Nearly anything good can become unproductive if it’s abused or misused. Paul is all about embracing the side of spirituality that can seem a bit wacky to us today—gifts of tongues and prophecy, to name a few. But he is fully aware of the problems that can come from these gifts being used in a way that doesn’t fit within God’s will. And Paul’s primary concern is that spiritual gifts are used only within the bounds of love.
Love is what it’s all about. “Pursue love, and strive for spiritual gifts, but especially that you may prophesy. For the one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God, because no one understands, but by the Spirit he speaks mysteries” (1 Cor 14:1–2). By tongues, Paul is likely referencing the “tongues of angels”—some angelic language (1 Cor 13:1)—although elsewhere the term is used in reference to people speaking in a language they don’t actually know for the sake of ministering to others in their native tongue (Acts 2:3–4).
Love—as manifested in Christ’s death and resurrection and in our living sacrificially for Him and others—is central, and spiritual gifts should support that cause.
Paul goes on to say: “Now I want you all to speak with tongues, but even more that you may prophesy.… But now, brothers, if I come to you speaking with tongues, how do I benefit you, unless I speak to you either with a revelation or with knowledge or with a prophecy or with a teaching?” (1 Cor 14:5–6).
Spiritual gifts are meant to indwell believers. Christians are meant to be driven by God’s Spirit and to do miraculous things in His name. But none of it matters if it’s not for the purpose of showing Christ’s love.