the stuff of earth
competes for the allegiance
I owe only to the
Giver of all good things
In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul is discussing the church and spiritual gifts. He more or less interrupts himself in this discussion to talk about that which is greater than everything else – love. He does not disparage spiritual gifts, or say that they no longer have relevance in the church. But he recognizes that he is speaking to a community of believers that have perhaps put too much emphasis on spiritual gifts, especially those gifts that have an outward appeal.
What happens in the church when the community becomes overly focused on the gifts of the Spirit is the emergence of a self-serving and individualistic Christianity. When we are more interested with the gift than we are with the Giver, then our faith has certainly taken a wrong turn. This, I believe, is why the apostle Paul takes the opportunity to emphasize love as the most excellent way. He will say, in 1 Corinthians 13, that spiritual gifts and service without genuine love is nothing more than the reverberations of a hallow vessel.
So much for spiritual gifts, and it might be easy for me to think that I do not overemphasize them in my own life. Is this because I have truly achieved a certain amount of spiritual success, or because I am too willing to allow this discussion to be left at the doorstep of somebody else's problem rather than opening my own heart to the Spirit's conviction? Am I satisfied with my compliance with scripture because I see more of the speck in my brother's eye, ignoring the plank in my own?
If I were to widen out this discussion, I might wonder how many times in my own life I have focused on the gift more than the Giver. Maybe I think I am safe because I do not think about speaking in tongues, nor do I boast in my placement as a teacher and preacher. But what about the other areas in my life where I do not adequately recognize God's provision? I seem to be prone to live in such a way as to see only the gifts around me, and critique them as though I am in a position of authority over the goodness in my life. And so I see that I become focused on the goodness he has placed around me, discovering that this is the reason why I can be so devoid of love.
This is the reality to which the poet was pointing: the stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the giver of all good things. I have been summoned to a wholehearted commitment on this path of faith, what Eugene Peterson has called a long obedience in the same direction. But if the most excellent way for my journey is to love, then I must be connected to the source of love, because my life is not able to love in the manner to which I have been called. I cannot embody what passages like 1 Corinthians 13 describe, unless I make room in my heart for the Spirit to convict, inspire, and lead me forward.
If I am to do this, then I must recognize that the stuff of earth must be cleared out of my life, and I often feel as though my Creator is more-than-eager to help me with the purging. The Giver knows that his stuff, no matter how good and blessed, is no comparison to himself – and that is what I truly need. And he also knows that for me to embrace this sort of love is too hard a thing to ask of me, for I am too broken and preoccupied and weak. So, he asks me to do the only thing that I can do – he bids me come and die. It is only then that a new life can begin within me, and I can embark on this way of love.
This is a struggle in my own heart, and it leads to further heartbreak when I look around and see a world that is so consumed with the stuff of earth. I live in a politicized world, where stuff is thrust into the middle of the conversation, as though it were the most important thing. It is why I see so many in the church lowering their eyes to the powers that be today, instead of lifting their eyes to the hills. And the drive for stuff, especially among the people of God (who should know better), has succeeded in pushing out the divine presence from our midst, for we have given our allegiance to the gift over the Giver of all good things.