We all have weird things we dislike. Some people don’t like mayonnaise. Some people don’t like dogs or synthetic fabric or Cincinnati.
My pet peeve is the phrase “spiritual gifts”.
I’m a little embarrassed that this phrase makes me cranky, especially because my church of thirty years talks about spiritual gifts A LOT. All our congregants get encouraged to take an assessment to help them decide where and how to serve.
It’s not all bad. Rather than just guilting people into volunteering for whichever ministry is loudest, our church nudges to people to consider where they’re called. I’m a big fan of that approach.
Here’s the con: every time someone discusses “spiritual gifts” I want to roll my eyes and then sigh audibly like a thirteen-year-old. Because—well—I don’t think spiritual gifts are a thing. Personally, I think those who have come up “spiritual gift assessments” have made strange sausage out of the words of Paul.
What Do I mean by Spiritual Gifts?
First, a definition: by “spiritual gifts” I specifically mean the idea that the Holy Spirit gives Christians gifts just like Clark Kent gets superpowers once he leaves Krypton for Earth.
The idea comes from a few disparate places in the Bible, mostly from Paul’s letters, and especially 1 Corinthians 12.
Here are some Christian cultural assumptions about how “spiritual gifts” work.
- Spiritual gifts are different than abilities or talents.
- They’re only given to Christians.
- They are limited in number, and described throughout Scripture—mostly from Paul, but also from 1 Peter and the Psalms.
- Gifts are undeserved grace and aren’t about trying harder.
- Your spiritual gifts don’t change over your lifetime.
- You can find out which spiritual gifts you have by taking various assessments, which read pretty much like a personality test, but in Christianese.
Here’s where I get cranky: Looking at the verses cited in support of these assessments (and keep in mind I have not formally studied Greek, Hebrew, theology, or the Pauline epistles) I don’t see much scriptural support for numbers 1, 3, 5, or 6.
When I read Paul (again, alert! I am not a seminarian!) I hear someone speaking into a fractious group of Christians. These leaders tried to fit every believer into round holes, even the ones that were star and heart-shaped. They also took a lot of pride in their particular strengths or callings, bragging about them and showing off. Certain gifts had a lot of power, and that power marginalized the less-cool gifts.
Paul, bless his heart, whupped the gift-hogs upside the head and told them to quit inflating their noggins so they weren’t blind to the mysterious Spirit.
My Laundry List of Objections
So….is there really a clear distinction between spiritual gifts and talents or aptitudes? Also: do I care?
Leaving aside the miraculous gifts (I’m Presbyterian; we have a tendency to do that anyway), I feel like people who have the gift of administration or helps probably would have been organized or helpful without Jesus, too. I have the “gift of creative communication”, but when I talk to non-Christian writers or artists, very little sounds different about our creativity.
In its worst moments, all this talk of “spiritual gifts” smacks of an attitude of “Christians: specialler than other people.”
I also come up with different “gifts” every time I take an assessment (hospitality, discernment, prophecy, oh my!). Do my gifts really not change over time?
Finally, Paul was a smart cookie, but, I doubt he pioneered the idea of personality tests back in the Roman Empire.
What We’re Talking About When We Talk About Gifts
Look, at its root, my problem with the concept of spiritual gifts is less about gifts and more about the Bible.
I feel very squidgy when American Christians take mysterious passages of Scripture, extrude “applications” with a pasta machine, and form them into tidy raviolis with business-speak fillings. I don’t like systematizing poetry, codifying mystery, or diagramming the Spirit’s sentences.
Practical applications of Bible passages aren’t all bad, but sometimes we create rubrics instead of taking to heart the human stories Scripture tells so brilliantly. In the specific case of spiritual gifts, we ignore the fact that Paul was speaking truth to power, not just equipping people to choose one ministry over another.
We come up with easily digestible assessments without having hard discussions about the ways power (whether that’s related to race, age, language, gender, orientation, etc) skews and marginalizes many gifts every single day.
We don’t need better assessments. We need eyes to see and ears to hear, and feet to actually do something.
Less Application, More Mystery
Perhaps my crankiness is an overreaction. I don’t have a problem with churches helping people understand how God might use their particular strengths in the world. In fact, since January, forced to go through my church’s assessment THREE TIMES, I grew to admire it more. It was not unlike the process I used as a writer to think through my calling. It’s worth doing.
What makes me cranky is when form simple assessments and never go any deeper. It’s when we tidy up Scripture and thus avoid hard, messy conversations about power. When we use the Bible as a rubber-stamp for our four-point plans.
I feel the same level of crankiness about systems that cherry-pick verses from across the Bible to say this is how life works when the writers of Proverbs and Job (both biblical!) sound like they’re from different planets.
Maybe my crankiness comes down to this this: The Bible has a lot to say about kindness and love and simplicity and dependence and God’s Kingdom, but it gives very few formulas and even fewer guarantees.
We do ourselves and other believers a disservice when we peddle rubrics without noting the fine print. We act as if codes and systems were the primary lesson the Bible has to teach us. We sweep human messiness under the rug.
Yet we serve a God who, when asked his name, responded with a paradox. Who, when questioned on points of law, told enigmatic stories. And a Holy Spirit that came upon people like fiery flames.
Let’s review: God sets believers’ heads on fire.
Our faith is weirder than we want it to be. That’s a good thing.
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