Part 13 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
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If you want to grow in your experience of spiritual gifts, Paul urges you to eagerly seek those gifts that build up the body of Christ. But, you’ll recall, that’s not all he says: “Pursue love,” he begins, and then “keep on eagerly desiring spiritual manifestations” (1 Cor 14:1, my translation). The Greek verb translated here as “pursue” connotes an aggressive search. It can also mean “hunt” or “chase after.” In other words, we must fix our sights upon love as a hunter upon a target, making every effort to love. With this motivation behind us, we should strive for spiritual gifts. If you seek to love people actively, spiritual gifts will follow. If you love the body of Christ, bits of grace will flow through you to build that body.
When I was at Irvine Presbyterian Church, we regularly prayed for those who were sick. Sometimes we saw amazing healings. Usually our experiences were less dramatic. But, no matter what the outcome, our job was to pray. God’s job was to do with our prayers as he saw fit. We prayed for each other, not only because it was our job as Christians, but also because we loved each other.
For example, I remember a time when a group of us came together between Sunday morning worship services to pray for a young woman named Amy. She was about to undergo serious surgery and we gathered to pray for her healing. As many people offered their intercessions, it was obvious to me that we were motivated by a deep love for Amy and her family. We poured out our hearts to God, eager for a spiritual gift of healing to be given. We weren’t concerned about getting some kind of spiritual buzz or demonstrating our miraculous powers. We simply wanted Amy to be healed and her family to be touched with God’s peace. We pursued love, and because we loved, we eagerly desired a spiritual gift.
Amy was not healed dramatically. What happened during our time of prayer wouldn’t have made good television. Amy’s surgery went well, better than expected. We’ll never know what the Holy Spirit did in her body as we prayed, or in the hours thereafter. But we do know that because we prayed in love, Amy felt loved, both by those who prayed for her and by the Lord. God’s work was done through that time of prayer and it was a blessed work. I don’t know whether the Spirit gave a gift of healing or not, but I do know that he ministered with power and we were privileged to be a part of it.
For many years of my Christian life I didn’t pray for people to be physically healed, or, at least I didn’t lay hands on them and pray as if God would actually do something. I was very good at praying for “the doctor’s hands” and for medicine to work wonders. I still am good at praying for these things. I believe God uses all means at his disposal to heal, including medical science. But I never used to pray for people to be healed because I believed that I didn’t “have the gift of healing.” I had heard about people who went to healing crusades led by Kathryn Kuhlman, who seemed by all accounts to “have the gift.” A friend of mine had been dramatically healed of a chronic back condition as he attended one of her meetings. I knew I wasn’t gifted like Kathryn Kuhlman, so I didn’t pray for miraculous healings.
In the 1980s my theology of spiritual gifts underwent the shift I mentioned above. I realized that, as a Christian filled with the Spirit, I could minister in all of the gifts, at least in principle. At that time I joined the staff of my home church, Hollywood Presbyterian. I watched as the pastors and elders, few of whom would claim to have “a healing ministry” in the Kathryn Kuhlman sense, faithfully laid hands on the sick and prayed for their healing.
One of my closest friends was an Associate Pastor named Scott. He was a fireball for healing, praying for people every day. You might suppose that Scott was simply naive, a young pastor who got a bit too excited about the biblical promises of healing. But this supposition couldn’t be further from the truth. Even though he was only in his late twenties, Scott was a cancer survivor. He had suffered greatly. He knew the pain of praying for healing and hearing God’s “no.” He knew that God works through doctors, surgeries, and medicines. Yet because Scott trusted the Bible, and because he loved people, he couldn’t help but pray for their healing. He pursued love and eagerly desired the spiritual gifts. As I hung out with Scott, I was drawn along to pray for that which had always seemed far beyond the range of my giftedness. It was exciting. It was scary. Sometimes it was joyous. Sometimes it was heart-wrenching. But always it was stepping out in faith to do pursue love.
One day a woman named Maria came to Hollywood Pres seeking financial assistance. She was a single mother who was the sole support for her family. But Maria had begun to struggle with a mysterious physical condition that covered her legs with debilitating, painful sores. She was so poor that she couldn’t get appropriate medical assistance. A doctor in a clinic had told Maria that an operation might help her, but she couldn’t begin to afford it. Her physical condition deteriorated to the point where she lost her job. She came to the church to get financial help for her family and perhaps some money for pain-killers. The church was able to provide her with some financial assistance, but her problems seemed overwhelming, so far beyond what we could handle. (Photo: The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood)
Before Maria left, I asked if I could pray for her. My wife Linda was nearby, so the two of us sat with Maria, laid hands on her, and began to pray. As we interceded for Maria, we both felt powerful love for her, great compassion for her suffering. We prayed for her finances, for her family, and especially for her legs to be healed. After we finished praying, Maria said she felt deeply moved. She knew that God loved her in a way she had never known before. Linda and I were glad, but a bit disappointed that God didn’t do something to heal Maria’s legs. That was the last I ever saw of Maria.
Three months later I received a phone call at church. “This is Maria,” the voice said, “I am calling to thank you.”
“Maria? Maria?” I repeated, trying to place the voice. “I am so sorry, but I don’t remember who you are.”
“Oh,” she said, “I’m the one with those terrible leg sores. Don’t you remember that you and your wife prayed for me?”
“Of course I do. I’m sorry I forgot your name.”
“I’m back at work now,” Maria continued, “and I wanted to thank you.”
“You are certainly welcome,” I said, “but we didn’t do much at all. We gave you some money for your medicine, but that’s about it. I wished we could have done more.”
“Oh, you did to more. Don’t you remember? You prayed for me, to be healed. Remember? I’m calling because your prayer worked. Very soon after I left your church my legs began to get better. They kept on getting better. In a few days I could return to work. Now I’m just fine. God healed my legs completely. I want to thank you for praying for me.”
To this day I marvel over that whole experience. What a joy to be used by God in such a special way! That time of prayer for Maria serves as a paradigm for my ongoing ministry in the Spirit. My job as a Christian, not just as a pastor, is to love people. If they are suffering, that love translates easily into prayer. If they are sick, I seek a gift of healing. The results are usually not as dramatic as Maria’s, but that’s not my responsibility. You and I can’t guarantee what the Spirit will do when we step out to minister, but if we love, if we make ourselves available, and if we pray, God’s work will be done. People will be healed, saved, and loved. The body of Christ will be built up. And you and I will have the joy of being used by God in his marvelous work of grace.