How should a Christian balance between focusing on gifts they currently have and eagerly desiring the “greater gifts”?
Three times throughout explaining the spiritual gifts, Paul tells Christians to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31; 14:1, 39). Each of the commands to earnestly seek the gifts is slightly different.
First, in 1 Corinthians 12:31, Paul says to eagerly desire the higher or greater gifts. “Gifts” is plural and maybe speaks to a number of gifts. Which gifts he does not say. He has already introduced nine of these “spirituals” and he may be referring to a certain number of them. I submit that because he speaks of prophecy, speaking in tongues, and interpretation for the entirety of 1 Corinthians 14, he may be referring to those three among the nine.
Sandwiched between chapters 12 and 14, chapters deeply involving the spiritual gifts is the “love” chapter. It is the “most excellent way” that Paul is referring to at the end of chapter 12. The entire point of the chapter is that without the Fruit of the Spirit, especially love, working in the background of our use and operation in the gifts, they are pointless.
And then he returns to the same at the end of chapter 12 in 1 Corinthians 14:1. Once again we are to eagerly desire the spirituals, still plural. But then he singles out prophecy. The rest of chapter 14 explains his reasoning why prophecy is even higher in the top three.
Speaking in tongues in a service relies on the other gift of interpretation. Without interpretation, no one can understand the message in tongues. So they must work with one another. But prophecy can be used on its own and it is understandable on its own.
This may be the reason that he singles prophecy out among the gifts as the “greatest gift.” In the final instance of Paul commanding us to eagerly desire greater gifts, prophecy stands alone. He simply says to eagerly desire to prophesy. But it is immediately followed by not for bidding the gift of speaking in tongues.
One of the reasons speaking in tongues was singled out at the end and throughout chapter 14 is because this is the “Cadillac gift” for the Corinthians. They believed that it was the greatest gift until Paul corrected them about prophecy.
Speaking in tongues is probably the most exotic of all of the nine spirituals that Paul speaks of in these three chapters. They may have attached themselves to it because of its unique qualities. But more important than being able to speak another language is being understood when the Holy Spirit speaks to his people.
We can ask the Holy Spirit for more gifts. In fact, Paul tells us to ask him three times, showing the importance of all of the gifts. The balance between being used in the gifts we have and seeking other gifts is that we must not neglect the gifts we already have.
We must continue to hone our skills in following the prompting of the Holy Spirit in the gifts we have that are more familiar to us. But at the same time, we can ask for other gifts. Perhaps the principle here is to not neglect the former gifts while seeking new ones.
Another key principle as we seek other and greater gifts is to remember that we do not seek the gifts themselves. We seek the Gift-Giver. We don’t seek gifts for our benefit either. We seek to be used by the Holy Spirit as we submit to him, obey him, and walk with him. Gifts flow out of a close relationship with the Holy Spirit.