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The subject of spiritual gifts is a loaded topic in the Church that has become a source of guilt and stress for many. Thousands of years ago, some letter writing apostles observed that God works through us all differently. A valuable point to ponder. But today we’ve taken a couple of lists in the Bible and used them to create a whole system of ranks and comparisons within our congregations which we then use to label souls and pressure them into doing things that go against the Spirit’s leading. Not every church abuses the concept of spiritual gifts, but many do. If you’ve found yourself sitting flushed face in a Membership 101 class not knowing the answer to the question “So, what are YOUR gifts?”, don’t feel alone. Many an innocent lamb has been made to feel inferior when it comes to their spiritual gifting, and many others have become pompous braggarts by flaunting labels they don’t understand.
Nowhere in the Bible does God say “Hurry up and figure out how I intend to work through you and then label yourself so that everyone can properly stereotype you.” Yet this exactly what we say in the Church. Many of us are familiar with that good old baseball diamond diagram which comes out in new member classes. One of the bases is always about serving. If we love God, we all need to get off our duffs and hop to it. As your superior, I don’t know whether to pack you off to children’s ministry, the worship team, or the chair folding committee until I know your gifts. Out come the questionnaires and answer forms: let’s all fill in the bubbles so we can read God’s mind about how He intends to use you for the rest of your life. Generously, we have given God multiple options to choose from. Ready, set, go. An hour later, you are informed of your gifting, told where and how to express it, and told who to report to. We’ve got an excellent system worked out so that no time is wasted in driving the sheep into their respective service pens. Satan’s a big fan of our system because it stunts growth, heaps on guilt, and scatters the flock into disillusionment and burnout. What a mess we’ve helped him make with this ridiculous labeling system.
Let’s set the baseball diamond aside and get back to the old vine and branch analogy. What can we do apart from Christ? We can wallow in sin and carnality. Hardly something to boast about. As Christians, we want to do good things for God. Too bad, because we can’t. We’re just branches. All we can do is cling to our Vine. The Vine has all the power, and the Vine is filled with righteousness which He generously sends flowing through us. So how can we take credit for anything good that we do? We can’t. We can just cling to God and watch in amazement as His awesome power flows through us and shines His pure light through our carnal shells. Can we track how and when God will flow through us? Nope. Can we read His mind? Nope. Can we count on Him to always work the same way for any amount of time? Nope. So what can we do? We can cling to the Vine. Ours is a very simple job.
Instead of teaching new believers how to stereotype themselves, we should be teaching them how to cling to God, how to discern His Voice, and how to trust Him. It doesn’t matter what your spiritual survey score is. God is going to use you however He wants to and no paper booklet can box Him in or anticipate Him. There’s really no value in playing the label game. Suppose your survey says you have the gift of mercy. What does this mean? Should you now barge in whenever you see an opportunity to act merciful? Of course not. You need to wait for God’s timing and direction now just as much as before you took the survey. Getting a label changes nothing, it only tempts us to rely on human logic instead of waiting on God.
If we have any experience with studying the Bible, we should know that God enjoys using people out of context. He picks nobodies to lead armies (Gideon). He picks social rejects to save the world (Noah). He uses rebels to inspire repentance (Jonah). He sends poor speakers in to address royalty (Moses). Yet in the Church we teach people to stick close to their comfort zones by operating within their gifting. This isn’t very biblical, but neither is dragging people out of their comfort zones just because we need more volunteers to make some ministry work. At some point, we need to stop playing Holy Spirit in everyone’s lives. Instead of telling souls how God wants them to serve, we should be teaching souls how to hear God speak for Himself. There’s no way we can know how God intends to use someone else. Sure, we can see classic indicators. If I have a friend who feels compelled to share the Gospel message with anything that moves, I’m going to smile to myself and figure God’s got plans to use her to do a lot of evangelizing in the future. But that doesn’t mean I should encourage her to go around labeling herself and viewing her future through such a narrow lens. One gift is far too limited. God may use her to evangelize one day and restore broken limbs the next. Perhaps the third day He’ll use her to cast out demons. Who can say? God never promised to limit the ways He might use us. He never said He’d use us the same way for any length of time. Perhaps I’ll suddenly speak in tongues one morning and never speak it again. What does it really matter, so long as God gets His way?
The real reason we are in such a rush to slap labels onto people is because we want their manpower to keep the machinery of the Church moving forward. If we were running some worldly business, this kind of reasoning might be justified. In the Church, it’s not. We work for God and God alone. If we’re not waiting for His direction, we’re running ahead of Him unauthorized. If we don’t have enough volunteers to do some particular ministry than obviously we shouldn’t be doing it. Guilting people into service is totally out of line and when we start using such carnal tactics, it’s often an indicator that we’ve been taken over by carnal motivations. Suppose I feel called by God to start some new ministry for the elderly at my church. I can’t do all the work myself but no one signs up when I put out the volunteer sheets. At this point, I have two options: get an attitude and start haranguing people into helping me, or step back and wait on God. After all, it was HIS idea. Obviously HE knows how to make it work and HE will bring the help in HIS time. If no one signs up, I’ll just have to give it up for the moment and wait until He tells me to try again.
This brings up another key lesson we learn from the Bible: God likes to tell us our callings way ahead of time. He told Noah about a flood 100 years before the first drop fell. He told Abraham he’d have a son 25 years before the child was born. He anointed David as king at least 15 years before he got to sit on the throne. He said a Messiah would come…well, those numbers are just too depressing to quote. The point is, just because God says you’re His prophet doesn’t mean you’ll get your first message five minutes later. Just because He calls you to preach doesn’t mean you’ll stand behind a pulpit tomorrow. One classic pattern with God is this: He first opens our minds to be receptive to ways He intends to use us that perhaps we may have never considered, then He trains and equips us to be used in those ways without getting fat heads (this part can take many years), and THEN He finally gets around to actually using us. In general, the more public your calling, the longer your prep time will probably be. Moses ran away from Egypt, wandered around in the desert, met some people, got a job, fell in love, and had kids before he ever saw the burning bush.
It’s good to help souls become open to the possibility of God using them in ways they might not expect, and that could be a useful topic in our new member classes. But we shouldn’t then cattle prod them into duty because it’s highly unlikely that they’re anywhere near ready to serve from God’s perspective. We need to give souls a chance to get confident in recognizing God’s leading in their lives. We need to realize that God’s first order of business with them is probably not going to be helping us with our current ministry projects. It’s far more likely that He has quite a bit of internal work He wants to do with them in the privacy of their own souls before sending them into a team environment.
Let’s remember that leadership roles in the Church are supposed to be reserved for the mature, not for any Christian who can breathe air. So often we shove the young into positions of teaching and leading way before they are ready. Even teaching five-year-olds is a position of leadership and it is not appropriate for someone who is just learning the Bible themselves. By being too hasty to get manpower, we weaken our leadership structure so that the young end up leading the young. We need only look around at all the bickering and division in the Church today to see what happens when spiritual infants are put in charge.
Spiritual gifts are just that—gifts. And they’re a special kind of gift. If I give you money for your birthday, it then becomes your property to spend however you want. Not so with the gifts of God. I never own the mercy of God, nor do I own His wisdom. These things are His possessions and He channels them through me in temporary bursts according to His pleasure. By calling these things gifts, we recognize how unnatural their presence is within human beings, the same way that we’d find it odd for a poor man to suddenly be driving a sports car. Clearly the man couldn’t afford such a thing on his own, and clearly fallen humans aren’t natural wellsprings of mercy and wisdom. Thus all credit, glory and applause for what God does through us should be directly solely at God.
Spotting evidence of a spiritual gift is like catching a glimpse of Jesus walking by. The glimpse is what’s exciting—which human window He happened to walk past is beside the point. Too often we get this all backwards and go around boasting about what great windows we are because one time someone caught a glimpse of God in us. This is utterly foolish behavior. A window can hardly take credit for what someone sees through it. A window just sits there. Likewise, I can’t take credit for God shining through me because I have no control over Him. The Holy Spirit isn’t some magician’s prop that we can whip out whenever it’s convenient, yet many supposed healers and teachers today treat Him exactly like this. How many times have you seen a banner for some church event which promises that God will show up on some specific day and time? How brazen of us to market the God of the universe in such a carnal fashion!
When we put spiritual gifts back into perspective, we realize there’s really nothing to get so hyped up about. God will work through us in many different ways: this is the main point we learn from studying the gifts passages. When we read the rest of the Bible, we learn that God will often use us in ways we feel totally unequipped for. Bottom line: we can’t predict God. Given this, we should conclude that we must be wide open to Him using us in any way He wants and we must also learn how to recognize His Voice and leading so that we will keep in step with Him. Other humans will be of limited help in this area, for they can only give us tips based on their own experiences. The bulk of our education must come from God Himself. The Holy Spirit is quite capable of preparing us to be fit vessels for His use without our taking classes and stressing over gift labels.
If you have no idea what your gifts are, you’re in a great spot. You can have a nice open mind on the subject, and that makes you quite pliable in God’s hands. Reject any implications that you’re somehow less special to God just because you haven’t got some fancy label. Instead, consider your lack of specific leading an indicator that His plans for you are far too exciting and broad to be summarized by one single word.
If you feel very certain what your gifts are and you’re frustrated at not being able to act on them, be patient. Remember that it takes time for God to mature and refine us. Decide that you want to be as useful to Him as possible, and that means letting Him clean your window’s glass until it is sparkling and spotless. Don’t let others pressure you into signing up for some ministry that matches your gifts but not your internal convictions. It is critical that you wait for God’s perfect timing before stepping out. Be assured He won’t waste you at all. We often fall prey to thinking that God’s wasting our best years with training and perhaps we’ll be too old or infirm to serve Him energetically later on in life. Yet God controls all of our resources and He will give you exactly what you need the moment you need it. Moses was 120 years old when he died, and he led that mob in the wilderness for forty long years, “yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone” (Deut 34:7). Remember that your service to God isn’t going to begin the day He gives you some special assignment: you are serving Him right now by choosing to do things His way instead of yours. Your voluntary submission to God is what blesses Him most, not the works He Himself does through you.
If you’ve always viewed yourself as having a specific gifting, but now you’re experiencing your zeal for such work rapidly fading, be open to new possibilities. Remember that the same God who created natural seasons works in spiritual seasons as well. Your days of functioning as a certain part of the Body may be coming to a permanent end. Be open to the Spirit moving you on to an entirely different section. “Once a toe, always a toe” is a popular mindset in the Church but it is dead wrong. God does dramatic shifts in callings and careers all the time. Learning to be fluid with Him is essential to staying in step with Him.