This past week I made my first trip back to Carey Baptist College to be interviewed as the weekly community lunch came to a close. The interview covered all sorts of topics.
Early the next morning I received an email from someone whose opinion I respect, suggesting that I had been "strident" and "disparaging" in the way I had spoken about spiritual gifts. Gulp?! Those are strong words. He is probably right. I suspect that I did give that impression. For three decades I have considered that children and grandchildren of charismatic renewal have rarely embraced this subject with the biblical balance it needs. Plus, I was very nervous and notefree and that combo often gets me into trouble...
However let me try and pull together my misgivings on the way spiritual gifts have tended to be handled over the past generation. Maybe this will dilute any strident disparaging-ness...
1. For years - to be fair, it does not seem to be quite so common anymore - the approach taken was to cobble together a definitive list of spiritual gifts from the various lists in the New Testament. The presupposition is that a person's gift is somewhere on this list - and often there is a ranking given with a primary gifting and a couple of secondary ones. I am not convinced that such a definitive list exists.
2. When it comes to offering guidance on an area of service, the advice tends to be "find your spiritual gift and use it". This suggests that spiritual gifting determines where obedience will lie. This is the default setting in so much of contemporary Christian life and conversation. I just don't buy it. In offering guidance on an area of service, the primary advice must be to listen to God's general and specific call on my life, revealed primarily in his Word and heard best in the context of community, and then step out and "trust and obey for there is no other way". And what do we find happening? As we 'trust and obey', God energises our obedience and makes it possible by gifting us for what he has called us to be and to do. Calling is prior to gifting. Gifting energises obedience, it does not determine obedience.
3. The problem with #2 is that it tends to leave people living and serving only within the boundaries of their gifts and what they are good at. So when and where do we work at our weaknesses - a critical issue, given that long-term effectiveness is linked directly to self-awareness about weakness, more than strength? Does it quietly become impossible for God to call someone to do that for which they are unproven, or simply not good at doing? When does a person, living solely in their gifts and strengths, have the opportunity to echo with Paul that “I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor 12.9)?
Too easily and too often living exclusively in our strengths and our gifts is a recipe for self-sufficiency, self-confidence and it can shut-out God simply because he is not needed so much. The CV-culture beyond the church and the SG-culture (spiritual gift) within the church - when it operates like this - are over-rated as devices for guiding and placing people in arenas of service.
4. People lose sight of the fact that the word for 'spiritual gift' is the word for 'grace' with a few letters added on. With spiritual gifts we are in the realm of what we do not deserve - like our very salvation. So why then do people so commonly sound so possessive of spiritual gifts - for example, speaking of my spiritual gift as if it is something to find and then to own? Spiritual gifts are to grace what raindrops are to rain - and God can turn the rain on and off whenever he pleases. Spiritual gifts grace our lives for the service of others to the glory of God.
5. I am sorry about this next misgiving. Forgive me for saying it. But in the hands of the immature, this is what I have seen again and again over the years. There is a dangerous syncretism going on. In the absence of #4 owning us, I fear that in a world so dedicated to anthropocentrism, so devoted to consumerism, and so susceptible to narcissism what fuels the preoccupation with spiritual gifts can owe more to the spirit of the age than to the Spirit of God.
When we come to the topic of spiritual gifts having soaked in a culture that is full of receiving what I deserve, living for what feels good and what fulfills me, and claiming what is mine by right - it is easy to place 'my' spiritual gift in the same frame and empty the picture of all grace.
6. When people talk about "the things of the Spirit", inevitably they are referring today to the practise of spiritual gifts - and often just that smaller number of 'power' gifts. I am not a cessationist. Far from it. But what concerns me is the "Honey, I shrunk the Spirit" era through which we have lived. The 'things of the Spirit' become equated with (power) spiritual gifts when this is a relatively minor aspect of New Testament teaching on the Spirit. What happened to the Spirit being the agent by which God sanctifies us and makes us holy? When did you hear a series on that theme? Holiness is out of vogue today. What happened to the fruit of the Spirit? What happened to the Spirit active within the trinity? What happened to the Spirit active in revelation? It just goes on and on and on. These are also 'the things of the Spirit', are they not?!
I think I may be starting to sound strident and disparaging again. That is not my intention. If we do not embrace the fullness of who the Spirit is we cannot really expect a part of what the Spirit does - the giving of spiritual gifts - to be all that it is designed to be in the life of the church.
In reality if you scratch a bit further I will admit to where some of the stridency comes from. I am a great admirer of my father (and my mother too!) and his testimony of walking with God. A little book on his life is due out within weeks. The story of Dad's life is the way God kept calling him away from what he was gifted for to embrace some odd obedience - which when he stepped out to 'trust and obey', God energised him with the gifts he needed to be faithful and effective. And in my own little life I have experienced this. That call to Carey, where I was this past week, was an odd obedience. Nothing in my CV suggested being a Principal to be the next step. It was silly. I was out of my depth. But God called me. Weakness after weakness surfaced in those years - but so did God's gracious gifting of me as I leaned on him for help within a supportive community.