Chapter 6: Unwrapping Our Spiritual Gifts
God’s various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God’s Spirit…Each person is given something to do that shows who God is: Everyone gets in on it, everyone benefits. All kinds of things are handed out by the Spirit, and to all kinds of people! The variety is wonderful. (St. Paul 1 Corinthians 12, The Message)
Imagine the following conversation:
Barry “Have you found your spiritual gift yet, Jane?”
Jane “I didn’t know I was looking for it?”
Barry “Ha, ha! Very funny! What I meant was, have you worked out what particular gift the Holy Spirit has given you?”
Jane “Don’t know. Maybe it’s the gift of humour?”
Barry “Sorry. That one’s not in any of the lists. It’s not a spiritual gift.”
Jane “What do you mean by spiritual?”
Barry “Well, in the New Testament Paul lists a number of gifts which he says are spiritual – specifically given to believers. Things like prophecy, speaking in tongues, pastoring, evangelism and faith. There’s 19 of them altogether.”
Jane “Why 19? Surely if they’re spiritual, there should be 7, or 77 – or maybe even 777?”
Barry “I don’t know. Anyway, you’re bound to have one of them. All of us are given one by the Holy Spirit when we become Christians.”
Jane “You mean you only get one? That’s a bit raw.”
Barry “Maybe, but at least everyone gets included. After all, we’re all part of the body. Even someone with the gift of helps feels like they have something to contribute.”
Jane “So what’s your gift, Barry?”
Barry “Just quietly, and in all humility, Jane, it’s – ah – prophecy.”
Jane “Oooh! Bit spooky, eh?”
Barry “I take it very seriously, Jane. Being a mouthpiece of the Lord and all that. Anyway, do you have any idea what yours might be?”
Jane “Maybe it’s teaching?”
Barry “How do you figure that?”
Jane “Well, it’s what I do during the week, isn’t it. I was born to teach. I just love getting alongside those six-and-seven-year-olds in my class.”
Barry “No-ooo – you don’t get it. Just because you have a natural talent for teaching, doesn’t mean to say you have a spiritual gift of teaching. There’s simply no link between the two. Anyway, you didn’t become a Christian until you were 25, did you? By that time you were already teaching. So the Holy Spirit can’t have given you it.”
Jane “Doesn’t make much sense to me.”
Barry “Well, it is a bit mysterious. But hey – who are we to argue? Anyway, it’s critical you find out what your gift is.”
Jane “Why’s that, Barry?”
Barry “Otherwise you’ll find it hard to mature as a Christian, Jane. And besides, if you don’t know, it’ll really limit your effectiveness.”
Jane “So what do you suggest, Barry?”
Barry “I was hoping you’d ask that. Mind you, it took you a while! No, just joking. But I do have the very thing for you. It’s an eighteen-week course called, How to Find your Spiritual Gift. I think you’ll find it most helpful, Jane. What do you think?”
Jane “Maybe. But I still want to know why humour isn’t on the lists.”
A fog of misinformation
If there’s one area of theology that has in recent years produced a huge industry of wrong ideas and misinformation, it’s the business of spiritual gifts. While some of the books, sermons and seminars have been helpful, many have been decidedly inadequate – and in some cases downright destructive.
Since the early days of the charismatic movement, enormous attention has been given in a number of Christian circles to discovering one’s “spiritual gift”. Gordon Fee (Pentecostal New Testament scholar) and Paul Stevens note at least ten prevailing misunderstandings regarding spiritual gifts. So much confusion makes it difficult for us to come to the biblical data without imposing “a grid of expectation formed by popular Christian teaching”.
The misunderstandings that Fee and Stevens identify are:
That spiritual gifts are given at the time of conversion and do not change during one’s lifetime;
That Christian maturation is hampered if we do not know what our gift is;
That our gift defines our identity (“I am a teacher”);
That gifts are primarily linked to roles and offices in the church;
That the more extraordinary gifts are indications of advanced spiritual life;
That gifts have little to do with our natural capabilities (sometimes called talents);
That gifts concern the spirit of a person (generally people talk of “spiritual gifts” but not of “Spirit gifts”);
That gifts define the character of the personal ministry of each Christian;
That emphasis on spiritual gifts may threaten the unity of the church;
That the lists of gifts in the New Testament are definitive and exhaustive.
A good starting point in considering the biblical data is to get our vocabulary as accurate as we can. The term “spiritual gifts” tends to suggest to us that these particular gifts or abilities are “spiritual” in nature – or superior to “natural gifts”. This simply tends to reinforce the false secular/spiritual dualism that divides our lives into two compartments: in one, the spiritual areas that we imagine God to be interested in … and in the other, the mundane practicalities of our daily round.
The truth is that we call them “spiritual” gifts because they have been given by the Holy Spirit. It seems much more helpful, then, to refer to them as either “gifts of the Spirit” or “Spirit gifts”.
A second issue applies to the lists of gifts that Paul gives in his letters to the Corinthians, Ephesians and Romans.We need to recognize that in no way are these lists intended to be definitive. These chapters provide only small samples of gifts to illustrate what is being talked about. All of Paul’s letters are “ad hoc” in nature – written to specific groups of believers and attempting to deal with specific issues. For example, as Fee and Stevens note regarding 1 Corinthians, “they (the gifts) appear in ways that make systematizing nearly impossible. Paul’s concern is not with instruction about spiritual gifts as such – their number and kinds; rather he offers a considerable and diverse list so that they (the Corinthians) will stop being singular in their own emphasis (that is, on tongues).” Diversity within the body is Paul’s central point here. Nowhere in his letters is he attempting to detail an exhaustive list of the Spirit’s gifts.
Paul clearly considers the manifestations of the Spirit among the people of God as a work of grace through and through. This is not something we can engineer, as 1 Cor. 12:11 (CEV) points out: “It is the Spirit who does all this and decides which gifts to give to each of us.” They are literally undeserved “graces” that speak about the goodness of the giver, not about any merit of our own.
Neither is there any sense in which we can refer to “my gift” in an ownership kind of way. We are trustees of the Spirit’s gifts and need to use them wisely, just as we are called to steward all other resources entrusted to us (see chapter 13). In fact, it’s presumptuous to even think that because we exercise a particular gift today we will also be given it to use in the future. Some are not given permanently, but for particular situations.
All disciples are endowed with gifts for service. But do we need to know what our gifts are in order to serve God effectively? Not necessarily. In fact, far too much time and energy can be consumed in “the search”. Far better to concentrate on looking for opportunities to serve. As we become involved in service, our particular contribution to the Body of Christ will eventually become apparent.
So is there value in questionnaires on spiritual gifts? Some of these surveys (like the one we use at the end of this chapter) may prove helpful to many people. However, they should never be regarded as categorical in any way. They merely provide an indication of where our Spirit gifts might lie.
These questionnaires almost entirely lean on the gifts listed by Paul, and are therefore a very restrictive list. Worse, they often interpret certain gifts in narrow ways – and may also give the impression that because we have exercised a gift in a particular situation there is a permanence about it.
The main value of a questionnaire is that you may find it a useful starting point. But we urge you to then move beyond it. For example, others will often see more clearly than you can, how the Spirit is gifting you. There is therefore real value in talking with those who know you well, so you can gain perspective and insight on how the Spirit’s work of grace is being expressed through you.
Look also for opportunities to explore and experiment. There are many places to serve and they provide chances to try things. From your use of these opportunities it will soon become clear to you and those you serve with how the Spirit is gifting you.
Fee and Stevens note that the gifts listed by Paul can be grouped into three broad categories – (1) “Spirit manifestations within the worshiping community” (which are themselves either “miracles”, such as faith, healings and miracles; or “verbal utterances”, such as wisdom, knowledge, discernment, tongues, interpretation and prophecy); (2) “deeds of service” (like giving, caring/leading, serving and mercy); and (3) “specific ministries”.
The specific ministries listed in Ephesians 4 and 1 Corinthians 12 are apostles, prophets, teachers, pastors and evangelists. Sometimes people refer to them as the “leadership gifts”. These roles are functional – not referring to positions of authority or offices.
So what is the distinction, if any, between gifts and ministries? In the strictest sense of the word, a ministry is any form of service for God. It is a much-abused term which unfortunately has often just reinforced the spiritual/secular split.
Technically, we minister when we employ our talents and gifts to serve God. For example, serving God through running a business may involve using a wide range of talents and gifts such as administration, creativity, technical expertise, mercy and giving. In this sense, when it is managed for the wider purposes of God the business could be considered a ministry – as much as something like pastoring. (As we have noted earlier, in order to avoid this misunderstanding we prefer the term “Christian service”, rather than “ministry”.)
Paul Stevens argues that talents are creational in nature. In other words, they have been “woven into our DNA” by the creator God, right from when we were first conceived.
In contrast, Spirit gifts are inspirational – not natural endowments of ability, but rather supernatural motivations and capabilities brought about by the Spirit’s direct action in us.
This is a helpful distinction. However, there is no neat and tidy division – as Stevens himself acknowledges. The line between the two is sometimes blurred and indistinct. Often, in fact, the Spirit seems to endow talents in such a way that our natural abilities become supernaturally enhanced and enlarged. Over and over again, it is clear that our talents, used in service to God, can be spiritually potent for building God’s kingdom.
The bottom line is always that both Spirit gifts and natural talents are given by God. And they are given in order that we might serve Him, his people, and the world. Rather than being overly introspective, we should look to be good stewards of the unique capabilities he has entrusted to us, honouring him by using and developing all the gifts he has blessed us with.
From what we have said already it should be apparent that there are a variety of ways you may be helped to discover your Spirit gifts. Here are some:
Explore: Explore some of the possibilities by looking at a sample of the great variety of gifts the Bible mentions.
Experiment: Look for, and accept opportunities to engage in activities that stretch you in ways you haven’t been tested before. Give things a go and see what you enjoy and find satisfaction in.
Evaluate: Analyse how you feel about what you have attempted. Evaluate your effectiveness. Do you sense that you might be gifted in this area?
Ask: Ask others to give you feedback about what they think you do well and where you are gifted.
Examine: Examine your feelings about different activities. Sometimes others see us doing well what we know doesn’t come easily and isn’t particularly enjoyable. The things we are most gifted in usually give us a good deal of satisfaction and sense of accomplishment and they flow from us more easily than other endeavours. In fact they often feel so natural to us that we don’t recognise them as special gifts at all.
Expect: Expect some form of confirmation about what your gifts are. This will come from others; from the sense of satisfaction and enjoyment you gain yourself; and through seeing tasks effectively further God’s purposes.
In listing these suggestions we are not wanting to encourage excessive introspection. God gives us gifts to help us get on with the job. Gifts have to be given away. They are given to help us serve God, God’s people and the world. While there is some value in studying various gifts (and the following exercise will help you do this) the best way to discover our gifts is by serving and seeing what has the stamp of God on it.
The following list suggests definitions and gives Bible references for some of the spiritual gifts listed in the Bible.
We have included the list with some hesitation because, as we have already made plain, we consider the biblical lists of gifts to be representative rather than exhaustive. Furthermore, even Christians cannot agree on how many spiritual gifts are listed in the Bible. So this list might suggest a number of possibilities for you to consider, but please do not despair if you don’t find yourself described here. Using this list is only a beginning. It is designed to inspire you to consider options rather than box yourself in.
Try to identify gifts you have demonstrated or find yourself particularly attracted to. Then spend some time studying the biblical references to see in what ways they help explain the gifts that God has given you.
We have also recommended that you ask some people who know you well what gifts they see you possessing. If you are using this book with a group, a section is added below for this purpose.
1. Administration: The ability to devise and execute effective plans through delegating specific tasks to other people according to their gifts and talents.
Scriptures: Proverbs 23:3-4; Luke 14:28-30; Acts 6:1-7; 27:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Titus 1:5.
2. Apostle: The ability to exercise helpful leadership among a number of churches to establish new churches and strengthen existing churches.
There is some debate about the extent which apostolic ministry continues beyond the first century and the extent to which denominational leaders exercise this role today. Different church traditions define this in different ways.
In addition to the Twelve and Paul, the Bible refers to many other apostles: James (Gal. 1:19), Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14), Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:25), Silas and Timothy (1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2:6), Andronicus and Junias (Romans 16:7), and others (1 Corinthians 15:5, 7; 2 Corinthians 8:23; 11:13). (There is some uncertainty about whether the Junias Paul mentions is a man or a woman.)
Some writers who compile spiritual gift inventories combine the gift of apostle with the gift of missionary. The Greek word (which means “sent one”) is the same. Others separate these two gifts with the distinction that the missionary gift is focused on cross-cultural work, while the apostle gift is focused on overseeing the growth and multiplication of churches in a given area, regardless of culture.
3. Arts: The ability to communicate truth and celebrate beauty through music and a variety of art forms and expressions of worship.
Scriptures: 2 Chronicles 34:9-13; Acts 16:14; Exodus 31:3-11; Psalm 45:1
4. Celibacy: The ability to remain single in order to pursue ministry unencumbered.
Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 7:3-7 and 32-34
5. Crafts: The ability to use hands and tools to create and shape things of unusual beauty or worth.
Scriptures: 2 Chronicles 34:9-13; Acts 16:14; Acts 18:3; Exodus 30:22-25
6. Discerning of Spirits: The ability to discern with assurance whether certain behaviour purported to be of God is inspired by God, and if not, what spirit is operating. Also to discern peoples’ true motives and whether it is truth or error that is being communicated.
Scriptures: Matthew 16:21-23; Acts 5:1-11; 16:16-18; 17:11; 1 Corinthians 12:10; Hebrews 5:14; 1 John 4:1-6.
7. Evangelism: The ability to communicate the gospel so that men and women become devoted followers of Jesus.
Scriptures: Acts 8:5,6; 8:26-40; 14:21; 21:8; Ephesians 4:11-14; 2 Timothy 4:5.
8. Exorcism: The ability to facilitate the release of people from demonic oppression and the power of evil spirits in the name of Jesus Christ.
Scriptures: Jesus gave His apostles the authority to cast out demons (Mark 3:14, 15; 6:13), and the gift was used during the earliest days of the church. Matthew 12:22-32; Luke 10:12-20; Acts 8:5-8; 15:16; 16:16-18; Romans 8:38, 39; Ephesians 6:10-12.
9. Exhortation: The ability to offer words of comfort, consolation, encouragement, and counsel to people in such a way that they feel helped and healed.
Scriptures: Acts 14:22; Romans 12:8; 1 Timothy 4:12; Hebrews 10:25.
10. Faith: The ability to discern with extraordinary confidence the will and purposes of God.
Scriptures: Acts 11:22-24; 27:21-25; Romans 4:18-21; 1 Corinthians 12:9; Hebrews 11.
11. Giving: The ability to contribute with unusual generosity and cheerfulness material resources to those involved in God’s work.
Scriptures: Matthew 6:2-4; Mark 12:41-44; Romans 12:8; 1 Corinthians 13:3; 2 Corinthians 8:1-7; 9:2-8; Philippians 4:14-19.
12. Healing: The ability to serve as a human intermediary through whom God cures illness and restores wholeness.
Scripture: Acts 3:1-10; 5:12-16; 9:32-35; 28:7-10; 1 Corinthians 12:9, 28.
13. Helps: The ability to offer practical help that contributes to the growth of God’s kingdom.
Scriptures: Mark 15:40,41; Luke 8:2, 3; Acts 9:36; Romans 16:1, 2; 1 Corinthians 12:28.
14. Hospitality: The ability to provide a warm welcome and open home to those in need of food and lodging.
Scriptures: Acts 16:14, 15; Romans 12:9-13; 16:23; Hebrews 13:1, 2; 1 Peter 4:9.
15. Intercession: The ability to pray for people and situations with a regularity, enthusiasm and effectiveness that doesn’t come naturally to most Christians.
Scriptures: Luke 22:41-44; Acts 12:12; Colossians 1:9-12; 4:12-13; 1 Timothy 2:1, 2; James 5:14-16.
16. Interpretation of Tongues: The ability to make known in the vernacular the message of someone who has brought a message in tongues.
Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 12:10-30; 14:13, 26-28.
17. Knowledge: The ability to reveal and explain things, that God wants communicated but which others cannot understand. This knowledge may arise either spontaneously or in the light of research.
Scriptures: Acts 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 2:14; 12:8; 2 Corinthians 11:6; Colossians 1:10; 2:2, 3.
18. Leadership: The ability to get a group of people voluntarily and harmoniously working together to accomplish God’s purposes.
Scriptures: Luke 9:51; Acts 6:1-7; 15:7-11; Romans 12:8; 1 Timothy 5:17; Hebrews 13:17.
19. Mercy: The ability to express genuine empathy and compassion for people who are suffering, and to cheerfully provide practical help to alleviate that suffering.
Scriptures: Matthew 20:29-34; 25:24-40; Mark 9:41; Luke 10:33-35; Acts 11:28-30; 16:33, 34; Rom 12:8.
20. Miracles: The ability to serve as human intermediaries through whom God acts to change circumstances by supernatural intervention.
Scriptures: Acts 9:36-42; 19:11-20; 20:7-12; Romans 15:18, 19; 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28; 2 Corinthians 12:12.
21. Missionary: The calling and ability to minister cross-culturally. This may involve the exercise of other gifts of the Spirit and may also overlap the exercise of apostolic gifts (see Apostle above).
Scriptures: Acts 8:4; 13:2, 3; 22:21; Romans 10:15; 1 Corinthians 9:19-23.
22. Prophecy: The ability to receive and communicate a true and timely message from God to His people, with authority and urgency.
Scripture: Luke 7:26; Acts 15:32; 21:9-11; Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28; Ephesians 4:11-14.
23. Service: The ability to anticipate needs and offer practical help cheerfully and with humility.
Scripture: John 12:26; Acts 6:1-7; Romans 12:6, 7; Galatians 6:2, 10; Philippians 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:16-18; Titus 3:14.
24. Shepherd (Pastor): The ability to assume a long-term personal responsibility for leadership and the pastoral care of a group of believers.
Scriptures: John 10:1-18; Ephesians 4:11-14; 1 Timothy 3:1-7; 1 Peter 5:1-3.
25. Teaching: The ability to study, digest and communicate truth in such a way that others will learn and grow. Those with this gift find it easy to organize large amounts of information in such a way as to make it easy to understand and remember.
Scriptures: Luke 7:26; Acts 15:32; 21:9-11; Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28; Ephesians 4:11-14.
26. Tongues: The ability (a) to speak to God in a language that the person speaking has never learned and/or (b) to receive a message from God and communicate it to God’s people in a language the person speaking has never learned.
Scriptures: Mark 16:17; Acts 2:1-13; 10:44-46; 19:1-7; 1 Corinthians 12:10, 28; 14:13-19, 26-28, 39.
27. Voluntary Poverty: The ability to renounce material comfort and luxury and adopt a very simple lifestyle in order to serve God more effectively.
Scriptures: Acts 2:44, 45; 4:34-27; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3; 2 Corinthians 6:10; 8:9.
28. Wisdom: The ability to discern how knowledge may best be applied to make perceptive judgements, solve complicated problems and apply spiritual truth to everyday life.
Scriptures: Acts 6:3, 10; 15:13-20; 20:20, 21; Romans 12:71; 1 Corinthians 12:28; Ephesians 4:11-14.
Use the list of Spirit gifts given in this chapter, expanding it if necessary, to discuss with the other members of your group some occasion when you have felt you were exercising some gift or gifts. Give each member in the group the opportunity to do this.
What do you understand your own personal Spirit gifts to be? Give each member of the group opportunity to be the focus as the group helps him/her identify those gifts.
A personal question to each group member, when you have completed your part of question 2: Is what others have shared about your gift/s new information, or does it confirm what you knew?
Many of the gift definitions used in this chapter have been adapted from:
Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow by C. Peter Wagner (Regal Books, 1997).
…and from material produced by the Lakeview Baptist Church and Andrew P. Kulp, available online with gifts inventories at:
Gordon D. Fee and R. Paul Stevens “Spiritual Gifts” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity (IVP: Downers Grove, 1997), pages 943-949. Edited by Robert Banks and R. Paul Stevens.
Significantly, in our churches we have not been totally consistent with the term “spiritual gifts”. If we were to apply the same form to the “fruit of the Spirit”, then we would call them “spiritual fruit”! In both cases (gifts and fruit) “spiritual” needs to refer to the source – the Holy Spirit. Making this clear would ensure that the words do not convey a sense of superiority.
Romans 12: 6-8; 1 Corinthians 12: 4-11; Ephesians 4: 11-13.
Fee and Stevens, 944.
R. Paul Stevens “Talents” in The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity, pages 1000-1003.