as there is an emotional element to a good marriage – but emotion cannot be the goal of our lives in any category – not in our faith, not in our marriage, not in deciding right from wrong.
When Christ said, “I am the door: If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:9), He was referring to the work of His Spirit in our lives to bring true life. So we must always first and last seek the face of God, trusting that when we find Him then we find everything He offers – peace, joy, love, patience, kindness, etc. But if we bypass Him and seek joy or peace or love then we will miss them all. Perhaps a poor substitute will be ours momentarily, then it will vanish and we will be left wondering what went wrong.
In experience pursue love first, grace gifts second: Having received Christ, having come to Him in repentance and faith, having met Him face to face now we are invited to receive the blessings that come from His hand. God places the emphasis on character first and then the grace gifts of service for edification. This means that the gift of tongues, which edifies the individual (1 Cor. 14:4), is not the panacea for all spiritual graces, it is not a door to all inner blessings, or it is not the key experience through which we receive everything else in our spiritual life. This passage sets the experience of tongues as a secondary experience, and not the same as receiving knowledge of the love of God.
Love is gained as a work of the Spirit, and as in all of the work of His Spirit, it is dependent on His Word and on our faith. Human minds work similarly in some ways, differently in others. The Word, faith, and the Spirit are essential ingredients, but on practical matters they may be experienced in different ways. For some people to meditate on a verse or two of scripture is a way they may pursue love. For others they will study the intricacies of biblical theology, and there are many ways by which people may absorb the Word of God and communicate with the Spirit.
When we pursue Christ, we pursue love. Until we are pursuing love we are not ready to desire the grace gifts. I have seen many pastors who had gifts for preaching and teaching – “For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:8) – but who stopped pursuing love. They continued to desire the effectiveness of teaching and preaching, perhaps out of habit or the need for employment or for their personal identity as a preacher, but because they ceased to pursue love they were tempted with pride. Some succumbed to temptations and gave into sins they never imagined they would commit. Why? It was because they reversed this process and placed their emphasis on the grace gifts rather than the knowledge of love.
This is applied in our passage also to tongues. If one pursues tongues for some personal reason – to have deeper feelings, to be like a spiritual mentor, as a misguided attempt to receive more blessings, to fit in and be accepted, or just out of curiosity – he falls into the same trap.
Pursue the gift to prophesy first: Prophesy is defined here as speaking edification, encouragement, and comfort to people (1 Cor. 14:3). The word is propheteuo and it means to declare the counsels of God. It is used more in the New Testament for “forth-telling” than “fore-telling,” and means today to faithfully proclaim the Word of God. This is the treasured gift that the church should desire.
Any of us can be and will be tempted with pride, so we need to be constantly on guard against it. One of my roommates in my younger days had a misunderstanding of the gift of tongues. Among some of the university students in the Christian organization we were involved in, he was admired for his natural gift of leadership and for a seemingly deep Christian walk. He became proud of his standing however, and began to privately teach other students how they could become “deeper Christians” by speaking in tongues. He drew several aside and distracted them from learning scripture, exercised a strange spiritual control over them, and taught them how to speak in tongues, he claimed. Eventually he dropped out of the Christian community, stopped going to church, but still enjoyed some reputation among others as a “spiritual person.” His followers followed him, out of the church, away from the Lord, into error.
Whatever we do we must seek the Lord first, the change in our character second, and then to be fit for service for Him. That is the divine order of these things.