What’s the greatest gift of the Spirit? It depends who you ask.
For some people, speaking in tongues seems to be the greatest spiritual gift. Some even go so far as to teach that speaking in a previously unknown tongue is the “initial evidence” that a person has received the Holy Spirit – and that those who do not have this “evidence” aren’t really Christians.
Others tout faith healing as the greatest gift, glorying in how many people they have seen healed from pain or illness as a result of healing prayer (usually accompanied by the laying on of hands).
Still others emphasize other gifts such as prophecy or discernment of spirits, listing these as true signs of spiritual maturity.
For Saint Paul, the greatest spiritual gift is love.
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal,” he writes. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-2). Even giving away all of one’s possessions, and giving one’s body up for martyrdom, count for nothing without love (1 Cor 13:3)!
The kind of love that Paul speaks of doesn’t come naturally to us, but is indeed a gift of the Spirit.
Most people will naturally love themselves, their family, and their closest friends. But as Jesus tells us, this kind of love isn’t enough. We need to reach a point where we have love for people we don’t know, and even for those we might consider enemies (Matt 5:43-48). This can only happen if we are open to all the ways God is at work in our lives.
I can say from experience that Paul is right.
I have been speaking in tongues for about 10 years now, and love the intimate way I can connect with God when I do.
I have also seen or been a part of many seemingly-miraculous healings, and have at times delivered words of prophecy that were clearly not of my own making. But all of this pales in comparison to the love I have experienced in God.
Indeed, the love I have experienced, both directly from God and indirectly (through other people) is the one thing that has given me the strength and motivation to truly help others.
Without this love, I wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed some days, let alone share the gospel or help those in need!
When we come to experience God’s love on a deep level, we see that all of us are one – that whatever we do to others, we do to ourselves. This naturally makes it easier to serve others. But how is such love cultivated?
Prayer, worship and Bible study certainly help; but more than anything else, it’s the love that others (family and friends in particular) have shown me that has helped me to see how much God loves me. I am able to love others only because they first loved me.
This, then, is the greatest calling of all Christians – to share with others the love they have received. This is more important (and indeed, more amazing) than tongues, prophecy, healing, or any other gift of the Spirit.