There were several topics in my writing queue this week, but what I was moved to blog about today came spontaneously from a conversation yesterday with my dear friend Charla. She was telling me how touched she was by the new movie about Mr. Rogers, and how inspired by the anointing of kindness and love that was so evident in the man. She couldn’t hold back tears as we talked about the power in that kind of essential goodness and gentleness, and I heard myself utter the title of this post: Power is not a fruit of the Spirit.
Among the qualities that believers are instructed to pursue, being powerful is not one of them. Power might be a side effect of our pursuit of peace (1 Pet. 3:11), righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness (1 Tim 6:11), but it is not the goal. Love is the overarching goal of all spiritual practice.
The primacy of love is a foundational New Testament truth. 1 Corinthians 13 is the most thorough and concise definition of the love of God that “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (v. 17). Often this passage is recited at weddings to celebrate the centrality of love in the bond of marriage. But to use the Scripture in this way takes it out of context; Chapter 13 is sandwiched amidst some other very substantive chapters. In my many years of church attendance hearing hundreds of sermons, I haven’t heard a preacher discuss why these transcendent, ineffable truths are placed where they are in the flow of Paul’s discourse.
The Corinthians had it going on. They lived in a robust, diverse, and cosmopolitan city at the crossroads of the trading routes of the day. It was a center for Greco-Roman scholarship, entertainment, athletic competition, wealth, art, and philosophical debate. The pagan citizenry was caught up in the Greek glorification of knowledge and aesthetics. Sound familiar?
Into this environment entered the transforming influence of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and a vibrant Christian church was established. Paul knew that this urban church would exert a wide influence upon the smaller bodies nearby, just as large urban churches today carry a lot of influence. He wanted to bring correction to some errors in their spiritual practices in hope that they would come to greater maturity.
These Christ-followers appeared to be devoted to God and rich in the spiritual gifts that came with their new birth in Christ. They were practicing and applying spiritual power, sometimes in harmony with the teachings of Christ and sometimes in a more carnal fashion. Like all of us, they had to learn how to “shine as lights in a corrupt culture” (Phil 2:15). They were not lacking in knowledge or zeal. What the Apostle Paul confronted throughout his letter was their lack of love.
I see this letter from Paul as a discipleship manual. Do’s and don’ts of church life. Paul starts by affirming them in a general way. Then he rebukes them for their divisiveness and sectarian conflicts, their worldliness, their disrespect for God’s appointed leaders, and for engaging in and tolerating blatant sexual immorality within the church. He accuses them of litigiousness, instability in their marriages, and disregard for the vulnerability of weaker members to the idol worship all around them.
Paul points out their need to live disciplined lives and to show generosity, and to partake in the Lord’s supper reverently. He even expounds on God’s eternal care and concern for the apostate Jewish people. All of Paul’s arguments are centered on the principle that when there is a choice between walking in love for others and any competing motivation, love must always win. We are indeed our brother’s and our sister’s keeper when we are members of the body of Christ.
The brilliance of Corinthians 12 still captivates me each time I read it. There is one Spirit, and one gift of spirit, and various ways that Spirit speaks, moves, and changes things as Christians fellowship and worship together. There are ways that Spirit manifests through individuals for the benefit of everyone, and each person’s contribution to the whole is vital to the proper functioning of the whole.
Then there’s Chapter 13, which expounds poetically on the truth that all of those beautiful manifestations of God’s Spirit avail nothing if they are practiced outside of the ethic of love.
Following this, Paul provides in Chapter 14 very practical instruction in the proper use of prophecy, tongues, and tongues with interpretation, so that when practiced in church meetings, they would bring edification, exhortation, and comfort to all in attendance. Church members should be constantly looking for ways of making everyone else better, stronger, wiser. To be sure that all who come in know that they are loved and feel that they are loved. It’s not about being powerful; It’s about being Christlike.
Power and growth happen when we pursue the fruit of love.
Thank you, Mr. Rogers, for modeling this sublime truth.