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Greg Pritchard

Loving People: The Temptation of Achievement (II)

What do you want to achieve in your life? What goal? What task? What accomplishment? That goal, task or accomplishment is one of the greatest temptations in your life.

Katharine Hepburn, Oscars Katharine Hepburn's four Best Actress Academy Awards. / Cliff (Flickr, CC)

What do you want to achieve in your life? What goal? What task? What accomplishment? That goal, task or accomplishment is one of the greatest temptations in your life.

Most people today desire success or happiness or a combination of both. Neither is wrong in itself.  In fact, being happy and successful are good things. But that is the problem. Any good thing that becomes the primary focus of our lives becomes a bad thing, an enemy of the best. Our primary goal in life, if it isn’t to love God and love people, becomes our god, an idol which controls and distorts our lives.

One of my major areas of weakness in loving others is that I often focus on my goals, strategies and visions I want to accomplish, rather than on actually loving those who I work with or live with. In other words, I don’t prioritize love as the Bible does. In his explanation of love in I Cor. 13, it is fascinating that the Apostle Paul first describes love by comparing it to other achievements.


Love Compared

12:31 “And now I will show you the most excellent way.”

Paul doesn’t begin his explanation of love with a definition, but instead bluntly compares love to other achievements. This set of comparisons is particularly relevant to Christians today. What is valued and praised in our society? Achievement. Stephen Spielberg, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie, and Barack Obama are all examples of the allure of accomplishment. In such an achievement-oriented society, success and status are real temptations for believers. 


Steven Spielberg, Bill Gates, Angelina Jolie, Barack Obama. / Pictures from Flickr (Simonmreynolds, Choice Isy, Elvis TR, Ethan Block; CC).

Yet the achievements that were valued by the Corinthians of Paul’s day were even more dangerous. It is relatively easy to be aware of (and resist) the allure of status and success. But for sincere and eager Christians, the areas of Spiritual Experience, Knowledge & Faith, and Sacrifice are more subtle and thus more dangerous temptations. For many Christians who are seeking to honor God with their lives, many of the motivations of the world of status and success are refurbished in the spiritual clothes of Spiritual Experience, Knowledge & Faith, and Sacrifice. What appear at first glance to be spiritual achievements, Paul condemns as both wrong and dangerous. In all of these comparisons, Paul is asking: “What do you really want?” “What are you really committed to?”


Spiritual Experience

13:1 “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.”


Cymbal. / Mark (Flickr, CC).

The Corinthians had been zealous for the things of God. They greatly valued spiritual understanding and supernatural gifts. Many of them had prophesied and spoken in tongues, and they highly praised and valued leaders who were more advanced in these experiences than they. Paul confronts this attitude with the stunning teaching that without love these ecstatic gifts and eloquent words are only the cold, impersonal, irritating noises of a clanging gong or cymbal.

Imagine that one of your loved ones has just died. At the wake, a co-worker who doesn’t really like you, comes up and says coolly and properly, “I’m sorry for your loss.” A little while later, your best friend walks up to you, puts her arms around you, and with tears in her eyes says, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Two different people saying exactly the same words can have an entirely different impact and meaning. 

Love can transform and fill words so that mere cold ideas become truth in the purifying fire of love. We have all heard hollow words that do not spring from genuine compassion. They feel cold and metallic – unreal and inauthentic. The power of someone’s words comes not primarily from their phrasing, but from a genuine warm heart that cares and loves. In essence, Paul is saying that spiritual experience is wonderful – but only if it comes from a heart full of love.

Our families know us. They know whether we are saying the right words – or whether our words spring from true love. Are we seeking to be “spiritual”? We can’t hide from the mirrors in the eyes of our loved ones. True love fills and motivates our words, or they ring hollow. 


Knowledge & Faith

13: 2 “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”


Alaska's Denali. / Blmiers2.

In I Cor. 12:28, Paul had just ranked prophecy as the second most important gift behind only apostleship. He highly valued prophecy, and he also strongly affirmed the importance of growing in our understanding – yet without love, Paul asserts they (and great faith) are nothing.

Depth of spiritual insight and accumulated understanding are highly prized by the apostle Paul. All of his letters to the churches (a goodly portion of the New Testament) display such a depth of knowledge. Paul is not dismissing these as unimportant achievements. But without love, Paul discards them as nothing. Love gives them value. Without love they serve no purpose.

God warned the Israelites not to hoard manna, and if they did it anyway, the manna would grow worms and rot. Spiritual knowledge is similar. Left by itself knowledge goes bad. When you find strong convictions and depth of understanding with shallow compassion you also discover an unconscious cruelty. Knowledge without the purification of love curdles into a poisonous porridge. The very gift of knowledge corrupts the heart, if you do not daily kneel before your maker. This was certainly true of me. I knew a fair bit of theology and, after growing up with 7 siblings, was particularly skilled in arguing – but my knowledge was not reined in by love. Knowledge is one of the most powerful of rhetorical weapons. We can use it to wound and accuse. The heart of love strains our knowledge so that only wisdom is shared. 



13.3 “If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Those who have sacrificed much for the kingdom of God should be praised, but a great sacrifice of possessions, or even life itself, is considered nothing without the purifying power of love.                      

When I have sacrificed without love, I find that I often turn bitter and resentful. Perhaps I have done something good and admirable, but without love the sacrifice, like knowledge, goes sour. Any sacrifice is only valuable if the heart of God motivates it. If any of us sacrifice without love, we display the cold grimace of self-righteousness with a sense of self satisfaction and pride.


Love and Achievement

I would like to summarize our discussion at this point with two conclusions: 

1) The activities that Paul is identifying here are incredibly valuable from Paul’s point of view.  They are stunning accomplishments. In fact, none of us has come close to these achievements. 

  • Which of us have been martyred on the fire? 

  • Which of us know all knowledge and wisdom? 

  • Which of us speak with the tongues of angels?

This list of achievements was meant to leave us far behind. Yet without love, the eloquence is hollow, the knowledge is meaningless and the sacrifice means nothing. Without love, no achievement is valuable.

It doesn’t matter what you are committed to, if that commitment isn’t motivated by love, it isn’t valuable in God’s sight. To truly wrestle with this truth will require some soul searching: Why am I doing what I am doing? Does my family know that my basic motivation is to both love God and love them? Are they convinced that I love them – and view them as more important than anything I do? If not, I am not loving them as I need to.

2) Love can be present with all these activities – or absent. So love is not the activity itself, but the motivation of why the activity takes place.  Love isn’t what you are doing, but why (and how) you are doing it.

Many people see life as a challenge to accomplish. An example of this is the bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” But this same attitude can be baptized in the Christian life, can’t it? I have often felt that life is the ultimate football game: those individuals win who have carried the ball across the achievement line more often. Paul is saying that all Christian achievement is meaningless -- useless and irritating noise -- without the restorative and powerful motivation of love. Paul tells us that the ultimate achievement is love.


We Can’t Love in Our Own Power

I don't know about you, but reflecting on how often I fail to love others is painful. When I'm tired and worn out, passages like the ones we have just reviewed seem overwhelming.  Peter writes "keep fervent in your love for one another."  (I Peter 4:8) I sometimes feel the exact opposite of “fervent.” We know when we aren’t living the full truth of scripture. Each of us is more aware of our own weaknesses than anyone else.

At the farm house where I grew up, we used to have an old-fashioned hand pump. You would have to pump it and pump it and pump it just to get a small dribble of water. That’s how it can feel to talk about loving people – it requires enormous effort with little result. But when I think in this way I am forgetting a major truth: "We love because he first loved us" (I John 4:19). If we really begin to grasp the Lord's love for us, he gives us both motivation and desire to love others. With an old-fashioned pump, you walk toward it with hesitation because of the hard work that is necessary to get the water. Biblical love should be pictured as a fountain - the source of the water is not connected to us at all.


Gods’ Love as a Source of Our Love


Fountain. / William Bullimore (Flickr, CC).

Paul makes very clear that we have already been blessed with every spiritual blessing.  He prays that the “eyes of your heart might be opened so that you might know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.”  Paul describes the Christian life as being “rooted and grounded in love” and prays that the Ephesians “may have power together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  The Christian life of love is entirely a consequence of understanding and receiving God’s love.  Jesus describes the fruit of the Christian life as a result of being connected to Him: “I am the vine and you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit, apart from me you can do nothing.”

If we try to love people without understanding and receiving God's love for us and loving Him in response, we "can do nothing." 

What happens when you take an ordinary piece of steel and put it next to a strong magnet? The piece of steel becomes magnetized. Simply putting it next to a magnet makes it into a magnet. If you keep the steel there long enough, it becomes permanently magnetized. God is in the business of magnetizing people with his love. We need to get as close as we can to God. God infects us with his love, and it multiplies into us and then through us. We are to receive the Lord’s love, to love the Lord in response, and then to be filled to overflowing with love for others. We are to become a fountain of Jesus’ love to others. We need to become who we were made to be: recipients and givers of God's love.

But what is love? What does it mean to love someone?

We will look at this next week.  


Greg Pritchard earned his MA from Trinity School of Divinity before continuing on to finish his PhD at Northwestern University. The intersection of theology, history, philosophy and sociology is Greg’s primary focus both in teaching and writing. He has taught graduate-level courses on apologetics, theology, history, leadership, the New Testament, ethics, and Christian Thought at American, European, and Asian institutions of higher learning. His book, Willow Creek Seeker Services, has been published in four languages. In addition, Greg has worked as the COO at a Chicago investment firm.  Currently, he serves as the President of the Forum of Christian Leaders and as the Director of the European Leadership Forum. 

The Forum of Christian Leaders (FOCL) is the sponsor of the European Leadership Forum (ELF), which seeks to unite, mentor, and resource European evangelical leaders to renew the biblical church and re-evangelise Europe. This happens first at the ELF's annual meeting that occurs each May in Poland.  In addition to the ELF, FOCL is host to an online media library and learning community for evangelical Christians. Learn more at and; or join us on Twitter @FOCLonline and Facebook Forum of Christian Leaders.




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