“And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).
Ever since I became a Christian, I often heard five important steps on how to grow in spiritual life. It has been emphasized that this is how one can excel towards spiritual maturity. The five steps are – prayer, bible study, church fellowship, tithing and witnessing. However, it was later I happened to learn that one could practice all these things and yet live an unspiritual and immature life. As important as they are, nowhere in the Holy Scripture do we find that these are the signs of spiritual maturity. What then is the sign of spiritual maturity?
The Important Ingredient
These days the Lord has been drawing my attention to ponder over the most significant ingredient of my life and ministry. It is something without which I cannot become spiritually mature. He has shown me how greatly I am missing and neglecting it in my life. I was convicted that my Christian life is shallow, my spirituality is a sham, my preaching is dead and my ministry is unproductive without excelling in this exceptional virtue. Indeed, I was enlightened to the fact that I cannot be a true disciple of Christ Jesus without this most important thing. What is it?
What I am sharing is not something new or mysterious. Almost everyone knows its importance and yet fail to live accordingly. It is something that is spoken and written about much but practiced and exemplified least. Now then, what do you think Paul would have answered if he were asked, “How to become a person of spiritual maturity?” He wrote to the Corinthians, “And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). What is the most excellent way to excel in spiritual life? It is LOVE. The Lord spoke to my heart that without love I can neither live a Christian life nor can I serve Him in His way. I have learned that I must not only be emphatic on God’s love towards me but also on my love toward others. I am reminded of the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 which describes the most excellent way of towards spiritual maturity. It is written:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
It is truly astounding to read what Paul wrote in the above Scripture, revealing what true spirituality is all about. I would certainly be amazed to hear someone speaking in the languages of men and angels. I would be moved in my spirit to hear someone prophesying. I would be fascinated to know a person who is full of knowledge and insights. I would be awed to see someone having faith that can move mountains. I would be greatly impressed to witness someone giving all he possesses to the poor. Well, these are spectacular deeds and any normal person would ascribe them to spiritual maturity. Yet Paul says that all these things are nothing and worthless without love.
I have observed that it is terrifyingly possible to perform amazing miracles, to prophesy accurately, pray fervently, preach and teach effectively, endure suffering, to work diligently, have strong faith, do good works and yet lack love, which writes me off still as spiritually immature. I may even possess great theological and practical knowledge but what does it profit if I do not have love. It is written, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). When the Holy Bible exhorts to “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15), how easy it is to passionately speak the truth, counter false teachings, answer tough questions and get puffed up without any love and concern for people!
An illiterate and unskillful person with love is much better than the most literate and genius without love. How deceptive it is to have a great reputation of being spiritually mature before others while being spiritually barren before God! A person who has the fruit of love is well pleased before God than the most gifted person. The impact of a loving person is much more fruitful and unforgettable than an ingenious person.
Description of Love
I have witnessed many times how quickly I can be deceived presuming myself to be loving towards others while neglecting to manifest its characteristics in my life. Having a good feeling toward others does not necessarily mean I am a loving person. Good works can also be done out of duty or pity than with genuine love. Disciplining others can be practiced out of fretful spirit than with a loving heart.
Moreover, I can even be a principle-centered and ethical person without any love. Anyone who claims to be loving must examine himself against the description presented by Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. This is the criterion by which spiritual maturity is measured.
Love is patient, i.e. it endures the weaknesses and differences of others.
Love is kind, i.e. it is tender and compassionate toward others.
Love does not envy, i.e. it is not jealous if someone is better but rejoices at the success of others.
Love does not boast, i.e. it is not pompous in its talk or boastful to give an appearance of ‘greatness’ but rather seeks to walk in humility.
Love is not proud, i.e. it does not consider itself better than others but rather honors others above itself.
Love is not rude, i.e. it is not harsh in its attitude, speech and behavior with others but rather gentle and gracious. It is mild and not wild. It is hard but not harsh, tough but not rough, strong but does no wrong.
Love is not self-seeking, i.e. it does not seek its own benefit alone in everything but rather concerns itself with being a blessing to others.
Love is not easily angered, i.e. it is not hot-tempered, short-tempered or reacts suddenly in an unpleasant manner but rather responds with patience.
Love keeps no record of wrongs, i.e. it does not harbor bitterness by reflecting on the hurt given by others but rather forgives them.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth, i.e. it does not compromise with sin and evil ways but always encourages, corrects and leads others in the path of truth.
Love always protects, i.e. it covers the sins of others and does not give itself to wayward gossip.
Love always trusts, i.e. it does not subject itself to foolish assumptions and false witnesses but rather trusts that which is true about others.
Love always hopes, i.e. it is not critical about others but rather hopes the best for them.
Love always perseveres, i.e. bears up the injuries of the heart caused by others without any retaliation.
Love never fails, i.e. it neither gives up nor does it end.
Honestly admitting, it is humanly impossible to live according to the above traits of love, yet with God nothing is impossible. He is able to conform us into His image if we allow Him to transform our lives. Paul exhorted, above all else, to eagerly desire this love in our lives (1 Cor. 12:31). Am I earnestly seeking to be filled with God’s love in my life? Am I desperately praying and making every effort to love others? Do I love others as much as I expect them to love me? Am I confessing my sin of unloving heart? “O Lord teach me to love others as you love me!”
As I contemplated on the splendor of love, I realized that love is not the priority of my life. I was passionate to do great things but not eager to love people. I was asking God to bless me, to fill me with His power and to use me mightily in His service but did not pray fervently to be filled with His love. I questioned myself, “What is my life and ministry if it is not built on love?” It is nothing and gains nothing. I would rather have love and have nothing than have everything and have not love.
I have keenly observed the difference between loving 'ministry’ and loving 'people’. Now I am learning, even though I am far from living up to its perfection, that living a Christian life and doing ministry is just loving people and serving them. I don’t want to do a ‘great’ ministry but a ‘loving’ ministry. Is this not what ministry is all about? Three times Jesus said to Peter, “If you truly love me then take care of my sheep” (John 20:15-17). In other words, “If you truly love me then love my people.” How hypocritical it is to do ministry without having love for the people!
I stood in awe when I read few Scriptures that pierced my heart. I may claim to believe in Christ; I may appear as a prominent person and known well for my achievements; I may claim to be a child and a servant of God; I may preach and teach mightily with excellent knowledge; I may claim to know God; I may have all the theological degrees and possess astounding knowledge about the doctrines of the Holy Bible; I may claim to have great experience in the ministry - yet if I do not have love, the Holy Scripture reveals seven penetrating facts just in one epistle.
a) If I do not love my brother and hate him, I am still in the darkness. It is written in 1 John 2:9-11:
Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him.
b) If I do not love my brother, my prayers are ineffective. It is written in 1 John 3:21-23:
We have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.
c) If I do not love my brother, I am not a child of God. It is written in 1 John 3:10:
This is how we know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
d) If I do not love my brother, I am not born of God. It is written in 1 John 4:7:
Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.
e) If I do not love my brother, I do not know God. It is written in 1 John 4:8:
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
f) If I do not love my brother, I do not live in God and God in me. It is written in 1 John 4:16:
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.
g) If I hate my brother rather than love him, I remain in death and do not have eternal life. It is written in 1 John 3:14-15:
We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death.
Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, let us stop hating and backbiting each other and start loving and help one another. Life is not about two perfect people walking together; it is about two imperfect people getting along together, encouraging, adjusting and helping each other on the way towards perfection. Paul warned the Galatians, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (5:14-16).
Mark of Christ’s Disciples
Well, I share this message with a broken heart. I know I cannot be a friend of Christ if I do not possess love. Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command” (Jn. 15:14). What is His command? It is written, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you” (Jn. 15:12).
I feel ashamed of my unloving life and am grateful to God for allowing me to see myself in His light so that I can become what He wants me to be. I may still fail many times in loving people but I trust in God’s ability to make me a person filled with His love. We don’t become a loving person overnight but blessed are those who hunger and thirst for love for they shall be completely filled and satisfied.
Jesus commanded His disciples in John 13:34-35, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, IF you love one another". The disciples of Christ Jesus are known not primarily by their appearance, knowledge, rituals, doctrines, preaching, skills and feats but by their LOVE for one another. Don’t we feel that great lack of love between one another? No doubt, I suppose, even the world feels that lack of love between one another among the professed disciples of Christ.
All of us are familiar with John 3:16 but most of us are ignorant about 1 John 3:16, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” Wonderful! John 3:16 speaks to us that Christ laid His life for us and 1 John 3:16 exhorts us that we have to lay our lives for our brothers.
The reason we are supposed to love our fellow brothers is because Christ loves us and laid His life for undeserving people like us. The major cause for us to fail in loving others is that we try to love them because of who they are rather than as a response to God’s love for us. May we repent of our sin and learn to walk and grow in LOVE for each other. Life is worthless without Christ’s love flowing in and through us.
“O Lord, have mercy on me and help me to know you and share about you by enabling me to walk in love!”