I heard a respected leader of a large church recently suggest we should not expect to exercise particular spiritual gifts because the Holy Spirit gives them as He wills. This was a biblically-referenced comment on the selective operation of gifts specifically listed in 1 Corinthians 12, of which there are nine. Now it might not be an exhaustive list of gifts in one sense, but the bigger issue is whether and when people should operate select gifts. What does the Bible teach?
1. How do we know what our gifts are ‘not’ if we have never tried to exercise them?
There is surely a danger of imbalance if we fatalistically presume that God limits us to certain gifts. How can we really know what our gifts are, anyway, if an assessment is made only in terms of those we actually practise? After all, 1 Corinthians 14:1 puts the onus on the Christian to earnestly desire gifts.
Naturally, some people do seem innately gifted and will showcase some talents more effortlessly than others. Many of us clearly know what we are not gifted at. Some gifts can be desired as much as we like, but to no avail.
Not all gifts fit into the same category, though. Gifts labelled biblically as ‘Spiritual’ are clearly more widely exercised by all Christians through the Spirit’s enabling. Just because some of these are practised more skilfully by some, or are required in particular roles by others, does not in itself exempt us from their use.
It is perhaps worth us asking ourselves, therefore, whether we might ever conceivably be in a situation where God might want to stretch us, or to at least have us serve in an area of need in which His interests supersede ours.
Irrespective of how we feel about this, there are clearly many chances in which we can choose to bear fruit, or meet a need that arises, by virtue of the presence of the Spirit, in us. Rather than seeking to do so in our own strength, we act in His. We may not outwork it as well as others, but situations might well call for us to break free of a ‘can’t do’ (or even a ‘shouldn’t do’) mindset, to both step out and step up.
2. What the Bible calls ‘spiritual gifts’ are available to everyone.
Can we therefore ignore gifts from the 1 Corinthians 12 list that we don’t like or don’t feel capable of performing? Clearly these are called ‘Spiritual gifts’ (also in 1 Corinthians 14:1), to distinguish them from (presumably) non-spiritual ones. ‘Spiritual gifts’ are simply not the same as those more natural or learned talents. In these verses, though, the word ‘gifts’ is not even used in the original language and is implied from the context.
Context here and elsewhere in the New Testament, then, shows us that these gifts are typically able to be practised by all Christians precisely because it is the Holy Spirit gives them.
In a similar vein, Paul tells Timothy to do the work of an evangelist in 2 Timothy 4:5, which is reasonable in light of the Great Commission that calls us all to make disciples anyway. Not all are going to function as mature and vocational ministry gift evangelists who equip others in the local church, but all can and should evangelise. Could Timothy have legitimately responded, then, by saying, “But it’s not my gift”? Of course not.
Likewise, we cannot easily sidestep Paul’s desire for everyone to prophesy or speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:5) so as to spurn something God actually intended for us to have. Now someone may already be very fruitful in other gift areas (such as evangelism), but why not also step into greater proficiency in the use of the other gifts of the Holy Spirit that God puts into our toolkit. Instead of asking why we should seek gifts, the more appropriate question would be to ask why we should not.
3. Advice for how we should exercise gifts is of little relevance to whether we should exercise gifts.
If Paul encourages the desire and practice of the ‘Spiritual gifts’, then what does he mean by his often-quoted apparent contradiction in 1 Corinthians 12:30, “Do all have…, do all speak…?” when the answer to these is clearly, “No.” One of the foremost academic authorities on this passage, Gordon Fee, reconciles this by suggesting that Paul is clearly celebrating necessary and inevitable diversity but is not asking whether the disciples ‘may’ exercise the gifts. Rather, he asks whether or not they ‘do’.
This affirms the need of each other within a Church and it aligns, for example, to the practice of 1 Corinthians 14:26-31 in which all are able to prophesy or speak in tongues in public (“each of you has…”), but only three are permitted to do so. The 1 Corinthians 12:30 passage does not speak of tongues for private prayer, after all, but only in regard to this gift’s use within the Church, hence the mention of interpretation. All should speak in tongues and prophesy (14:5), but not all do in public worship due to the need for order (14:33) which is why Paul limits the number of instances of operation of the gifts.
4. Our comfort zone is often the real issue.
Paul’s advice regarding gifts may not seem to reconcile with preferred practice in some twenty-first century churches, but we should surely be more concerned with what we are encouraged to do for our benefit, than what we might prefer to do for our expedience, especially when the Bible is specific in this regard. We might be well served by seeking God for what He wants to do through us, and that which might even stretch us beyond our present (and sometimes all-too-comfortable) practice.
Diversity in the operation of other kinds of gifts may well allow us to celebrate what some do well naturally, what they refine through persistent effort, or what they do through an appointed role. Different again to these situations, sometimes, is the need for all of us to simply choose to desire and operate those gifts biblically referred to as ‘Spiritual ‘ which are available for all Christians, as needed. This is, after all, by virtue of the presence of the Spirit in our lives and those ‘filled with the Spirit’ simply operate the gifts optimally.
Freedom in the Spirit is certainly not unfettered, unregulated or unaccountable, according to Paul’s teaching, but it should not be stifled either; not by others and not by ourselves.
Perhaps, then, it is just time for a little more “earnestness” on our part to see in practice, what God sees as our potential.