A year or so ago, my biblestudy had an enlightening discussion about spiritual gifts that carried on into one-on-one hangouts throughout the week and even into general discussion for some weeks after. Some things really surprised us as we delved through the scriptures about gifts. It turns out that some of the common beliefs about spiritual gifts are not scripturally based.
The most basic one is the idea that spiritual gifts are lifelong. Nowhere do the scriptures specifically say anything about spiritual gifts being permanent. The language that perhaps makes us think so is that often Paul uses the metaphor of body parts; just as each part of the body doesn’t have the same function, so we as believers don’t all have the same function.
Everyone knows that metaphors aren’t perfect, and just because my liver never changes to act as a stomach doesn’t mean that within the Body of Christ our gifting won’t change. You may be gifted in the area of public speaking right now—great, use it!—but your heart will continue to change as time goes by, and God may later lessen that gift in you and replace it with others. There are all sorts of reasons: because of pride, because you’re dependent on it, to help you not take the Spirit for granted, to teach you something, or to help you realize he’s asking you to pursue something else right now; who knows. But I see evidence that some people stay good at something their whole life while others change and their expertise in various areas waxes and wanes. It seems like we turn our gifts into a lifeline, even an idol; a gift is just that: something the Spirit gives us. It is the Spirit who gives life.
Secondly, nowhere does it say that any of the lists of gifts are comprehensive. We need to also note that no two lists (most written by the same author!) have the same gifts included in them. There may be more that aren’t listed at all. Furthermore, Romans 12, after talking about gifts, continues right along talking about being hospitable, being patient, being sincere in our love, etc. Are these not gifts of the Spirit too? They are both born in us and come to fruition in us by the power of the Spirit; people are gifted differently in these areas; and these gifts build up the church and share of the good news about Jesus. Those sound like gifts to me.
When I was little, I memorized Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” This verse is given in the context of building up (as opposed to tearing down) the church and of walking in step with the Spirit. I don’t see any reason to seriously differentiate fruit of the Spirit from gifts of the Spirit. However, we are all told to pursue the fruit of the Spirit. Which brings me to my next point:
Nowhere does it say to pursue only “your gifts.” Paul talks about spiritual gifts in order to point out that we are all unique and that instead of trying to be like others and good at the things they are good at, we should recognize what we are good at and act accordingly. Paul is saying this to keep us from the extreme, and a overwhelming one, of thinking we need to be good at everything. He is also trying to keep us from wearing ourselves out doing everything instead of leaning on each other. My husband is really good at fixing things; it wouldn’t make sense if I try to fix appliances that break in our home! In the same way, we need to trust each other within the church so that every job gets done, instead of trying to do it all on our own and ending up with nothing done (or done poorly)!
Consequently, I put a lot of weight in Paul’s words about pursuing our own gifts. I know that I am gifted in communicating through writing, and so I pursue it with a passion! But I also know that I am not very good at being on time. Timeliness may not be listed in the Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, or Ephesians 4 lists of gifts, but I think it is still something that honors God and builds up the Body of Christ. Just because I’m bad at it doesn’t mean I should neglect it. On the contrary, I should work to be better at it!
I have a more typical example, too: I have the gift of prophecy. Sometimes I know things before they happen. But I do not have the gift of speaking other languages. Sometimes I wish I did. I know that it is easy for me to learn other languages, but as of yet, the Spirit has not empowered me to speak a language I haven’t studied. Now, neither prophecy nor “tongues” (as it’s called in Christian circles) is something I have control over, but I can pray for them. Should I pray for more prophecy, but neglect to pray that I can speak the Word of God to people who don’t speak my language? Not at all! I can pray that the Spirit continues to reveal things to me when he desires, but I also most definitely pray that the Spirit gives me an opportunity to speak another language if the situation arises!
What about you? What are you gifted at? I think we over-emphasize gifts in the wrong way. We definitely over-use tests for finding our gifts. The early church didn’t have free online tests; they asked the Spirit to show them, observed their life for what they’re good at, listened to their heart to see what they’re passionate about, and heard from other people what they do that most helps others. You may not realize you have the gift of encouragement because to you, this is just how you are. But others will tell you that you have encouraged them deeply, and you realize that you like to speak uplifting words to people. Great! This is one of the things God has gifted you at right now!
If that’s the case, then speak uplifting words to people. Continue to do what you do and, since you are now more aware, do it more deliberately. Don’t do it on your own; when you see someone who is down, ask the Spirit to give you the right words and the right timing. Your gift isn’t yours; it belongs to the Spirit and is given to you at his discretion and out of his love for you and work in you.
What about the gifts of exhortation (telling people truth they need to hear), discernment, or administration? The person who is good at encouraging might be bad at one or all of these. Let’s say you encounter someone who you know needs to be confronted (exhorted) about something; or you discover that your biblestudy needs a new leader, and no one else is able to step up to the plate. Will you just sit by? I think God calls us to use the gifts we have; but he also calls us to step outside of our comfort zone and do things that we aren’t good at.
“In my weakness, God is strong,” writes Paul of his mysterious “thorn in his side.” There was something that was hard for him to do; but where he had difficulty, God made a way with ease. God is glorified in our discomfort, difficulty, and lack of skill. Pursue what you’re good at; but also pursue what you’re not good at. Don’t do it because you want to be like someone else or because you don’t like your gifts or think them inferior. Do it so as to build up the church and to share the glory of God in the way you live. Do it because you love the Lord. As you pursue the Spirit with passion, he will come upon you in power and make you uniquely and beautifully what he wants you to be.
Finally, we need to remember that Paul sums up every passage he wrote about spiritual gifts with an exhortation to love one another. “Seeking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Jesus Christ…” In 1 Corinthians 12, he tells us to pursue our own gifts but also to pursue any gift that uplifts the Body of Christ. “Now,” he says, “I will show you a most excellent way:”
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
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 we will see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.
~1 Corinthians 13 (all 13 verses)
A comprehensive list of all the Scriptures referred to in this post and relating to spiritual gifts can be found here: Spiritual Gifts