What if Knowing Your Spiritual Gift Doesn't Matter?

A widow in my church recently fell and ended up in a senior rehab center for an extended period to recover. Our young church has a mercy ministries team, and they have been helping her with rides to church and other tasks for the past several years, as she has no family around. But when I visited her in that rehab center, I realized her fall meant she needed more particular help with her medical care. Having recently buried my mother, I was familiar with the world of elder care and end-of-life medical decisions, so I offered to step in and take on more responsibility in both legal and informal ways, as it suited her.

Was I operating in a gift of mercy? Or was I operating in a gift of administration? What about healing? Shouldn't I have stopped to consider my spiritual gifts before offering to help? What if I didn't have the gift of mercy (definitely an asset when dealing with those who suffer)? What if I didn't have the gift of administration? Would I lose all the proper paperwork and make a mess of things?

Honestly, it didn't matter.

James 1:27 commands the church to take care of widows. In this particular situation, I have had some life experiences that most in my church have yet to encounter. There was a need presented to me, I had some service and skills to offer, and the Lord provided faith and peace to both of us to proceed. This widowed woman was an acquaintance at first, but now both of us would become more deeply connected. She would have to trust me with intimate details of her life, and I would need to become more available for her needs. It wasn't a unilateral act, but a mutual decision to proceed. Both of us trusted the Lord to provide the grace we would need in the future to make this new arrangement work.

What Do You Notice?

A lot has been written in recent decades about finding your spiritual gifts—as though they are hard to detect without lots of inspection. That wasn't the perspective of the early church. In writing about spiritual gifts to the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 12–13), the apostle Paul emphasized three things: the source of the gifts, the purpose of the gifts, and the goal of the gifts. But he seems unconcerned with individuals spending a lot of time identifying their gifts.

Just as God is the Creator who made us with certain features and abilities, and then placed us in specific circumstances, He will also empower us to accomplish His work.

Our modern preoccupation with gift lists might be due in part to semantics. The Greek word most often translated as "gift" in English is charisma, which is more about being empowered by divine favor than receiving something like a birthday present. Our English word tends to emphasize the worthiness of the tangible present and the viewpoint of the recipient—Do I want it? What does it say about me that someone gave me this? Can I return it? But charisma emphasizes the worth of the Giver and the spiritual endowment in the gift.

Just as God is the Creator who made us with certain features and abilities, and then placed us in specific circumstances, He will also empower us to accomplish His work. Working through us, He builds His kingdom. Just as an eye does not try to digest food and a foot does not try to hear, we operate in the way we were created—both in the natural and spiritual realms. Often, identifying your gifts is as simple as noting what you notice. What are you attuned to? Where do you see an unmet need?

If you are empowered to be merciful, you will notice and respond to needs in ways that others may not. If you are empowered to be administrative, you may notice ways to bring order out of chaos. If you are gifted with teaching, you will be eager to explain the Word to others and will see them respond to your input.

Some ways of using your gifts are no-brainers. I love worshiping the Lord through music. I make a joyful noise when I sing. But nobody is going to want to put me up front and amplify that noise to the whole congregation! There are others to whom the Lord has given musical talents for the benefit of the whole church. Let them serve that way, and I'll keep making my joyful noise along with them.

What's the Point?

But—wait. You can't find the "gift of music" among the New Testament gift lists, so it can't be a real spiritual gift, right? Fortunately, those lists are not meant to be exhaustive or exclusive. They are representative lists of ways we are "grace-empowered" for the benefit of others. But they all have three things in common, as we see here in 1 Corinthians 12:4–11:

"Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

"For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

"All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills."

All these "varieties of activities" are apportioned by the Spirit for the common good. We all bring something different to the party, but that diversity is exactly what is needed for the common good. There's no point in comparing or complaining; not only is the Spirit divvying up the goods as He wants to, but it's not about you anyway. You get a gift to spend on someone else. (Read the rest of Carolyn’s article on Boundless.org.)

  • Have you ever been more concerned with identifying your gifts than using them to love others?
  • How has the Spirit prompted you to serve the church for the common good?
  • When you’re tempted to focus on the gifts more than focusing on their Giver and their purpose, how do you talk to yourself to remind yourself of truth?

About the Author

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley is the author of three books and a conference speaker. She is also the founder of Citygate Films, where she works as a documentary director and editor.

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