Envy, Pride, and Spiritual Gifts (3)
We’re now ready to look at the second remedy Paul prescribes to help heal the body of Christ of a disease in which some of its members are persuaded they are useless to everyone else.
(2) Paul’s response to those of you who feel useless in the church is to say that your way of thinking is a denial of and a rebellion against the wisdom and goodness of God himself. I know that sounds harsh, and someone might say, “Sam, you shouldn’t say things like that to people who feel useless, because it will only add to their misery. Now, in addition to feeling useless, they also feel guilty!”
Or think of it this way. The person who feels useless might say, “Hey, I never said I wanted the whole body to be an eye or an ear. I realize a properly functioning body needs ears and a nose and hands and feet and knee-caps and knuckles and the like. I’m not questioning that. I’m just saying that I don’t like being what I am. I want to be something different. I want to be like someone else.”
To which Paul responds in v. 18 by saying, “But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”
Paul isn’t being insensitive. He’s not trying to add guilt to feelings of uselessness. He’s simply pointing out that you and I need to trust God when it comes to who we are and how we function in the body of Christ. We need to trust his wisdom and his goodness and rest calmly and confidently that what he has done is for our best interests individually and for the church’s best interests corporately.
When you say, “I’m useless, I’m of no help to anyone, the church would probably be better off without me even being here,” you aren’t defying other members of the body. You are defying God. You are challenging his goodness and greatness and wisdom in setting the body in place as he has chosen to do.
Look back at 1 Corinthians 12:4-6, especially v. 6b. Whatever gifts there are, and whoever has which, it was God “who empowers them all in everyone” (v. 6b).
By the way, v. 18 brings up the same problem that Paul addressed in v. 11. In v. 11 he said that the Spirit “apportions to each one individually as he wills.” In other words, whatever gifts we end up receiving, whatever ministries or expressions of service in the church in which we succeed and do well, this was God’s doing, not ours. It was his decision, not ours.
The same point is now being made in slightly different terms here in v. 18.
But if both v. 11 and v. 18 are saying that God, through the Spirit, chooses or wills who gets what when it comes to spiritual gifts, why would we ever pray or ask God for other gifts?
Let me put it in slightly different terms, using Paul’s own words to do so. In 1 Corinthians 14:1 Paul says, “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy.” Later on, in 14:13, he says, “Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray for the power to interpret. Then again in v. 39 Paul says, “earnestly desire to prophesy.”
But if God is the one who wills or chooses which gifts we are to have, why are we to pray for, seek after, or pursue them?
First, just because you may want additional gifts beyond the gift or gifts you already have does not necessarily mean you are ungrateful for what you’ve got or that the gift you now have is useless. I’m very happy and grateful for all that God has done in my life up until now, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want him to do more. It doesn’t mean I’m neglecting or forgetting about all he’s already done.
Second, God implements his will by changing ours. Or again, one of the ways that accomplishes what he desires is by awakening in us a desire for the same thing. If God chooses or wills to impart the gift of mercy to you, he likely will work in your heart to want it. If God chooses or wills to bestow a teaching gift in you or the gift of prophecy or leadership, he will probably stir your heart to feel the need for it and produce in you a longing for those particular gifts. Your desire for a particular gift is thus the means by which God goes about fulfilling his own will in your life.
So let me say this to those of you who may not have gifts that will bring you into the limelight or place you on a platform or put a microphone in your hand. I have in mind those with the gift of service or mercy or encouragement or giving. People may not see you, but God does. You may not feel helpful, but you are indispensable. You may not be acknowledged or praised, but your value to the body is immeasurable, and God will reward you in the age to come.
Now remember, in the first article in this series I said there are two potential diseases or afflictions or injuries in the body of Christ that threaten it. The first was a feeling of uselessness that typically leads to envy. We now come to the second.
Paul also describes people at the other end of the spectrum with an entirely different disease. It isn’t that they feel useless. Far from it. They feel utterly superior and self-sufficient. If some say, “You don’t need me; I’m useless,” the others say, “I don’t need you; I can do it on my own.” That’s the problem that Paul focuses on in vv. 21-26.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together (1 Corinthians 12:21-26.)
So, if the problem in vv. 14-20 was self-pity (and envy), the problem in vv. 21-26 is self-sufficiency (and pride). Some people in the church feel dispensable, while others are elitist.
Paul’s language here is difficult to unpack. Although I can’t be sure, I think Paul is referring to our internal organs. They “seem” to be less important, but only because we can’t see them. They do not function out in the open. Yet all would agree that the body can’t survive or function without them.
Also, the “less honorable” or “unpresentable” body parts are probably a veiled reference to one’s sexual organs. They are treated with greater honor in that they are clothed or adorned for modesty’s sake. Paul’s point is simply that you can’t draw any conclusions about whether or not a body part is important or valuable based on its external appearance, whether it be clothed or unclothed. Some body parts that might appear to be weak and unpresentable, we treat with extraordinary care. Other body parts that appear important are not given much attention.
God’s aim in this is simply that there be no division in the church based on who has what gift!
God’s aim, instead, is that all members of a local body care equally one for another. The body is a unity. Each part should care for and attend to every other part.
Paul concludes his argument in vv. 27-31 by making the forceful point that no one spiritual gift is intended for all Christians. His point is that God doesn’t want everyone to be an apostle. He doesn’t want all to be prophets or all to be teachers or all to speak in tongues.
Note that the questions asked in vv. 29-30 are written in such a way that a negative answer is expected. A more literal rendering would be:
“All are not apostles, are they? [No]”
“All are not prophets, are they? [No]” Etc.
Rather, God has appointed some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be teachers, and so on. And whatever appointment or assignment you have received from God, you need to know that you are a vital part or member of the body. Don’t wallow in self-pity because you don’t have the gifts that someone else does. And don’t exalt yourself in pride that because of the gifts you do have that you don’t need others to help you grow in Christ.
In conclusion: Let’s take note of the various listing of spiritual gifts throughout the NT. There is considerable overlap between several of the lists.
1 Corinthians 12:8-10
Word of Wisdom
Word of Knowledge
Gifts of Healings
Working of Miracles
Discerning of Spirits
Interpretation of Tongues
1 Corinthians 12:28-30
Gifts of healings
Interpretation of tongues
Teacher (or Pastor-Teacher)
1 Peter 4:10
There are approximately 20 gifts that may be identified from these lists. But we have no reason to think that these are exhaustive. What about intercession, interpretation of dreams, deliverance, etc.?
Paul closes 1 Corinthians 12 with the exhortation that we are to “earnestly desire the higher gifts.” But to do so to the neglect of love is perhaps the worst sickness that a local church can possibly experience. So take a moment and prayerfully meditate once again on the so-called “love” chapter, 1 Corinthians 13.