When the Perfect Comes

On Christmas morning, 1997, my twin boys saw an impressive gift waiting for them under our Christmas tree. We had set up a train set for them, which was now circulating around the tree, making all the right train-noises and smoking like a real coal-burner. They loved it, and we loved watching them examine it closely as it went by each time, roaring and puffing as designed. But when evening came, I noticed something missing from under the tree.​

“Where is the locomotive?,” I asked my wife Li. Every other car was present, but the locomotive had gone AWOL. But Li knew where it was. Without saying anything, she led me to Paul’s room and showed me its nighttime resting place. Paul had it stashed under his bed as he was sleeping with one goal in mind: keeping his brother Tim from getting it instead. For several nights afterward, we had to negotiate terms under which each child would get the train; we finally decreed that the train would stay in the living room at night. Otherwise, things might have to get ugly.​

These days, however, I have the train—not either of my boys—for a simple reason. Paul and Tim have outgrown it. The same process would have occurred with anyone reading this post, applied to their once-indispensable toys. The dolls and trucks cherished in youth are long gone, either by being discarded or by being passed along to younger siblings or relatives. We tend not to keep such things because we grow up. We become adults, and the gifts that had once mattered so much no longer matter at all. Too bad that we cannot have the same view of these things even in childhood. How many fights and tears would we have avoided?​

The Apostle Paul appeals to the same ‘shelf-life’ principle in 1 Corinthians 13. Reading between these lines, we can see that these Christians had defined themselves by their spiritual gifts, especially by the uncommon, showy ones. Not everyone spoke in tongues. Not everyone had the gift of prophecy. So a ranking system had emerged, and the effort to put gifts on display had caused disruptions in their public gatherings. But Paul regards these disputes from the perspective of eternity—that is, from our real adulthood as believers—and reminds the Corinthians that gifts are temporary. Now we use them, and someday we will not.​

At some point, much sooner than we think, all of us will stand before the Lord and see him face to face. We will know fully, even as we are fully known; and in that circumstance, gifts will have become redundant, like buggy whips and washboards. No one will care who had them and who did not:​

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Cor. 13:8-12)​

Notice, therefore, the intent of Paul’s analogy. He does not refer to the thoughts and actions of children exclusively—or even mainly—to say to the Corinthians, “Grow up, and think, reason, and speak like men!” On the contrary, when we are children, it makes sense that we would do what children do and say what children say. Likewise, on this side of eternity, it makes sense for us to use the gifts, just as children play with toys. That behavior is, after all, age-appropriate; however, even now, in these days of our youth—before the perfect has come—we must remember that someday none of us will care which gifts we had and how obvious our having them had been to everyone else.​

Suppose that we agree with Paul. We say, as we hope that the Corinthians also did, “Yes yes, someday we will outgrow the use of gifts.” What then? Well, this at least: we will put our talents and abilities, our achievements and wins, in proper perspective; and we certainly will not become envious of one another, based on the same differences. The Corinthians needed to learn this lesson before their factions set in permanently, and we could stand to hear the same message today. When the perfect comes, the partial, half-measures of today will pass away, and no one will miss them.​

Some years ago, a notice went out to the University of Aberdeen’s PhD graduates, asking them for tributes to honor Professor I. Howard Marshall, who had just announced his retirement from full-time teaching. One imagines that the UA received far more than they could have used. As one of his colleagues once said in with little exaggeration, “Let’s face it. Howard’s written on everything” and Professor Marshall wrote on them clearly and well. Even his errors, which were few, raised all the right questions and posed singular challenges for his critics. For such an occasion, therefore, one senses an obligation to capture the true extent of the honoree’s achievements, which were extraordinary in Howard’s case, even for a professor at a major British university.​

At one point, I had written something like, “Your commentaries, monographs, and books will be read for years to come,” but that time-frame seemed too narrow. Just years? On the other hand, “centuries” would have been over the top, causing Howard himself to laugh out loud. Finally, I settled on “decades” as the Goldilocks word, but even that option bothered me. It really should be longer. Sadly, nothing much seems to last. Still, we are children for now, like Howard was at his prime, and we do our best. We use the abilities given to us by God, and trust him for the results, knowing that when the perfect comes, all will be forgotten and for the best imaginable reason. For then we shall see face to face.