The Charismatic Gifts

There is a variety of gifts but always the same Spirit: there are all sorts of service to be done, but always to the same Lord; working in all sorts of different ways in different people, it is the same God who is working in all of them. The particular way in which the Spirit is given to each person is for a good purpose. One may have the gift of preaching with wisdom given him by the same Spirit; and another may have the gift of preaching instruction given him by the same Spirit; and another the gift of faith given by the same Spirit; another again the gift of healing through this one Spirit; one the power of miracles; another, prophecy; another the gift of recognizing spirits; another the gift of tongues and another the ability to interpret them. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit who distributes different gifts to different people just as he chooses.

1 Corinthians 12:4-11

This passage is very often quoted when the gifts of the Spirit is being discussed. These are the charismatic gifts and I have personally seen all these gifts at work. And I have experienced some of these gifts myself, specifically the gift of prophecy, healing and tongues. I would admit that these gifts have enriched my faith in the Lord as it is through these gifts that the Lord reveals his power.

However, it disturbs me a lot when I hear people preach about these gifts - specifically the gift of tongues. There seems to be a misplaced importance given to this gift. Some claim that this is the most important gift because this is the key to unlock the other gifts. Some even try to encourage others to get this gift by conducting workshops specifically to acquire this gift. Some people seem to be obsessed with having this gift and feel frustrated if they do not get it.

I cannot over emphasize that this approach to the charismatic gifts is very dangerous.

Arguing through tradition, we see that tongues has never been encouraged in the Catholic Church. If it were that important, then this would have been included in the liturgy. We would have a Liturgy of Tongues instead of Liturgy of the Hours. The Church survived two thousand years without much emphasis on tongues. If we look at the lives of saints, how many of these spoke in tongues? Were they proclaimed as saints because they spoke in tongues? No, they were proclaimed as saints because of their immense love of God which overflowed onto their lives.

Arguing through scripture, we see that

In the Church, God has given the first place to apostles, the second to prophets, the third to teachers; after them, miracles, and after them the gift of healing; helpers, good leaders, those with many languages.

I Corinthians 12:28

Notice that Paul was enumerating from the most important position in church to the least. The apostles (bishops) are placed first in the church then prophets, teachers and the last in the list is those with tongues. This is why I cannot accept the teaching that tongues is the most important of the charismatic gifts - because Paul clearly says that this is the last in the position within the church.

Another argument against giving more importance to the gift of tongues is that this gift was in fact the cause of conflicts within the Corinthian church. And this is one of the reasons why Paul wrote the letter - because people were speaking in tongues in the assembly causing chaos in the assembly - trying to prove that they are better than others.

At the end of chapter 12, Paul says

Be ambitious for the higher gifts. If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a clashing cymbal. ... Love does not end. If there are gifts of prophecy, the time will come when they must fail; or the gift of languages, it will not continue forever. ... There are three things that last, faith, hope and love; and the greatest of these is love

I Corinthians 12:31-13:13

Contrary to what some say that we should aspire for tongues, Paul says that we should aspire for higher gifts. And of these higher gifts, the greatest gift is love. We should therefore aspire for the gift of love rather than the gift of tongues because even if we can pray in a language that only God can understand but we do not have love, we are like cymbals or gongs making irritating noises. The gift of tongues is useless if we cannot use it in love. If there is no love in us, we irritate people rather than build them up.

Further in Chapter 14, Paul says that prophecy is far better than tongues.

The man who prophesies is of greater importance than the man with the gift of tongues, unless of course the latter offers an interpretation so that the church may get some benefit. ... that is why anybody who has the gift of tongues must pray for the power of interpreting them. For if I use this gift in my prayers, my spirit may be praying but my mind is left barren. ... Surely I should pray not only with the spirit but with the mind as well? And sing praises not only with the spirit but with the mind as well.... I would rather say five words that mean something than ten thousand words in a tongue.... Brothers, do not be childish in your outlook.

I Corinthians 14:5-20

So for me, praying in tongues has its place in worship. It is a gift from the Lord and it should be accepted with a thankful heart. But my point is, let the gifts not be the main focus of our worship. Although these charismatic gifts are given by God, there is a tendency for us to give more importance in the gifts rather than on the Giver who is worthy of praise. And as gifts, we cannot force ourselves to have this. Everything depends on the Lord. He gives them as he sees fit and if tongues will not benefit us, then praise God because he will give you something else. Saying that we can get these gifts when we ask for them is totally wrong because these gifts are given at the pleasure of God.

In my readings so far, I have found only one gift that God has promised to give when we ask for it. This is the gift of wisdom. In the Old Testament, we read this in Proverbs, the Book of Wisdom, the Book of Sirach. And my favourite verse about this is found in James 1:5

if there is anyone of you who needs wisdom, he must ask God, who gives freely and ungrudgingly; it will be given to him.

As we approach Pentecost, let us therefore focus on the fire that the Lord will bring into our hearts. Let us ask him to burn our hearts with his love so that we in turn can be grateful receivers of his gifts.

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in us the fire of your love.