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, and now this important doctrine has finally been rediscovered. However, 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. Even the section of the Bible that speaks of them most (in First Corinthians) speaks of Spiritual Gifts with a certain amount of ambivalence. If one removed all places where spiritual gifts are explicitly referenced, the Bible would not look much different.
I eventually began to question both the value and accuracy of what I was teaching.
- First, a lot of the information provided in the training for Spiritual Gifts was simply made up. Different programs and books on the subject varied. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but these programs would give answers to questions such as: How many spiritual gifts are there? How many gifts does each Christian have (or can have)? 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 from someone with a gift of prophecy (even more so if the person self-identifies that gifting). 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.
5. Fifth, a focus on Spiritual Gifts often leads to the inappropriate lessening of other things such as skills and talents. I have heard people say that spiritual gifts are for spiritual ministry and talents are for non-spiritual.
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. There seems little reason to separate talents, skills, and spiritual gifts. PERHAPS one might set apart spiritual gifts as a talent or skill that comes and goes as needed. But even that assumes that a spiritual gift suddenly comes on a person (something that certainly can happen although it is not sure it is normative) and can leave a person (something that seems reasonable but is not absolutely certain).