All Spiritual, All Practical
1 Corinthians 14:1-25
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. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.
Now, brothers and sisters, if I come to you and speak in tongues, what good will I be to you, unless I bring you some revelation or knowledge or prophecy or word of instruction? Even in the case of lifeless things that make sounds, such as the pipe or harp, how will anyone know what tune is being played unless there is a distinction in the notes? Again, if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle? So it is with you. Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. Undoubtedly there are all sorts of languages in the world, yet none of them is without meaning. If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me. So it is with you. Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.
For this reason the one who speaks in a tongue should pray that they may interpret what they say. For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays, but my mind is unfruitful. So what shall I do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. Otherwise when you are praising God in the Spirit, how can someone else, who is now put in the position of an inquirer, say “Amen” to your thanksgiving, since they do not know what you are saying? You are giving thanks well enough, but no one else is edified.
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you. But in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.
Brothers and sisters, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults. In the Law it is written:
“With other tongues
and through the lips of foreigners
I will speak to this people,
but even then they will not listen to me,
says the Lord.”
Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is not for unbelievers but for believers. So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? But if an unbeliever or an inquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!”
Summer. A mountaintop in Taiwan. Tropical heat sticking my shirt to my back. Children’s gospel camp, nothing like VBS back home. My parents had signed me up as a camp counselor without my knowledge or consent and now here I was, surrounded by kids, while a woman with a megaphone instructed them on how to pray in tongues. “Just open your mouth,” she said. A few minutes of awkward silence passed and—would you believe it—a sound rose from the throats of these sweaty rural children, a strange noise like gurgling water. I put my head on my knees. It was so hot and I was so tired. “God,” I prayed, “I don’t know what’s going on. But I’m here. Where are you?”
When I woke up I was on the ground with my cheek pressed against the floor. A minute could have passed, or a hundred. Somebody asked if I was all right. They assumed I had swooned in the Spirit but maybe I had just taken a much-needed nap? Anyway, I felt great.
The children were invited to share what they had experienced. After some coaxing, one boy of about six stood and wobbled to the front. The woman held the megaphone to his mouth.
“I saw Jesus,” he said. He had a lisp.
“Praise God!” murmured the adults.
“A poop monster came to fight him.” Eruptions of giggles from the children. The boy continued, enboldened: “The poop monster threw poop at Jesus!” The lady took the megaphone away and the new most popular kid at camp sat back down.
In today’s passage Paul writes, I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding. It’s a symmetry I’ve rarely seen achieved. Either they pray in tongues like rushing water or they tell stories of poop monsters for their friends’ amusement. Either it was a swoon or it was a nap. But can’t it be—isn’t it usually—both? We don’t stop being attention-seeking or tired when God shows up, and the presence of our weaknesses doesn’t mean He’s not there.
Paul takes spiritual gifts, which in our cultural context can seem mysterious, even mystical, and talks about them as if he were advising about the proper way to collect the offering or set up chairs for service. You’d expect such a passage to be much more exalted in tone, but it’s not. In fact, Paul seems unimpressed. He cuts straight to the practical benefits of the spiritual gifts.
I take heart at this. The spiritual gifts are wonderful, and I hope one day to witness and experience more, but they, like the proper collection of offering and setup of the chairs, are to be useful in edifying the church and witnessing to newcomers. No matter what cultural context, hemisphere, or era you’re in, every church can aim for that.