I have never wanted to be an air traffic controller, not even slightly. But I was strangely disturbed when my eye caught this ad in the classifieds: “Career opportunities in air traffic control. No experience necessary; we will train you. MUST BE UNDER 32 YEARS OF AGE.” Why should I care (even though I am thirty-eight)? This ad is absolutely irrelevant to me. And yet—here is one more door I will never open, one more piece of evidence that my opportunities in life are dwindling. I felt like calling the FAA and saying, “What’s wrong with thirty-eight-year-olds? Do we have so little working life left that we are no longer worth investing time in?” How can I be over the hill already? I haven’t gotten started yet!
Everyone has a God-given desire to be significant. Many of us place our hopes for fulfilling that desire in our work. We want our work to say something good about us; we want the world (including ourselves) to look at what we have done and marvel, or at least approve. In my youth I loved hearing stories about famous performers and how they first “hit it big,” savoring that moment when a stunned audience realized, “My God, this kid is great,” and broke into frenzied applause. Now I have a different reaction. When I hear how Leonard Bernstein wrote his first Broadway score at twenty-five, I try to cultivate a certain desperate indifference. Too many of my youthful fantasies are never going to come true, and I can’t enjoy those stories anymore.
Our desire for significant work leaves us vulnerable to these emotions. We hope and dream we can find work that is “us,” that fits our skills and fulfills our need to feel valuable. If those dreams don’t come true, we can feel disappointed and cheated. If they do come true, they often don’t fulfill us the way we hoped. Sooner or later almost any other road looks better than the one we are on. These feelings are typically associated with the “midlife crisis,” but they can happen any time. They have happened to me in cycles throughout my life. They are among the strongest trials of my faith.
God must have something to say to us about these things. Our desire for significant work is strong, but so is His love for us. Why doesn’t that love lead Him more often to bless Christians with overwhelmingly satisfying jobs? Why should we who are deep in God’s favor ever face a midlife crisis at all? What we need is God’s perspective on the lives He has given us. I find that perspective eloquently stated in a surprising place: I Corinthians 12-13. Hidden away in these well-known chapters is a sermon for people struggling with their role in life. This is the sermon I am going to preach to myself when my next midlife crisis comes.
The Gifts and the Calling of God
I Corinthians 13 is one of the most famous passages in the Bible. Having seen it on the cover of countless flowery greeting cards, both Christians and non-Christians know it for its exalted picture of love. We don’t as often hear Paul’s message in the context of his letter to the Corinthians. “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels . . .” is elegant language, but it also tells us much about Paul’s purpose in writing; “speaking in tongues” is, in fact, the topic of chapters 12 through 14. The Corinthians were preoccupied with the gifts of the Spirit, especially tongues. Tongues were like a divine stamp of approval. The person whose mouth had been so obviously overpowered by the Spirit of God must be extremely spiritual; those who didn’t have this gift—well, they were not quite what they should be.
Tongues, however, were not the real issue. What mattered to Paul were the misplaced values that led the Corinthians to prize tongues so highly. Gifts of the Spirit are God’s way of giving Christians different roles in the life of the church and the world. Through a combination of skills, interests, and circumstances, God calls each of us to live unique lives. Paul is trying to reorient the Corinthians’ thinking about their own value and the value of their work. The principles Paul brings out are relevant to much more than just gifts like tongues and prophecy; they say much about how we understand our own roles in life, whether in the body of Christ, in our families, or on the job.
A Question of Values
Imagine someone who foolishly set out to be a snob. He decides he is only going to associate with the most elite members of society. Unfortunately for him, he decides to measure people’s status by how many paper clips they have. He throws elegant black-tie dinners for compulsive paper clip hoarders. Naturally, this gets him nowhere; he is rejected by his old friends for being a snob, and ignored by the jet-set for being weird. He has a double problem in his values and a double lesson to learn: wealth does not make a person valuable, and paper clips do not make a person wealthy.
The Corinthians had the same value problem, which Paul addresses in I Corinthians 12. On the one hand, they were spiritual snobs. God never intended us to judge each other by our roles. He designed us to be differently and unequally gifted. He likes us doing different things. But a deeper unity transcends our different functions:
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. . . . If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. . . . God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. (12:13-25)
All Christians have the same Spirit at work in them and the same glorious inheritance. If we evaluate each other by our accomplishments, we have missed the point; we are heirs together of a great kingdom, which fills each of our lives with the same meaning and hope. Every Christian you meet, including the one who looks back at you from the mirror, is among the richest and most significant people who ever lived. We belong to each other, no matter what job God has given us.
On the other hand, like the weird snob, the Corinthians placed the highest value on the “paper clips” among the spiritual gifts: speaking in tongues. We shouldn’t evaluate each other by our gifts, but that doesn’t mean that all gifts are equally valuable:
Earnestly desire the greater gifts. (12:31)
One who speaks in a tongue edifies himself; but one who prophesies edifies the church. (14:4)
Any gift, like prophecy, that contributes to the teaching and building up of the church is more valuable than speaking in tongues. How would the world have been changed if there were one fewer tongues-speaker in it? Hardly at all. How would the world have been changed if there were one fewer apostle Paul in it? Immeasurably. God gave Paul one of the most important jobs in the history of the world. Apostles, prophets, servants, teachers, the generous, the merciful: these roles make a significant difference to God’s people.
In the midst of our own identity struggles, we are apt to become paper clip snobs ourselves. First we become snobs: comparing ourselves with others, gauging the significance of our own skills and activities in light of everyone else’s. But God has called us to see each other and ourselves in a new light. Christians are citizens of a great kingdom, and that citizenship confers all the dignity anyone will ever need. At the same time, we foolishly go lusting after paper clips. Our standards of measurement go askew so easily. Fame is nice, financial security is nice, pleasant tasks and surroundings are nice, but other things are more important. Any job that gives us the opportunity to serve the kingdom of God is an important job. Any chance to be kind or to encourage each other or to trust God in the midst of trials gives the events of my life a real significance. To want to do something significant is not wrong; God wants that for us as well. Spiritual gifts are called “gifts,” “graces,” because letting us do meaningful work is gracious and kind of God. But in a world like ours such desires can fog our minds. We shouldn’t let the world tell us the worth of our job, and we shouldn’t let our job tell us the worth of ourselves.
The Things that Pass Away
The first part of I Corinthians 13 is easy to understand:
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. . . . Love is patient, love is kind, and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant . . . bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (13:1-4)
Love is superior to any spiritual gift. Paul describes the inestimable qualities of love, and both Christians and non-Christians embrace it as one of the great statements about this elusive virtue. But I do not want to concentrate on verses 1-4. (This may be the first article ever written on I Corinthians 13 that doesn’t concentrate on love!) Paul’s argument in the rest of the chapter is more difficult and depends entirely on Christian premises. Non-Christians, if they understood it, would have to dismiss the last part of I Corinthians 13 as pie-in-the-sky nonsense. For those who have put their faith in Christ, however, this passage can put our lives powerfully in perspective. For that reason, it is among my favorite passages in the Bible. Paul starts this section:
Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. (13:8)
Paul concludes his list of love’s qualities with “love never fails.” He does not mean that people who love never make mistakes; “fail” here means to cease, to disappear, to go away. Paul is making a comparison: “Love never fails, but prophecy will be done away…” This section contrasts that which is done away and that which is not. The opposite of “to fail” or “to be done away” is “to remain, abide.” In the last verse Paul tells us what “remains”: “But now remain faith, hope, love . . .” The contrast between “being done away” and “remaining” is common and natural. Paul uses it to contrast the law and the gospel in II Corinthians 3:11: “For if that which is done away with was with glory, that which remains is in glory.” These words capture the contrast between the transitory and the eternal, the temporary and the permanent. Paul’s argues that most things (including the roles God gives us in this life) are temporary and insignificant compared with the things of abiding importance.
Gifts of prophecy, tongues, knowledge, all these things will be done away. How they will be done away is the most important part of Paul’s argument:
For we know in part, and we prophesy in part; but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I used to speak as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. (13:9-11)
Paul is not saying that knowledge will disappear; he is saying it will be completed. Today we are like children; our efforts at knowledge and understanding are in their infancy. My two-year-old daughter can’t read or cut her own meat, but I don’t curse God for the injustice He has done her. I know one day she will be an adult. When she is thirty-eight what will it matter whether she learned to talk when she was one or two, whether she was precocious or slow? What will it matter how many of us had the right eschatology after Jesus returns?
To devalue knowledge may seem strange for a teacher! Don’t misunderstand; I think knowledge is a great gift from God. Paul wouldn’t value the gifts of teaching so highly if he didn’t think there was real value in learning. But the issue is how we feel about the level of knowledge (or whatever) that God has given us now. If we insist on evaluating ourselves and others based on knowledge, we will always look bad. None of us can claim our understanding to be very impressive; there is always so much more to know. And God has gifted us unequally in this area, as in many areas. But this is all right; we can relax. God knows what He is doing, and one day everyone is going to grow up.
God has decided for His own good reasons that in this age of the world we all will differ in our understanding and tasks. Some have been called to speak the word of God as prophets, while many receive no prophetic words. Some have been given insight into the Scriptures, while others puzzle through them all their lives. Some are wonderfully gifted at dealing with hurting people, while others stumble their clumsy way through every relationship. Each of us is incomplete; God made us like this. But this is only our childhood. One day we will be fully grown. Everyone will understand fully. Everyone will know God intimately. Every lack in this age will be filled up in the age to come.
So it is no tragedy if my career has not turned out the way I would like. The midlife crisis is a panic about a lie. The picture of childhood fantasies going forever unfulfilled is a false one. Childhood is not over, even if I am a senior citizen. No Christian is over the hill; that hill is huge, and none of us is anywhere near the top. God’s gifts serve a temporary purpose in this passing age. They are good, they are important, but they are only the beginning. I could live contentedly with no gifts, with no role to play in this age at all, if I could rest assured that I will grow up into all the fullness God has promised.
The picture Paul paints is essential for understanding the reality of our own lives, but it is not an easy perspective to maintain. Christians constantly face the pressure of worldliness. I don’t mean we want to play cards and go to movies all day, but that we are tempted to think the world we see from day to day is the only reality. I have been told, and I believe, that the kingdom of heaven is like the most valuable pearl, but every day of my life the world yells in my ear, “Money talks; look out for number one; go for the gusto,” and other convincing lies. To which voice do I listen? All things that Christians most value are invisible. The central struggle of the Christian life is to believe in those invisible realities enough for them to give us hope and color our dreams and change our values.
We can be worldly in our spirituality—like the Corinthians. When they elevated tongues to the supreme Christian experience, they fell into a worldly trap. They chased after the experience of the moment, judging what was important by what it did for them immediately. But Paul knows that a Christian’s estimation of the present must be controlled by our understanding of the future:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall know fully just as I also have been fully known. (13:12)
God wants us to know right up front that this is not heaven on earth. He knows me intimately, and He also knows that I don’t know Him in the same way. Sometimes we can fatigue ourselves greatly in a never-ending quest to feel closer and closer to God. We feel second-rate, because our knowledge of God is so imperfect. Of course we are right in one sense; none of us knows our Creator the way we should, the way we long to. But the true fulfillment of those desires awaits another age. To know that my present dim apprehension of God is only to be expected is incredibly comforting. I am eager for more, but I don’t have to thrash myself with guilt for not knowing God better. The important thing now is not that I know God, but that He knows me. One day He will lift the veil totally and irrevocably in a way that all my spiritual strivings never could.
The Things that Remain
Much in this life loses importance because the age to come will render it irrelevant. Our mature lives will make the inadequacies of our childhood seem laughable. But some things remain fundamentally important, even in childhood. It is no tragedy that my daughter can’t read, but it would be tragic if she couldn’t breathe.
But now remain faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (13:13)
Why couldn’t Paul make the same argument about these virtues that he did about spiritual gifts? Won’t our faith be perfected, won’t our hope be fulfilled, won’t our love grow into its fullness in the age to come? Yes, but we can’t say that they are “done away,” not the way Paul means. My faith will be perfect one day, but I can’t do without it now: Without faith I will never become an “adult”; faith is the essential breath of eternal life. Hope is the essence of a life of faith; hope is for today. I won’t need hope when all is fulfilled, but I desperately need it now. God has promised to shower us with the riches of His kindness, and that promise gives us emotional strength while we remain in this fallen world. And we could never say, “Oh, I can do without loving for now.” Love is what life is all about. However imperfect our love is now, faith tells us that every act of love in a world like ours is a victory worth cherishing. To lack opportunities for advancement is not tragic. To live without faith, without a hope, without love is the supreme tragedy
The Bottom Line
None of what Paul says in these chapters makes much sense apart from Christian faith. The values we embrace depend on how we see reality. This is why God takes us through trials, midlife crisis included. Such trials confront us with the truth of the gospel. God likes to do this; to cut through the smoke the world blows constantly in our eyes. He makes us ask and answer the question, “What do I really believe?” Our inheritance in the kingdom of God can give our lives meaning now, but only if we believe in that inheritance. We can find true value in our jobs in the opportunities for service they provide, but only if we believe in the God we say we serve. And we can rest with the inadequacies of this age, knowing that God has promised to overcome them, but only if we believe such promises can be relied on.
Ever since I became a Christian, I have puzzled over what God intended the Christian life to be. My own failures loomed so large, I wanted some assurance that I was heading in the right direction. I Corinthians 12-13 has provided great comfort and guidance along the way. I know God has given me a role to play in Christ’s body, but He has not gifted me to be SuperChristian. I know I will have some knowledge of God and His ways, but the completion of that knowledge is yet to come. And I know God intends my life today to center on the promises of the gospel. Nothing is more important than trusting those promises and putting my hope in those promises and pursuing love, which is the very miracle which the gospel promises to work in my heart. If these things are a part of my life, then my destiny is secure and my life a success.