Faith What Works

What Works: Building Up Others

In preparing to give a presentation on the structures of faith communities, I was just reading 1 Corinthians 12-14. You may, like me, be familiar with chapters 12 and 13 separately as two of the best-known passages from the Pauline letters. But I’d never put them together along with the following chapter. As a set, they say something very powerful, something which is already a guiding spiritual principle in my life: the essentialness of being of service, of being, at least some of the time, other-directed.

Chapter 12 contains the famous analogy between a community of believers and a body (the Body of Christ.) The word “member” previously referred only to a body part. Using it to mean a person in a group comes from this passage.

Paul lists the spiritual gifts — wisdom, knowledge, etc. — several different ways here, but that’s not what I want to talk about. (Perhaps I’ll get back to that closer to the Pentacost.) The point of the body analogy is to say we each have specific gifts to offer and we need each other’s gifts — complementary and interdependent:

If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? (1 Corinthians 12:17)

In the middle of this discussion of spiritual gifts and roles in the church, though, Paul pivots into his famous talk on the nature of love:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have 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 do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:1-7)

Like a musical instrument that isn’t played

A spiritual gift that serves only your own spiritual growth and isn’t shared in service to others is like a musical instrument laying on the ground unplayed. It’s not bad; but it isn’t fulfilling its nature.

You hear this passage all the time as a statement on the nature and importance of love. It’s a favorite at weddings. As well it should be. It’s poetic and, as a description of love, it can’t be improved on. It is one of my favorite and most treasured passages of scripture. (Heck, it’s on my Facebook profile and before that was on my Myspace and Friendster and LiveJournal profiles going back over a decade, as one of the defining quotes that guides me.)

But it is also part of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts and actions. In that context, the first part is not just a list of examples; it’s a follow-up on the previous chapter. Paul is saying spiritual gifts must be grounded in love or they’re useless. And he defines love as non-self-centered and non-self-seeking. The constant refrain in chapters 12-14 is “build up the church.” Paul says variations of this at least seven times. After the discussion of love, Paul kinda disses speaking in tongues.

Those who speak in a tongue build up themselves, but those who prophesy build up the church. Now I would like all of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:4-5)

Paul is saying spiritual gifts that help only you are OK, but ultimately not important unless they lead to building up others somehow. Personally this hits home about contemplation. If by bringing me closer to God, my contemplative practice makes me more helpful to the community, or if by sharing my knowledge of contemplation with others I help them grow closer to God, then that’s great. If my practice just improves my own spiritual state, though, while that’s OK, it’s ultimately empty if it doesn’t translate into my outward interactions.

To me, this is an answer to the “spiritual but not religious” focus on self-improvement. Why don’t we just pray and meditate at home alone? Why come together in worship? We come together to build each other up. By being other-directed in service to community, and by experiencing the love of others directed at us, we connect to the love which is God.

This selfless sharing of gifts is love, and that love is Christ among us. Paul says later in chapter 14, a spiritual gift that serves only your own spiritual growth and isn’t shared in service to others is like a musical instrument laying on the ground unplayed. It’s not bad; but it isn’t fulfilling its nature.

Are you being of service to others in your spiritual practice? Or do you keep it to yourself, like a musical instrument that no one gets to hear?