Discovering the gifts that our heavenly Father has given us are only half the battle; the other part is learning how to use them fully. Are we ready for that?
Dr. Roger Barrier, retired senior pastor of Casas Church in Tucson, shared a story of an experience that his wife, Julie, had on a missions trip in Brazil.
While serving, one of her volunteers had a nasty accident and broke her leg in two places. The injury was severe enough that they had no alternative but to rush to the nearest hospital in San Paulo. No one who could translate was with them at the time, and Julie was by no means fluent in conversational Portuguese, much less in the complexities of medical diagnoses and pain prescriptions, which can be difficult enough in our native language.
She couldn’t possibly let her volunteer go to the hospital alone, though, so she went along, desperately praying for the Spirit to help her. Neither of them knew anyone else who could help them right then.
God’s response was loving and miraculous. “By the power of the Holy Spirit,” Dr. Barrier explained, “Julie was granted the ability to speak Portuguese (dialektos), discuss medical terms and make all sorts of hotel, airline and hospital arrangements while communicating in Portuguese.”
While this manifestation of the gift of tongues is a bit more unusual, it’s still a biblical gift of the Spirit that appears most prominently in Acts with the early church.
Often discussion of spiritual gifts focuses on figuring out which ones God has given us, and that’s important, but equally important is figuring out how to further develop the gifts we know we have already.
This Is What We Work On
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed…. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:1, 7).
The Bible is fairly clear about what kinds of spiritual gifts believers can expect to see potentially manifest in their lives. Ephesians 4:11-13 offers a list of six spiritual roles:
1 Corinthians 12:7-11 lists out nine manifestations of the Spirit:
9. Interpretation of tongues
To top off this list of spiritual gifts, Romans 12:6-8 adds encouragement, giving, leadership, mercy and serving. While the internet can supply near endless ‘spiritual gift tests’ for anyone interested and they could be helpful for someone who’s really unsure where to start, the fastest and surest way to figure out what God-given gifts you have are by serving in your Christian community.
Some spiritual gifts of these are accentuations of natural talents, and others are unrelated to our inherent abilities. These unfortunately has given some people the impression that spiritual gifts cannot be developed like natural abilities.
Experiences like Julie’s are the ‘proof’ for those who claim that spiritual gifts can’t be gained or improved with practice.
Now, it’s true that a true gift of miracles or prophecy can’t be learned, but it’s equally true that those who have been given these gifts need to exercise them and that we may make ourselves more receptive to God’s gifting by observing spiritual disciplines, which was almost certainly the case for Dr. Barrier’s wife.
Sam Storms, guest on the Gary Wilkerson podcast, noted, “Certainly, there is a sense in which it [a spiritual gift] drops down on us through prayer. The Spirit of God grants these gifts according to his will, but yes, you can apply this across the board in terms of anything that we do in the body of Christ. Everybody knows, I think, that you can study, you can learn, you can spend time with other people who operate in a gift maybe with more effectiveness and success than you do. You can watch. You can observe. You can pray, and certainly, that kind of expression of your gifting can improve over time.
“I don't think that there's this kind of one-size-fits-all. When the Spirit of God grants a gift, you're always functioning at 100% effectiveness. You're always at the maximum level of efficiency and passion for that gifting. I think God is ultimately sovereign, but he does involve our cooperative efforts.
“When you just think of the principle of prayer, ‘You have not because you asked not,’ James 4. Well, maybe the reason I don't have a greater proficiency in my gifting is because I haven't asked for it. I believe the Spirit of God gives those gifts according to his will, but he also wants us to come to him and ask that we have opportunities for their exercise and that we learn from our mistakes and that we do it better each time.”
Only God can grant the gifts, but we have our part to play in learning how to use said spiritual talents to benefit our community.
A Snapshot of Potential Problems
Perhaps much of the uncertainty and confusion over spiritual gifts is the lack of involvement in church or the ‘mis-claiming’ of God-given talents.
Some of us may have been part of a Christian community where people were allowed to claim certain behavior as part of a spiritual gift when it probably wasn’t genuine. Often this happens with people who want to leverage a gift for personal control over a ministry’s direction or individuals within the ministry.
Four major red flags of misuse with spiritual gifts are as follows:
1) Someone claims that they are able to bestow certain spiritual gifts on others. Having elders lay hands on us and pray for certain gifts is healthy and biblical (see Acts 8:18 and 1 Timothy 4:14), but the Bible’s pretty clear that granting talents in the first place is the Holy Spirit’s job, not ours.
2) Someone ‘prophetically’ claims, “God revealed to me that you’re supposed to do [fill in the blank].” Jesus warned his followers that false prophets would get into the church and try to confuse people and lead believers astray (see Matthew 24:23-24). If anyone comes to us with a prophesy, we should weigh it carefully against what the Bible says, what the Spirit in us says and what other mature, reliable believers would advise.
3) Someone claims that specific spiritual gifts are required in order to prove that you are saved or currently following Christ. This directly contradicts Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12:14-30 when he states that not all believers are given the same gifts because we’re meant to complement each other like body parts.
4) Someone claims that they or others have spiritual gifts not mentioned anywhere in the Bible. I once heard of a pastor who told certain partitioners that they had the ‘spiritual gift of poverty.’ I’m not entirely sure what that “gift” entailed, but making terrible investment choices and not knowing how to use a budget is not a God-given talent. Trying to spiritualize ordinary life circumstances or character flaws isn’t biblical.
Maybe we were unfortunately part of a church where these kinds of issues cropped up, and we ended up leaving church as a result of abuses. Maybe we were part of a church where spiritual gifts weren’t mentioned at all, and now we’re trying to figure out where we stand with them. If we’re not sure where to begin, there’s a very easy starting point.
“If you’re struggling to figure out how God wants to use you,” Jon Bloom writes, “one possibility is that you’re examining yourself out of context, isolated in a petri dish, so to speak.
“This is essentially the way we in the West (especially in the United States) are trained to see ourselves. Perhaps more than at any other time in history, our culture understands individuals as autonomous units rather than interdependent parts of a larger social organism.”
Paul aptly observed near the end of the chapter all about spiritual gifts, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27, ESV). Our God-given talents are intended to help, heal, correct and build up other believers; they’re not for our own entertainment. Many believers are unsure about what gifts God has given them because they’re not serving their Christian community.
Not sure what God’s given you or want to develop a gift? Try volunteering at church or serving in a Bible study group. Join a street evangelism group. Sign up at a soup kitchen. Intern for a nonprofit. If you’re not sure how that looks for you, pray about it and ask someone to help you come up with ideas.
Serve the body of Christ, and he’ll uncover his gifts to help you help others.