Pendulum swings and reactionary fears: this is how I would describe my first few years of pastoral ministry.
I grew up in a Pentecostal church, where I was exposed to the “sign” gifts (tongues, prophecy, healing) from an early age. So their open practice was normal to me. I feel a profound sense of gratitude for this history. It allowed me to see God working through the gifts in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.
This exposure to charismatic practice continued into my teenage years. During this time, though, my perspective on the gifts began to be challenged by what I perceived as their misuse.
In his kindness, the Lord used these experiences to prompt a theological metamorphosis. He led me to men who were teaching the Bible like I’d never heard it taught before. Scripture changed from grainy black and white to brilliant colors. And, above all, the gospel became clear to me.
This metamorphosis included baggage and misunderstandings. In a state of reactionary immaturity, I began to consider all charismatic expression with doubt and caution. For a brief time I considered cessationism. The theological pendulum was swinging. I eventually adopted the language that I heard other young Reformed pastors use about charismatic gifts within the church: “open but cautious.”
I have now come to believe I was wrong to think this way. I no longer want to be open but cautious; I want to be eager and wise. The primary reason for my change is Paul’s command: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Cor. 14:1).
I no longer want to be open but cautious; I want to be eager and wise.
Paul’s words could not be clearer. He not only tells us what to pursue (all spiritual gifts, especially prophecy), but also how (with earnestness and for the purpose of loving others). This passage became the death knell to my open-but-cautious perspective. I’ll explain why.
‘Open’ Implies Passivity
Paul does not advocate for mere openness toward the gifts; he commands the eager and earnest pursuit of them. As children of God, we do not approach his commands with a passive open-mindedness. Instead, we pursue them with Spirit-empowered tenacity.
Being open to the practice of spiritual gifts is not enough—in the same way that being open to hearing God in Scripture is not enough or being open to sexual purity is not enough. We must pursue these qualities if we are to experience them as God intended.
Paul’s command in Corinthians became the death knell to my open-but-cautious perspective.
We cannot reject the means of grace and still expect to obey the God of all grace.
Paul makes it clear that an eager pursuit is the means by which God has ordained us to experience and receive spiritual gifts. As with any God-ordained means, we cannot reject the road and expect to reach the destination. A passive openness to charismatic gifts is a rejection of the means God has ordained for receiving them.
‘Cautious’ Implies Danger
As a Christian, I believe God graciously gives good gifts to his children. And I believe he still gives the sign gifts to his children.
This led me to a startling question that moved me to repent. When I said I was cautious about some of my Father’s gifts, what did this communicate about my Father? In a sense, I believed some of his gifts are inherently dangerous. I believed that, if I was not hyper-vigilant, my Father’s gifts would harm someone.
As children of God, we must not approach our Father’s good gifts with fearful caution. Instead, we must approach them with the kind of joy children have when they bound down the stairs on Christmas morning.
Caution is not the attitude children have toward their Father’s generous gifts.
You Need a Channel, Not a Seatbelt
That said, how do we guard against the abuse of spiritual gifts?
This is an incredibly important question. The abuse of spiritual gifts is real and serious and pervasive. It was real in Corinth, as 1 Corinthians make clear. And it is real today (some of my adolescent experiences make this clear).
In his kindness, our Father has given us instructions on how to guard against the abuse of the gifts he calls us to seek. What is this safeguard? Love—a sacrificial love that seeks to build the body (1 Cor. 12:24–26; 12:31–13:1).
During my open-but-cautious years, I sometimes described myself as “charismatic with a seatbelt.” In my mind, the love of 1 Corinthians 13 was the seatbelt that kept the inherently dangerous force of charismatic expression from sending me through the theological windshield. Love served as a sort of a counterbalance to the exercise of charismatic gifts.
God has opened my eyes to the folly of this false dichotomy.
I do not need to be protected from my Father’s gifts. I need to be guided in how to use them properly. Love is not a seatbelt that guards against inherent danger. It’s a channel that guides the flow of a good and glorious river.
I do not need to be protected from my Father’s gifts. I need to be guided in how to use them properly.
This is (at least partly) why Paul calls love the “superior way” (1 Cor. 12:31). It’s superior because it governs. It’s a channel through which all our charismatic expression flows. It’s a lens through which we see a world in need of the gifts. It’s wisdom through which we bring his gifts to bear on the body.
This is what I mean by eager and wise.
Without Wisdom, Noisy Gongs
I want to seek the gifts with unfettered eagerness and joy, while simultaneously seeking how to exercise the gifts in the way Scripture demands: through self-sacrifice and strengthening the body of Christ.
Without such wisdom, after all, we will be noisy gongs and clanging cymbals (1 Cor. 13:1). We will gain the gifts but have no lasting effect on the body of Christ or the world at large.
Without the governing channel of loving wisdom, there will be no Spirit-empowered, life-giving river. There will only ever be a stagnant, self-serving charismatic swamp.
This is why I want to be both eager and wise in my pursuit and exercise of all spiritual gifts.