How Should We Think about Spiritual Gifts?

I have never been part of a church that did it, but I’ve often heard about workshops or classes that purport to help believers discover what their spiritual gift might be. There seem to be certain assumptions about the practice, but I wonder if they are borne out by looking at the relevant passages. The New Testament has a couple of sections that discuss spiritual gifts, but I want to focus on the one in Romans 12 because it gives us important pointers on how to think about spiritual gifts.

Paul begins with an admonition, perhaps a warning. “I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think.” This caution against pride at the beginning of the apostle’s instruction about gifts is important because it frames the whole discussion that follows as not about ourselves, nor even about the exercise of our gifts, but about the flow of grace to the body of Christ. Though he has unique authority as an apostle, Paul does not base his admonition on this, but “by the grace given to me” (Rom 12:3).

Believers are “to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” We shouldn’t read this as saying that some believers have more faith than others. Rather, the measure of faith describes the different ways God manifests his grace in the body of Christ through the means of these gifts. The sober judgment includes not thinking that every believer has everything. Indeed, this would be antithetical to the body metaphor that Paul employs in 1st Corinthians, the other place where he discusses spiritual gifts.

“If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.” (1 Cor 12:17-20)

The measure of faith then is the various gifts given to the body. “So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom 12:5). While Paul acknowledges gifts of grace to individuals, he says the purpose is for the entire body.

The common thinking that we first need to discover our gift or that others need to recognize our gift doesn’t find much of a basis in the New Testament. Yes, Paul does speak about the higher gifts, and earnestly desiring these, but he gives no guidance on how that would be done. He instead points to love as the key to everything. Directly after the call to earnestly desire the higher gifts, Paul refers to a more excellent way, and then 1 Corinthians 13 is a chapter replete with the superlatives that belong to love.

Back in Romans 12, also, after Paul has described the various gifts of prophecy, service, teaching, etc., he says “Let love be genuine” (Rom 12:9). The section might find a paraphrase in Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it.” If we serve others in the body of Christ, this is an expression of the measure of faith, of God’s grace. Such service doesn’t have to be in the context of a local church meeting (as we might think prophecy and teaching are) but in living lives amidst trials. Our mercy, our intercession, helping, all are surely needed and the manifestation of God’s grace. Bringing a meal to a family who has just had a baby might not be thought of as a spiritual gift, but it is ministering to the body. Visiting a widow might not be thought of as a spiritual gift, but this, too, is ministering to the body.

When we approach the question of spiritual gifts from the side of trying to discover which one we possess, it can diminish our understanding that they don’t exist for the one exercising the gift.

So if you’ve never discovered what your spiritual gift is, don’t worry. “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 13:10). Do this—in whatever ways you can—and it is a gift to your fellow members of the body of Christ.

Photo by Johny Goerend on Unsplash

Matt Ferris
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