Trivials or Spirituals?
E. L. Lovering, Ilfracombe
Having dealt with matters of a carnal nature in the church at Corinth, 1 Cor. 5-11, Paul writes "concerning spiritual gifts", 12. 1. The word "gifts" does not appear in the Greek text, but is supplied by the translators to give the sense. The word pneumati-kon is preceded by the definite article and so may be translated simply as "the spirituals". Cursed with carnalities, the church at Corinth needed to return to matters spiritual, and it is in this sense that we adopt the title "spirituals" in this article.
Too frequently Christians are concerned with trivials rather than with spirituals. The Lord Jesus spoke of those who "strain out a gnat but swallow a camel", the gnat being the wine-gnat or midge which bred in the fermenting wine and was regarded as ceremonially unclean. To avoid the risk of drinking anything unclean, the wine was strained through muslin gauze. Here was a man so concerned about swallowing a microscopic insect, that he was cheerfully prepared to swallow a camel. He had so far lost his sense of proportion and reality. Such people would meticulously tithe the smaller herbs of a kitchen garden like mint, dill and cummin, whilst they openly neglected the "weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith", Matt. 23. 23, 24. They could discover a speck of sawdust in the eye of another, yet so easily tolerate a plank in their own, Matt. 7. 3. It is still possible to exaggerate the trivials at the expense of the spirituals. We may wear the correct mode of dress in attending church services (and we do not condone slovenly attire), adopt the proper forms and attitudes in prayer, be regular at the Lord's supper, contribute our regular weekly offering, and yet rob our employer of an honest day's work, fail to show compassion towards those who have known failure, and to be partisan in our judgment. It is possible to be full of good works for others, and yet neglect home duties and care for one's own family.
The Lord Jesus warned that it was possible to do right things from a wrong motive. In His Sermon on the Mount, He dealt with three particular areas in human experience, namely, man's responsibility for the welfare of others, the importance of prayer in relationship to the Father, and the need for self-discipline in devotion to God.
Contribution or Commitment.
"Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven", Matt. 6. 1. According to the Jewish religion, almsgiving was a meritorious act of righteousness before God. It was not the act itself that Jesus condemned but its motive, for salvation could not be obtained in that way and an ostentatious display would bring its full reward now, the praise of men and not of God. Giving was not to be the performance of an "actor" (Greek for hypocrite) with the flourish of trumpets in the synagogues and streets, but rather a secret devotion for the glory of God. It was the Lord's commendation of the widow, as He sat opposite the temple alms-box, that in casting in her two mites she had put in more than "they all" who had put in what they could easily spare, but she in her poverty had given away her whole living, Luke 21. 4. Her giving had been not just a contribution, but an absolute sacrificial commitment.
Paul wrote, "I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service", Rom. 12. 1. "The modern equivalent of the Pharisees' trumpet is the subscription list, which serves the same purpose, that of broadcasting the fact that I made a charitable donation. The fact that my name does not appear on such a list is no cause for self-satisfaction, however, if the reason lies in the fact that I give nothing! Those who are critical of such subscription lists also dislike collection plates, preferring collection bags because they enable stingy giving to be done in secret!" (Hogg & Watson).
Prayers or Prayer.Prayer formed an integral part of Jewish life and worship. "Evening, and morning, and at noon" the psalmist cried in his distress to the Lord, Psa. 55. 16, while the accusation against Daniel in Babylon was that he ignored the king's edict and continued to pray three times a day, Dan. 6. 10, 13. "The prayer habit" is to be strongly commended, though it can become a formal routine void of reality.
Ritual.The Lord warned His disciples against faults of misguided devotion in prayer, Matt. 6. 6-8, a mere exercise in ritual. "When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men ...They have their reward". The essence of the Jewish "Shema", Deut. 6. 4-9; 11.13-21; Num. 15. 37-41, "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord", was recited by every Jew each morning and evening and like the "Shemoneh'esreh", a liturgy of prayers recited three times a day, could easily become a formal ritual. In order to be seen, a conspicuous place like the synagogue or street corner was often chosen for this purpose. We may not pray on street corners, but we like other people to think well of us in our public devotions. "When thou prayest", said the Saviour, "enter into thy closet... shut thy door, pray to thy Father ... and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee". Too often prayers are directed towards fellow-Christians rather than to God, and are more ritualistic than realistic. God looks upon the heart.
Repetition.There was also the danger of mere repetition. "When ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking ... for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him", Matt. 6. 7, 8. There was a tendency for the Jew to utter long prayers and to multiply titles and adjectives in his address to God. In this way he assumed that ardour and fluency, and not least lengthiness, constituted an efficient prayer. Prayer springs out of a personal relationship with the Father, and the fact that He knows our requests before we ask does not prevent our asking, but deepens our sense of dependence and gratitude.
Among the pagan people, a constant repetition of phrase or word produced a form of self-hypnosis. The prophets of Baal cried out "O Baal, hear us" for the space of half a day, with disastrous consequences, 1 Kings 18. 26, while the Ephesian mob shouted continuously for two hours, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians", Acts 19. 34. The effects of rhythmic clapping and bodily movement combined with a monotonous beat are all too evident in the world of "pop" culture. Repetition, however, has its value as a means of emphasis and sincerity, but this is not in the nature of vain repetitions. Indeed we are encouraged to be constant and earnest in prayer, intercession and thanksgiving, Acts 12. 5; Rom. 1. 9; 1 Thess. 2. 13; 5. 17.
Piousness or Piety."When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward", Matt. 6. 16.. Throughout Israel's history, the practice of fasting had been an essential part of religious life. In times of national mourning and penitence, Jud. 20. 26; 1 Sam. 7. 6; Neh. 9. 1, and of close, personal encounter with God, Exod. 24. 15; Dan. 9. 3; Matt. 4. 3, it had played an essential role. Self-discipline and self-control must surely be admirable qualities to be desired and developed by every Christian. Although Scripture gives no direct command to fast, it is clear that the Lord Jesus did not disapprove of it. Voluntary abstention from things which satisfy physical desires may well quicken the spiritual senses to receive the impress of the Spirit's guidance. As with alms-giving and prayer, there is the temptation for ostentatious display, and it is in this that Pharisaic piousness differs from true Christian piety. The Pharisee announced his fast by parading the streets with hair unkempt and dishevelled, clothes soiled and in disarray and faces whitened to exaggerate the consequence of austere living. True piety, by contrast, was to be practised in the secret of the Father's presence, not for self-praise but for God's glory. Beware of hot-house piety cultivated for exhibition purposes, for true goodness never dwells upon itself (Hogg & Watson).
Ceremonial or Compassion. To the Lord Jesus, people were always more important than things, and compassion than ceremonial. This is vividly illustrated in the incident of the Sabbath walk through the cornfields, Matt. 12. 1-14. It was not law-breaking to pluck ears of corn with the hand, provided no sickle was used, Deut. 23. 25. The criticism of the scribes and Pharisees was that the act constituted work on the Sabbath. The Pharisees believed that the disciples had been guilty of reaping, threshing and winnowing as they plucked the corn, rubbing it in their hands to separate wheat from chaff. Such minutiae were in their eyes of greater importance than the claims of human need. Had they not read in the Scriptures of how David and his men when hungry had eaten the sacred loaves?, 1 Sam. 21. 1-6; how then priests engaged in temple activities on the Sabbath, as they prepared the sacrifices, and how God had spoken to the prophet saying, "I desired mercy, and not sacrifice"?, Hos. 6. 6.
It is not with external trivials that God is primarily concerned, but with the inward and secret spirituals of a vital and practical faith. Let us remember that visible things are transitory, but that it is the invisible things that are really permanent, 2 Cor. 4. 18