recalibrating spiritual gifts

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.

nice chatting



Jade Stanger said…
Two things that stood out to me. The way people limit their view of the spirit. And the spirit as a gift of grace - That is a complex topic. I went through a time where I felt called to ministry, this was five years ago. I applied for a certain track. I was declined, despite a significant strong calling I felt. I acknowledged I was unprepared for such an endeavor but had faith that God would over the next few years prepare for the task I felt he was calling me to. When I found out I thought to myself, there are two different views of how God works here. One that relies more on God, one that relies more on our ability. Funny enough I have never forgotten a sermon I heard you preach Paul before about God equipping us to do what he calls us to do (this was before I was rejected). The concept has inspired me so much over the years. I (who deep down is not all that self assured) hold on to this. If God calls me, he will equip me.
Paul said…
Appreciate these comments and hearing a bit of your story, Jade.

You touch on a related, but different, topic: how do we discern the call of God. You have had to hear the hard comments of people outside of yourself making calls about your calling. That is not easy! And yet I think it is an integral part of discerning the call of God on our lives. It must be more than an individual and subjective activity. The wider 'community' need to be involved to make the process more objective.

Tough - but important, particularly if we have people who love us enough to be honest with us.

Rejection ain't easy - but it is often part of the deal. I hope you can settle into God's call on your life and experience his gifting and equipping to do and to be all that He wants for you.
Rob Namba said…
Paul, thanks for this helpful post. Can you shed light on the context of the original question you were discussing? And can you unpack point 5 a bit further? It left me wanting more. Cheers,
not a wild hera said…

I often wonder, too, how people focused in the SG-culture you describe read the Old Testament, full of unable people who God called and equipped for jobs they weren't qualified for.

Or the New, for that matter, thinking about Peter and Paul! And which of the fishermen and tax collectors had career advisers telling them they would be awesome at evangelism?

Anyway. Amen!


PS Don't be too hard on yourself, P-Dub, I bet you were great on Tuesday.
Paul Windsor said…
I hear you 'tkr' (not for the first time either)...

#5 does need a bit more unpacking, Rob. I've decided to add a few comments to the original post to make it clearer.

As for the original context, I think it came up at various places during the interview. At one point I was asked for a final word of advice to those in training and I made a comment about the need to pay attention to weaknesses, not just strengths.
Mark Maffey said…
Paul whilst I agree with the fact that the focus should always be on the gift giver, and that is our God of grace who gives to each as he determines and that the parable of talents shows that is not what we have been blessed with that matters, rather working out our own salvation with fear and trembling and exercising what God given us, Paul in speaking to the churches in Rome (Romans 12), Corinth (1 Cor 12)and Ephesus (Eph 4)raises the gifts of the Spirit within different contexts, whilst reinforcing that God does call people to do different things, not all are called to be preachers, but all are called to function as parts of the body of Christ so that the body may function fully. Over the past twenty odd years I have participated in Life in The Spirit and Network, and whilst they can be useful tools, nothing substitutes our own individual seeking after God and being prepared to accept that what we would like to be, and what calls us toward can be quite different things. The more I journey, the more I learn to be faithful in small things, trusting his nudges, being prepared to trust the words of knowledge which come from in the exercising of who I am in God which is to encourage and help others in their Journey. I firmly God does have gifts of grace, and wishes to empower us through his Spirit, and I have seen God work through others, and occasionally myself in many ways. At the end of the day, like the Apostle Paul my end desire is that I no longer liveth but Christ liveth in me
Andrea said…
Preach it bro. I found this a timely and refreshing reminder especially as I'm struggling with an essay at the moment and I'm supposedly 'good at' writing!
Ali said…
Sounds as though you agree with Ken Bearding, Paul.
Mark Forrest said…
Hmmm, that's all very interesting Paul.

I've had a growing discomfort for a few years now with the whole catalogisation of the Spiritual Gifts that has come through our affulent and consumer-driven western churches. And not just charismatic style ones either; I'd hardly call Willow Creek charismatic.

I feel more at ease with the notion like you said, that the Spirit will empower us to do what God has called us to do. That just makes more sense to me, and a holistic reading biblical narratives supports that.

Hope you're well mate,

Paul said…
More to the point - I hope YOU are well, Mark.

Good to hear from you.

God will gift you for what he calls you to do!

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