Friday, 25 September 2009

Spiritual Gifts

In answering the question, What is a Spiritual Gift?, perhaps the first thought that comes to mind is whether or not a spiritual gift is the same as a natural talent or ability. The answer I think the Bible gives is that gifts are not the same as natural talents because spiritual gifts are given to those who are ‘in Christ Jesus’, whereas natural talents are given to every person.

To say that gifts are different from natural talents does not mean that our talents are not to be used in serving Christ. It is possible that some spiritual gifts can be complemented by natural abilities. An obvious example is that of a good speaker who becomes a pastor; in such a situation his natural abilities in speaking will aid his spiritual gift of instructing God’s people.

Having said that, it is also the case that God may not want to use our natural talents in the church but instead to use them in a non-church calling. A person may be a skilful sculptor or painter, but the Bible does not indicate that God wants to use such talents in a church meeting.

So while we have to use our natural talents to serve God in our daily living, when it comes to the growth of the church we need to use spiritual gifts. And I suspect that is one of the crucial differences between natural talents and spiritual gifts. Our talents are given primarily to help us live in our society and make a contribution to it; our spiritual gift(s) are given in order for the church to grow.

Another area of overlap is that between gifts of the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Every spiritually-healthy Christian will have each aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, in some measure at least. Sadly, it is possible for spiritual gifts to be exercised in the church by believers who have stifled the growth of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. It is possible for the Bible to be taught by a minister who has lost his love. It is possible for the church to be led by those who have no current experience of peace. It is possible for acts of mercy to be done without joy or compassion. The reality is that the fruit of the Spirit, and not spiritual gifts, is the clear sign of the presence of God.

But what is a spiritual gift?
The well-known author, Jerry Bridges, says that a spiritual gift is an ability given by God to a person who is empowered by the Holy Spirit to perform the specific function within the church that God has assigned to each [believer]. While no definition is 100% accurate and contains all that can be said, I think his definition highlights several important aspects of spiritual gifts.

(1) A gift is given by God and is an evidence of his grace towards us as individuals in that he assigns to each of us a particular function in the church. As our sovereign he decides what each of us is to do. His choice of who does what may be surprising. It is not always the most intellectual Christian that he gifts to teach his people. It is not always the successful Christian businessman that he gifts to lead the church. It is not always Christians with the most possessions that he gifts with the outlook of mercy and helping others. In any case, we need to recognise the grace of God in involving each of us in the growth of his church.

(2) Although the gift is given by God, the exercise of it is not automatic. Each person needs to be empowered by the Holy Spirit continually in order to function. This goes as much for the less public gifts as for the gifts that are more easily seen by others. I think this point is worth repeating because it is possible for all the gifts to be done in a way that is not spiritual. So we need to pray that God would empower us to function in the church.

(3) Further, although each believer has been given a gift, he or she has not been given it for their own benefit or self-fulfilment. God was not primarily blessing us as individuals when he gave us our gifts; rather he was blessing the church. If we keep our spiritual gift to ourselves then we fail as believers. The point of exercising our gift is that other Christians will grow in grace as a result. The goal of spiritual gifts is mutual edification (1 Cor. 14:3-5, 12, 26; Eph. 4:12, 16).

But how does each of us know what our gifts are?
I think we should begin by assuming that God has not given us a high-profile gift. This seems to me to be an essential aspect of humility. Of course, if we discover that our gift(s) does require a public role, then we need to exercise it in a humble manner.

Secondly, we have to pray for God to indicate to us what our gift(s) are? I suspect that God will do this by giving us a servant heart in these particular areas of gift. A person gifted to teach does it to help those he is teaching, not to show off his knowledge; he teaches because he wants his hearers to become like Christ. A person gifted to lead cares passionately for those he leads; he longs to remove from their paths any obstacles to them being like Christ and serving him. A person gifted to mercy does it because he is driven by the love of Christ to care for others.

Thirdly, God will also answer this prayer by giving opportunities in his providence. If a person has been a Christian for a while it is very likely that God will open doors for service, and these opportunities in themselves will point to roles in the church.

Fourthly, an important factor in discovering our spiritual gifts is the advice of others, particularly the leaders of the church. Elders should discern what gifts are in the congregation and be ready to advise people concerning their roles. But each of us needs to contribute spiritually in order for the church to mature.

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