One topic which does not get discussed much in the current American Christian church, is spiritual gifts. Why not? The Bible seems to give us quite a few passages which talk about spiritual gifts. Compare Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:28-31, Ephesians 4:10-11, and 1 Peter 4:10-11, and a consistent teaching bubbles up.
To summarize, it seems that each Christian believer is given (by God) one or more spiritual gifts. These are to be used for the building up of the church as a whole. While the gifts differ, each gift is important, the less prominent gifts having great value just as do the more visible gifts. Thus while someone may have gifts to be a pastor, evangelist, or leader, another person in the church may have a less visible gift, for example a gift of helping or of showing mercy. These less prominent gifts are needed.
All this is incredibly good news, and should make us sit up and take notice. Isn’t this typical of God’s generosity? What, every knucklehead Christian has a gift which the church really needs to have exercised by that knucklehead? Yes, apparently so, according to the Bible.
Why then do we hear so little about spiritual gifts? Every one of us has at least one spiritual gift, and clearly (by looking around us) we see that most people have more than just one. This is something to celebrate, so why don’t we talk about spiritual gifts much more?
I think the answer is that if we talk about our spiritual gifts, it will be borne in upon us all too clearly that we are responsible to exercise our spiritual gift (or gifts). And if there is one thing we can almost all agree on, it is that responsibility is something we love to avoid.
We all just want to be a Christian and thus to avoid going to hell or being annihilated, and we want to have our ticket punched for heaven (eventually–no hurry). Accept responsibility? Not so much.
By admitting that our default position is to avoid responsibility, we face our situation honestly.
Let’s go back and consider the remarkable fact that God gave each believer at least one spiritual gift. This gift comes “naturally” to the person. By naturally, we mean that God supernaturally intervened to give each believer that gift. But even a natural gift must be cultivated if it is to come to full fruition.
Two examples will suffice to prove this. Michael Jordan, the famous basketball players, had a gift given to him by God, to play basketball. But he had to cultivate that gift. He played basketball. A lot. He worked at becoming a better basketball player. Gradually, as he cultivated his gift, he became one of the greatest players in basketball history.
The second example is painful. In our county we had a young runner who had a lot of natural running ability. This ability was cultivated, but only to a certain extent. A high degree of success was reached, at an early age. This runner almost certainly had the potential to be a national class runner–possibly world class. But the cultivation stopped. The gift was allowed to atrophy. God’s gift was frittered away.
The point is obvious: we must cultivate the gift God gives us, or we may fritter away our opportunity He has given us to help Him build up His church and build up His kingdom on earth.
There is another aspect to gifts, which is also embarrassing to us to contemplate. That is, while we may not have a natural bent from God to be excellent to exercise all spiritual gifts in a dramatically good fashion, still we can improve in developing our non-gifts into something that looks very much like a productive gift. Thus, our natural gift may not be toward service or showing mercy, but we can become markedly better even in serving and showing mercy!
An obvious example proving this embarrassing truth, is readily at hand. God requires of us that we tithe (give 10%) to His church (Malachi 3:8-12). We as an American church give about 2.5%, or one-quarter of what God requires (see emptytomb.org). So we are falling far short of what God requires. But He does not ask of us more than we can fulfill. So every one of us could tithe to God’s church, if we were determined to do so.
Clearly most Christians do not have the gift of giving! Giving is a gift which, the Bible says, the recipient is to exercise with liberality, so yes, giving is a gift from God (Romans 12:8). Some people have a natural gift from God to be willing and able to give generously. It does not pain such people to tithe and even to be further generous in their giving. They are blessed to have that gift. But I suspect that even so they had to learn to cultivate that gift.
People without the natural gift of giving could work at doing better in their giving. If they did so, the 2.5% giving of the average Christian would within a few years move to 4%, 6%, and eventually 10%. We can cultivate non-gifts, just as we can cultivate gifts.
We don’t want responsibility, so we don’t think about our gifts, and so the church leadership does not spend time trying to identify the particular natural gifts God has given every member of the church.
There is one other possible reason why the church talks of spiritual gifts so seldom.
I’ll try to say this gently. I’ve bashed those of amillennial and dispensational persuasion so often, that even I can barely stand it. So I just want to say as quietly as I can: because we do not expect to see the kingdom of God built up on earth in time and history, we are not looking for means to build up God’s kingdom on earth. Spiritual gifts from God, diligently exercised by us, are an obvious means to advance God’s kingdom. But God’s kingdom cannot be advanced in a dramatic fashion on the earth, so spiritual gifts are not really all that practical. They can’t help us do something which can’t be done. So, at least, amillennialism and dispensationalism would have us believe.
One of the most humbling and instructive verses in Scripture surely must be 1 Corinthians 4:7. Verse 6 warns us against arrogance. Then, verse 7, “For who regards you as superior? And what do you have that you did not receive? But if you did receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?”
Salvation itself is a gift. Not something we earned. So boasting is not reasonable. But everything good we receive, not just salvation, is a gift. Are you naturally good-looking? A naturally good athlete? Naturally intelligent in mathematics? You have a gift for anything? The verse encourages us to remember that we didn’t give ourselves these gifts. We are the recipients of gifts. Humility should be the order of the day. Which, of course, is easier said than done.
Note how generous God has been to give us gifts, including (but not limited to) spiritual gifts. If He is generous and does not begrudge giving us gifts, it seems in good logic that we in turn should be willing to exercise our gifts to build up the church and others. (We are recipients of gifts, not the creators of the gifts we received.) Which, in a result typical of God’s organization of reality, when we exercise our gifts in the service of others this tends to build us up at the same time as we become people more in line with what He wants us to be!
I encourage each Christian to try to learn what your particular spiritual gift is. Then cultivate that gift; don’t let it atrophy. Meanwhile, work at improving even those spiritual gifts which are not natural to you. Also, while each person has at least one spiritual gift, experience seems to teach us that most people have more than one gift. Don’t be surprised if two or more spiritual gifts are more or less natural to you. Cultivate every one. God wants you to use your gifts for others as well as for yourself.
Don’t expect spectacular results as you use your gifts. Just do your small part. God has millions of servants. He just needs each of us to do a little bit. He’ll make it work out.
Also, you can help other people realize that they have a spiritual gift or gifts. Most people don’t ever think about this topic. If you keep your eyes peeled, you can begin to see the natural spiritual gift which God has given to someone. You can help other people identify their spiritual gift or gifts. A word of encouragement could bear long-term fruit in another person’s life, and to the benefit of all of us.
If you are a non-Christian, spending half an hour studying Bible passages which speak of spiritual gifts may alert you to the fact that you are the recipient of one or more gifts which God wants to see used for the building up of the church and of others. So, prayerfully, over as many days or weeks as you need, consider whether or not you are being called to humble service of the God who created you. Repent, accept the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ, and then use your gifts to serve God and others. You can’t do a lot worse than the rest of us.