Problems with Spiritual Gifts


Years ago I used to lead some seminars on Spiritual Gifts, and Spiritual Gift Assessments. They have value… I think. But maybe it is time to rethink their value. I recall people 10 years ago saying that for centuries Christians had ignored the important role that Spiritual Gifts have in the Bible… but that now things have changed. Even back then when I was leading these trainings, I was wondering about that statement. Spiritual Gifts really aren’t particularly emphasized in the Bible;  and even when they are talked about, there are more questions than answers. If one removed all places where spiritual gifts are explicitly referenced, the Bible would not look much different.

  • First, a lot of the information provided in the training for Spiritual Gifts was simply made up. These programs would give answers to questions such as: How many spiritual gifts there are? How many gifts each Christian has? Does every Christian have at least one spiritual gift? When do we get our spiritual gift or gifts? Can we lose spiritual gifts? Can we make God give us the gifts we want? The problem is that for the most part, the answers were manufactured by the writers of the training… there is little to no guidance given in the Bible to these answers. But I think the lack of information actually tells us something. We probably should focus more on where God is leading us, recognizing that God will gift us in doing what needs to be done. In other words, we should not try to discover our spiritual gifts to figure out what we should do. Rather, we should discover where God is leading us and understand that He will empower us to do what He wants us to do.
  • Second, the spiritual gift assessments often assume that the individual is the one best suited to determine God’s giftings. Not surprising. These assessments tend to be written in the United States, where individualism is the focus. But often the individual is the least suited to recognize God’s giftings. I have had people come up to me and say that God has given them a certain gifting. A common one is discernment— Someone would tell me that they have the gift of discernment. I would smile and nod… but I am thinking to myself… “Oh no you don’t!!” Often the church as a whole is more competent to identify spiritual gifts. The better assessments don’t just ask the individual to fill out the form, but also ask members in the church to fill it out for the individual as well. Still, if one has a higher score for “Helps” than one does for “Wisdom,” that is pretty minimal evidence that one has a spiritual gift. 
  • Third, often spiritual gift assessments are used backwards… to suggest what each of us SHOULD NOT be doing. “Oh… I can’t go visit my neighbors, I don’t have the gift of evangelism.” “I can’t serve food, I don’t have the gift of helps.” “I can’t lead a small group… I have no gift of teaching.” Such arguments are often self-serving… and God often uses people, at least for a short time, to do things that they lack skills, gifts, or passion for (talk to Jonah about that one). God is often glorified most in our succeeding in weakness.
  • Fourth, spiritual gifts when spoken of in the Bible have a lot of warnings built into them. The gift to speak in other languages is talked about a lot by Paul, but much of his talk minimizes the gift, or provides distinct cautions. There is a lot of warning regarding prophecy as well. Having a spiritual gift in no way implies that one will use it wisely. Solomon, gifted with wisdom, still made some decisions that were clearly foolish in the long-term. Just like the Bible never suggests that a person should be taken as a pastor of a church by identifying a “divine calling,” it also never suggests that prophecy is true if it comes someone with a gift of prophecy. For prophecy, the test is God’s canon. The Bible even makes it clear that miracles (seemingly undeniable proof of divine empowerment) are no proof that the person is a follower of Christ.

My suggestions are two-fold.

A.  Look at the big picture. I like SHAPES:   Spiritual Gifts, Heart, Ability (natural and learned), Personality, Experiences, and Sphere of Influence. A broader self-understanding is likely to say more about what one should do than simply one small aspect.

B.  Understand that as part of a community of faith, the needs, and evaluations of the (spiritually mature) church are often better at evaluating one than a self-evaluation. Recall that it was an outsider, Barnabas, who recognized the potential in Paul to serve in Antioch, and it was the church leadership of Antioch, led by the Spirit that identified Paul and Barnabas to serve as apostles. The Damascus Call of Paul may have been important to him… but in serving the church, the confirmation of the Twelve, along with the church of Antioch were critical.

So how does this apply to a potential missionary?

  • Mission agencies don’t simply look for that (ever elusive and theologically doubtful) thing called a missionary calling. Nor do they look for the “gift of apostleship.” They seek to look at the big picture— a more holistic evaluation.
  • It is probably best to see the call or gift for missions in terms of identifications by the church, rather than some personal experience. Even if one has a clear personal experience, if the heart, ability, and gifting cannot be recognized by the church, there is some problem. (Yes… the problem might be the church… but it is still a problem to address.)
  • Take a big picture view of one’s Christian path. Don’t just look at where you are right now, but where have you been and where do you see God leading. Calling is not a place or an occupation. It is a path… and that path goes back years in the past and continues years into the future.
  • Take a big view of missions. Some agencies only want people with “a heart of evangelism” or perhaps “focus on churchplanting.” That is fine— it is their right. But Christian ministry is diverse. Broaden your view of ministry to God’s, don’t narrow your view to that of a particular church, denomination, or agency.




Dream SMALL!!!

Having been involved in missions and ministry, I hear it often said that we should have “BIG DREAMS” or “God-size vision.” Dream small

And I see people try to carry that out. They add “International” or “International Ministries” to their name to suggest that they don’t just think locally. I have been part of an organization that was already trying to establish a national network before we had even done our first project. Others try to have simultaneous mass events to show… well, I really don’t know what they think they are showing… but something big I guess.

The slogan “The Evangelization of the World in This Generation” has been around since… around 1888, and has generated a lot of things like “Disciple a Whole Nation,” AD2000, and “saturation church-planting” and CPMs. None of these are bad, I suppose. They certainly sound… BIG.

One I find particularly strange is “Fulfilling the Great Commission in this generation.” The Great Commission is a call to long-term faithful obedience (even unto the end of the age), so fulfillment should mean to continue to do what we (are supposed to) have been doing all along. But the expression seems to suggest that not only is there some unwritten finish line, but that finish line is supposed to be reached in the next 20 or 30 years. Seems like a phrase to throw away, really.

For me, I am a big fan of dreaming small. Borrowing from the phrase in “Tiny House Nation,” — “Tiny dreams are the next big thing.” We joined a group here that was ministering to a needy segment of society. Another group was also doing the same thing. We were not in competition… and in fact we consider ourselves partners. The other group promised to start out from day 1 with over 50 ministry sites in the region. We chose to start only 1. Over the next few months, the one group quickly dropped its locations by 75%. Ours doubled… from 1 to 2. Now, does that mean that the other group was wrong? Absolutely not… and they are still bigger than us. But in our case, we kept our promises to those we were working with and learned some lessons when small that have allowed us to slowly grow. One of these days we hope to grow… but when it is time and when we have more people who have been trained and empowered to expand the task.

Early on in our counseling center, we had dreams of branches all over the Philippines. We even set up a branch elsewhere. We soon discovered, however, that we did not know how to manage multiple sites. Frankly, we barely know how to manage one site. We decided to go in a different direction. We train people and send them out forming partnerships and networks rather than a bigger and bigger organization. While the votes are not all in on this, so far it seems to be a much better decision.

God-sized Vision

But let’s get back to this… What size is a God-sized Vision? I think, generally, it is pretty small. God’s great work of human creation started with two people (Genesis 1). God’s vision to bless the world was through one family (Genesis 12). God’s work to save and transform mankind was through one, and a dozen trainees. God’s description of His kingly rule is in terms of a bit of almost invisible yeast that only very slowly has a big effect… or a tiny seed that is barely big enough to notice, and yet can grow into a great tree. The Great Commission is a small-vision idea– share the message with a person, bring him/her into the Body, and train to share to another. It’s success is not that it is big, but that it is designed to be exponential.

Some prefer the expression, “Dream Big, Start Small.” I am an American, and so of course, this resonates more with my cultural background. But I don’t think that honors the beauty of “small.” God’s greatest works are often quite small… almost invisible. I recall CrossLink International (I believe they have changed their name more recently), but they started as a Sunday School class project. They were trying to help some doctors in Russia. I knew a couple of members of that Sunday School Class. They were not thinking big. They were thinking faithful and small. Our pastoral care group started as five people that wanted to help out police trainees who were doing disaster recovery work after a typhoon. We certainly were not dreaming big. God worked to make what was small big. I still love reading the story “The Gospel Blimp” by Joseph Bayly… a reminder that big ideas (like purchasing and operating a blimp for mass evangelism) are not necessarily better than small ideas (like inviting one’s neighbor over to one’s house).

With this in mind, I suggest that God-sized Vision is … small. Do something small… and allow it to grow. For me, a God-sized vision is:

  • Do something God has placed on your heart.
  • Start small and learn how to do this small thing well.
  • Train others to do it as well.
  • Empower others to go out and repeat what you have been doing

That is a pretty small vision, I think. Definitely a God-sized vision.


Re-reassessing David

When I was young, David was a larger-than-life character in the Bible– the killer of lion, bear, giant, and “his ten thousands.” He was a shepherd boy who became a king, and “the writer of the Psalms.”

But then came a time of reassessment. Much of the Biblical record of David’s later life was pretty bad— murder, adultery, and a frankly rotten husband and father. Even his early life was not without its flaws. While some like to point out that David would not lay his hand on the “Lord’s anointed,” much of his behavior would fit normal definitions of treason and racketeering. And then I learned that there was doubt as to whether David wrote all of the Psalms, or even some of the Psalms. (I would like to think that some were written by him.)

My dad, a Sunday school teacher and deacon of our church

Thumbnail image from the Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University

“King David the Penitent” by Albrecht Durer

gave an opinion that I had to share. He struggled to see why David was described as a man after God’s own heart.

Frankly, the Biblical record seems to put King Saul on a pretty even footing as David. Saul had moments of religious fervor that would remind one of David. Additionally, Saul’s fall from grace, not fully destroying the captured Amelekite booty, seems pretty minor to some of David’s indiscretions. Even Saul’s last great sin, seeking divination from the “witch of Endor,” while clearly wrong was actually motivated by an earnest attempt to get wisdom from Yahweh, and his mentor, the prophet Samuel.

My time of re-reassessment really began 4 or 5 years ago as I became more involved in pastoral care. As I looked at the life of David, his many flaws were clear, but there was something else. David was willing to humble himself and admit his failings to both God and man.


I work with pastors… many who have fallen into sin. All to often, sins are minimized, and discipline avoided. This is not just a pastor thing. Men of power rarely admit their failings… much less, admit them with sincerity. The quality is almost without exception missing from other leaders in the Bible. Even Paul only seems able to admit failings in the abstract (in Romans) while possible concrete examples (his handling of John Mark in Acts, and Peter in Galatians) go unaddressed.

David could admit failings to all, and accept God’s grace, despite the pride that power breeds. To eschew pride as a king, repent, and accept God’s grace… well, that could indeed be a man after God’s own heart.

Living in a time of “Christian superstars” who have an allergic reaction to admitting failings about as intense of politicians, maybe we do indeed need a few more Davids living today… flawed but forgiven… real and repentant.



Addiction and Abuse Cycles

Sometimes it is fun to try to connect together two things that appear a bit similar, I was thinking about two cycles:   Addiction Cycle and Abuse Cycle. I don’t know whether the connection makes sense, but I find it useful to think about at least.

The following is the classic Addiction Cycle.  A person feels emotional pain and has a choice between dealing with the pain and its causes, OR can go for  substitute that numbs the pain. That substitute can be behavioral or substance-related. Choosing the substitute, the person has a numbing of pain, and possibly a sense of euphoria. Afterwards, however, these effects begin to wear off, and there is the retain of emotional pain. In fact, this cycle is often more of a circle, and the deleterious effects of the substitute behavior, the guilt/shame, and the habituation begin to take their tolls.

addiction cycle

The Abuse Cycle can also be shown in four similar steps— especially in terms of intimate relationships. There is a building of tension, followed by an abusive act. After that, the abuser typically feels remorse and acts to soothe the abused, bargaining a restoration of peace. Successfully arranging this leads to a “honeymoon” period. However, there is eventually a return of tension, and eventually abuse.

However, if one seeks to line up these two cycles, there are a couple of ways this can be done.  One is to establish the choice (dealing with the problem versus finding a substitute) with the growing of tension. It would then look like this:

Abuse Cycle Alt 2

This would make sense. The Abusive action would be equivalent to the Substituting behavior. As tension grows in the relationship, the abuser can deal with the problem or go to abuse.

Another way to address it would be for choice to be after the abuse.  At that point, one can deal with the problem or go towards remorse.

Abuse Cycle

There is actually reason to line it up this way. First of all, the Honeymoon period lines up better with the numbing of pain or euphoria associated with the Addiction Cycle. Likewise, the growing of tension in the Abuse Cycle lines up well with the wearing off of the numbing effect in the Addiction Cycle.

I actually like this second one better. Lining it up with the Addiction Cycle connects the Remorse action with the Addictive behavior. After all the activity of Remorse is actually an attempt to avoid the normal consequences of the abuse. Instead of dealing with the abuse and the underlying problems that drive the abuse, the abuser bargains and expresses sorrow, and promises that things will change. However, since things have not changed, the problem will return.

If this makes sense, then one who is seeking to work with an abusive relationship should not be seeking remorse and promises. These are the “drug of choice” of many abusers to avoid dealing with the underlying problems.



Choosing Fast or Slow


I was a part of a conference (actually, one of the hosts of the event). It was on pastoral diagnosis and pastoral care. One person asked an interesting question for the main speaker to answer. The specific malady was depression, but it could have been a whole host of different concerns. The questioner asked which is better: to receive fast healing from a called, anointed man or woman of God, or slow treatment as is usually prescribed by pastoral care (or psychotherapy).

The wording of the question made me think that the questioner placed a high value on a more miraculous or instant healing rather than a slower process. Frankly, however, the question is not really that simple. Having gone through a period of considerable distress/depression in my younger years, the context of the specific question is pretty relevant to me. But if the problem was something else– addiction for example– the same thought process would apply.


  1.  Fast. When I was in the middle of my depressive state (I was never formally diagnosed with clinical depression), there is no doubt what my choice would be… I want to get better FAST. The sooner the better. And in most undesirable circumstances the same answer would be given… from obesity, the panic attacks, to cancer. We want a quick fix.
  2. Slow. However, when I am out of the crisis, upon reflection, I want a slow fix. Quick fixes tend to create relapse. Poverty that is cured by a lottery win tends to return to poverty because the winner did not learn the skills of handling money that comes with a slow acquisition of sound financial habits. Rapid weight loss tends not to last, because there was no associated discipline and change of lifestyle. The mental discipline of “riding out the depressive storm” has helped me never go as deep as I did back then. In many many situations slow healing is better.

But what does God prefer… FAST or SLOW? Again this is not an easy answer.

  1.  Fast. Sometimes God seems to want to act fast. Jesus was compelled by compassion to provide miraculous healing at times. The term compassion does here seem to be key. Compassion suggests feeling the same pain as the helpseeker. Feeling the pain the helpseeker has would certain motivate the caregiver to want to help in a fast way, if he or she has that ability. Additionally, sometimes God works in a fast way as a sign, pointing to some truth the helpseeker, or the community in which the helpseeker resides, needs to learn.
  2. Slow. It seems, however, that a great majority of times God prefers the slow route. Education appears to be a slow process. The Shema points to a regular slow process for training up children. Spiritual growth, even for adults appears to be a slow process. The metaphor of Psalm 1 of a mature believer as a tree is related to a slow process of obedience and meditation on God’s Word. The illustrations of soldier, athlete, and farmer in II Timothy 2 point towards hard work and endurance as a Christian living out their salvation. Even though Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would tell His disciples what to say when needed, this came only after three years of formal and informal instruction/mentoring. God prefers the slow process for wisdom it seems. Even though Solomon was theoretically granted instantaneous wisdom… the lack of discipline still appeared to create chaos in some of his later decisions. Generally, God seems to prefer slow… usually.

Jesus grew slowly. Luke 2:52 states,

And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

The term “grew” is not a bad term, but the Greek “proekopten” suggests moving forward or advancing. I might like the term “journeyed.” Jesus grew or advanced:

  • Psychoemotionally… in discernment… in judgment
  • Physically… in size… in relation to the world around Him
  • Spiritually… in disciplined relationship to the Father
  • Socially… in relationship to His family, community, and other people.

The period covers by this verse covers Jesus entire growing process, and is the only verse that covers the period from age 12 to 30. That is fairly slow.

In Jesus’ case, there are moments when FAST happens— the resurrection occurred in a 3-day period. But His incarnation and preparation to be the Suffering Servant, was SLOW.

For me, when in moments of turmoil, I certainly may be prone to seek to be healed, fixed, or changed FAST. But at other times, I must remind myself that God’s best usually comes SLOW.

I CAN’T Do All Things Through Christ

In case the title wasn’t clear enough… I must say it again. “I can’t do all things through Christ.”  And that feels really good.

Now I know some will read thisKnow-Your-Limitations-Then-Defy-Them and see a contradiction. After all, one of the most well-known Bible verses is “I CAN do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Many of you know that this is one of the most well-known examples of misinterpreting a verse by ripping it from its context.

The verse seems straightforward enough. But the context makes it clear that “all things” refer to being abased and abounding, full and hungry, and presumably everything in between. “Do” refers to enduring or persevering. So the strength that Christ provides is to handle and endure any situation.

Sadly, the common interpretation to that verse implies that I am in control. Christ gives me strength to do whatever I want. In other words… It presumes the obedience of God TO me, rather than the benevolence of God FOR me.

I really don’t need God’s obedience, I need His benevolence? Why? Because I am a limited being.  I am limited in:

  • Knowledge. I am limited in my knowledge of the past, of the present, and (almost completely) of the future.
  • Time and Space. I am finite and thus hugely limited in perspective.
  • Wisdom. Even if I had full knowledge of all all things in the past and present, I lack the brainpower and discernment to determine the optimum utilization of these facts for a better future.

Because of my limitations, I don’t need God’s obedience… I need His benevolence. I don’t need control of what is beyond my ability to understand, I need God’s strengthening to be able to endure what is beyond my ability to understand. If I did have the ability to control what I don’t understand, I am likely to choose self-serving, foolish things— frankly the things that humans (self-serving, foolish creatures) tend to choose are… well… self-serving and foolish.  Here are some foolish things:

  • Missionaries get burned out… trying to do too much— claiming they can do all things through Christ who strengthens them. But apparently they try to do all things except establish balance (healthy balance in terms of physical, psychoemotional, social, and spiritual) in their lives.
  • Pastors do not maintain healthy ethical boundaries— claiming that as ministers they can do all things through Christ who strengthens them. But apparently they try to do all things except know what their weaknesses and temptations are. (We shouldn’t be all that surprised that pastors who do counseling are more likely to become inappropriately involved sexually with a counselee than their secular counterparts. Secular counselors make no assumptions that they can do without ethical boundaries.)
  • Pastoral Care Providers help those who are far beyond their own training— yes, claiming they can do all things through Christ. But apparently they seek to do all things except refer those to those competent and trained to handle specific problems. They sacrifice helpseekers on the alter of their own hubris.

So YES! I CAN’T do all things through Christ who strengthens me… and I am so thankful.

Is “Orthodox Missions’ ” an Oxymoron?

A nice article from an Orthodoxthe-what-where-when-and-why-of-orthodox-missions-3 missionary in the link below. The Orthodox church along with other groups associated with the “Eastern Faiths” were by far the most missional in the first millenium (combining in this sense the Greek Orthodox, “Nestorian,” and Coptic churches). In the 2nd millenium, the missions of the Russian orthodox involved an impressive expansion of the faith across Northern and Central Asia and into North America while Protestant churches were still experimenting with the idea of cross-cultural missions.

They were the first groups to respectfully and positively interact with the Islamic faith… and the first (particularly with the Russian orthodox again) to effectively evangelize Muslim groups. They also took seriously issues of translation of Scripture and liturgy, and indiginization of the local church long before these were in vogue in the West.

Curiously, books on Missions commonly ignore Orthodox missions. For Protestants, denominationalism is not really an adequate explanation since many of those same books take seriously Roman Catholic missions.

Anyway, this article helps to explain the omission, at least in terms of fairly recent history.

Is “Orthodox Missions” an Oxymoron? –