Do you ever wonder what will enhance your spiritual growth and discipleship? (And if you’d bother reading a blog like this, then I suspect the answer is, “Yes.”) When I think about my own questions in this area, I realize that a lot of my attention ends up being focused on myself: What do I need to understand better? What do I need to practice more diligently? What do I need to change in order to walk more faithfully with Christ? And while I’m these types of questions do have their place, today’s New Testament lesson invites me to consider the notion that they might be misdirected.
The Apostle Paul was writing to the church at Corinth — a congregation that apparently included many people who cared deeply about spiritual growth. But in their eagerness to advance in the Christian life, they bypassed the reality that the ultimate goal of such growth was not to enrich themselves but to bless others. And so, Paul said to them:
Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy…Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. (1 Corinthians 14:1-5; 12)
Now, I don’t quote those words in order to make any of us think, “Gee, maybe I ought to learn how to be more prophetic.” After all, we’re talking “gifts” of the Spirit here, and the Bible makes it clear that God gives those as He sees fit. But I do think these words reveal a principle that rests at the heart of all truly Christian growth: The point is others. If we learn more about the Bible, it’s not so that we can feel confident about our wisdom and understanding, but so that we can offer God’s counsel and encouragement to others. If we deepen our prayer life, it’s not so that we can experience “spiritual thrills and chills,” but so that we can lift others into God’s presence. If we develop our faith, or generosity, or patience, it’s not ultimately so that we can be “better people,” but so that we can become the kind of people through whom others are made better.
And none of that should surprise us, of course. Earlier in this letter Paul said: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). And in the gospels, Jesus said: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).
As a pastor, one of my deep desires is that every member of my church family will grow spiritually. But even as I pray and labor toward that end, I hope we never forget that the true goal of such growth is sharing God’s kingdom embrace: with each other — and with so many others around us who need to know and experience the truth of God’s love.
May we walk that path today — and be continually open to the ways that God wants to use us to be a blessing.