The clear teaching of the New Testament is that God gives spiritual gifts to the church for the common good of the saints (1 Corinthians 12:7) and to empower her mission to evangelize the world (Luke 24:48–49; Acts 4:29–31; 1 Corinthians 14:24–25).
The most familiar lists of these gifts are in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. But the Corinthians list includes the most controversial gifts of the Spirit: healing, miracles, prophecy, tongues and their interpretation (1 Corinthians 12:9–10).
And it’s in the context of teaching on these gifts — particularly the two most controversial gifts, prophecy and tongues — that Paul twice tells us to “earnestly desire” them, adding, “especially that [we] may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:1). He leaves us no room to wiggle out of pursuing uncomfortable gifts.
I know that some wonderful, sincere Christians believe that these most controversial gifts did not extend beyond the closing of the New Testament canon. I am not here going to argue for the gifts’ continuation. Some of the resources listed at the end address that. I assume what the Holy Spirit-inspired New Testament authors assumed: The spiritual gifts would function in healthy, Holy Spirit-empowered churches until Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 13:9–12).
The questions I want to address are why should we desire these gifts and how should we pursue them?
Because the Bible Commands Us To
The most fundamental reason we should desire these gifts is that the Bible commands us to: “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts.” Paul says this in the same sentence he says, “pursue love” (1 Corinthians 14:1). Both are Holy Spirit-inspired imperatives.
No one disputes that we should continue to love one another. There is no command that is clearer in the New Testament (John 15:12). But neither would anyone dispute that loving one another is very hard. Love may not be controversial in the church, but its demands are very intimidating and it is often manipulated and abused.
Likewise the spiritual gifts are intimidating, some even strange, and all of them can too be manipulated and abused. All spiritual gifts are potentially dangerous, even the less controversial ones (think of the damage done by false teachers and deceptive administrators).
In a sense, handling spiritual gifts is like handling dynamite — dynamis is the Greek word for “power” often used when referring to the Holy Spirit. When used rightly the gifts are explosively loving. When used wrongly they are explosively destructive. It’s tempting not to use them at all.
The early Christians also felt this way after damaging experiences. That’s why Paul had to say things like, “do not forbid speaking in tongues,” “do not quench the Spirit,” and “do not despise prophecies” (1 Corinthians 14:39; 1 Thessalonians 5:19–20). It was tempting to not use these messy gifts.
But in commanding us to pursue love and to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, the Bible commands us to handle dangerous things. And they are commands. Neither were options in Paul’s mind and they should not be in ours either. God has purposes for these gifts that make them more than worth the danger.
Because Spiritual Gifts Are Given to Help Us Love One Another
Pursuing love and desiring spiritual gifts are not disconnected. These gifts are given to the church to help us love one another. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul explains that each Christian is a unique member of Christ’s body and therefore each has a unique function and receives unique gifts that benefits the “common good” of the body (1 Corinthians 12:7, 12, 29–30).
The Spirit doesn’t give us gifts in order that each of us gets our self-important moment in the spotlight. He gives us gifts so that for the greater glory of Christ we are able to pursue love through serving one another. This way no one is to think that he is not needed or that he doesn’t need anyone else (1 Corinthians 12:15, 21). The more honorable members have no place to boast and the less honorable members have no place for shame (1 Corinthians 12:22–26).
Love is the aim of the spiritual gifts. It is possible to possess and exercise impressive spiritual gifts without love. If we do, we are “nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).
But it’s also true that if we neglect any particular spiritual gift, if we don’t earnestly desire and pursue them, we will neglect some aspect of love and so fail to glorify Christ. Some kind of edification will not happen. We need the Spirit’s empowerment to strengthen the saints and see unsaved people “delivered . . . from the domain of darkness and transferred . . . to the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).
We are to earnestly desire the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 as a means to pursue the love Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13.
What Does Earnestly Desiring Spiritual Gifts Look Like?
Earnestly desiring the spiritual gifts looks like desiring them.
For the most part, the Bible is not a how-to manual. It holds out treasure to us and bids us to seek it out (Proverbs 2:4–5). Desire is the test, for desire fuels the quest. That is a key to understanding much in the Bible.
What do you do when you really want something? You don’t wait around for someone to deliver it nicely packaged, fully assembled, and ready-to-use. You go looking for it. You start asking questions of knowledgeable people. You read and watch and listen to a lot of information. You ask, seek, and knock (Matthew 7:7). If you really, really want it, you consider it worth the hard work of figuring things out and working till you get it.
That’s what earnestly desiring spiritual gifts looks like. But here are a few things for starters:
Begin with the Bible. Soak in 1 Corinthians 12–14, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4. Read the book of Acts over and over until it ruins you for your worldly comfort and pursuits and fuels your desire to experience the reality of the kingdom you read there.
Pray. If you’re ruined for anything less than knowing the fullness of the Spirit and seeing the kingdom of God advance, your discontent and desperation will drive you to pray the kind of prayers the Lord loves to answer.
Consume Sound Teaching and Testimonies. These will fuel your desire as well as increase your knowledge. Below I’ve listed some helpful resources, but type “Spiritual Gifts” into our search box and you’ll discover a lot more. And read and listen to men like Sam Storms, Wayne Grudem, D.A. Carson, Tope Koleoso, and Terry Virgo who skillfully handle the Word and are personally experienced in the spiritual gifts.
Meet a Need. The spiritual gifts are not fireworks for our oohs and aahs. They are mainly given as means to extend love and the grace of God to others. Taking steps for the sake of Christ to love others whose needs extend beyond our capacities puts us (and them) squarely in the path of God’s grace. When we’ve asked God to help us walk on water, we must then get out of the boat.