What Are the Gifts of the Spirit?
When speaking about "gifts of the Spirit", we're not talking about the gift of God's self-giving, though that's what lies behind all other gifts. (More about that later.) Nor is this about the gift of creation, or the gift of other people or of family or nation or culture -- all of which are great gifts. When speaking of 'gifts of the Spirit', spiritual gifts, or charismata, it's about what the Spirit gives as part of building up people's lives in general, and especially, for building lives of following Christ.
Not the Same, but Much Alike
While that narrows the gifts down quite a bit, it's still so broad that it is not all that helpful. Different spiritual gifts do different things. So let's drill down into some of the terms used for such gifts, overall.
The Overall Context of Gift-Talk
God created the world around us. God created us. God didn't build a toll booth to collect user fees for life. Instead, life is free, and being in the created world is free. It's a gift. We humans are the ones who attach fees to what has been freely given to us.
The Ultimate Gift
The biggest gift of all, however, is not each other, and is not nature, or the universe, or family, or even life itself. The biggest gift in all of existence is that we are given the Giver - the same Greatest One who was Job's only satisfaction and Moses' only strength is now given to humankind. God chooses not only to put up with us, but to be with us. That's what all this Jesus talk means - that's why Jesus matters. He is, in Christmas-talk, "God-with-us", Immanuel. That is the gift of Jesus.
But Jesus is not walking among us today. So another gift has been given - God in yet another way, the divine Spirit through whom Christ is still in effect right here and now. This Spirit leads, shapes, empowers, and gives us joy. The gift a Christian lives in every day, most fundamentally, is the Holy Spirit.
Read this, by Brian Zahnd, on how the Kingdom of God is a gift, not made by us.
"Spiritual gifts" is the general term used here. It's a phrase which has meaning in most religions, even ones which don't have a god but who insist that human beings have a part of themselves that is beyond what we can measure or touch or logically figure out. Whatever the spiritual realm is, it bestows on people a range of accomplishment abilities that go beyond mere skill or knack. The term 'spiritual gifts' itself does not say who gave them, or even whether anyone actually received them. (In some religions, what Christians call 'gifts' are treated like peaches dangling from a spiritual tree, there to be picked by those who have enough spiritual insight to find them.) While the term is useful, and is good shorthand for more complicated definitions, Christians much prefer to use the term "gifts of the Holy Spirit", as thanks to the One who gives the gifts, and as a way to give credit where credit is due.
Aquinas on Gifts Of the Spirit
The Roman Catholic writer and scholar Thomas Aquinas (in *Summa Theologica*) discusses spiritual gifts at length. In doing so, he founded the main tradition for gifts of the Spirit in the Catholic Church of Middle Ages Europe. He drew his approach from Isaiah 11:1-5, where it speaks of these gifts : wisdom, knowledge, counsel (right judgement), understanding; strength (courage, fortitude), reverence (piety), and fear of the LORD. Through wisdom, knowledge, counsel, and understanding, the Spirit shapes and steers the mind, creating change in the way a person thinks and puts information together. The Holy Spirit provides perspective, reminds us of the right past events, and reveals new opportunities. Through the gifts of courage, reverence, and fear of the LORD, the Spirit shapes your will, so that you choose to use what you learn and think for the purposes God is calling you to do. The gifts Aquinas writes about benefit the person who receives them, and help others indirectly through what that person does. These correspond to the Capital Virtues of charity, faith, prudence, fortitude, justice, and hope, which Aquinas drew from Greek philosophy. The Isaian gifts help develop a person who is spiritually strong enough for the great tasks at hand.
Paul's Gifts of the Spirit (Charismata)
The apostle Paul spoke of gifts from the Spirit often in his letters to local churches. He gave detailed lists of what kinds of gifts there were, in 1 Corinthians 12, and again in Romans 12. The word he used for these gifts was charismata, which is a Greek plural term related to the word for grace. Like grace, charismata are given at no price by the Spirit. But there is one thing expected of those who are given charismata: the gift is to be used for building up other people. Whereas the Isaian gifts Aquinas wrote about are firstly beneficial to you personally, the charismata are given to benefit others - the brothers and sisters of the faith, yes, but also everyone else, believer or not. God gives us the charismata so we can express the love of one another which is at the core of the Christian way of life. The spiritual gifts enable and empower what is done for others, and the Spirit meshes them together among the believers so they can work together to love more effectively. This meshing of spiritual gifts was central to the success of the early church, and to many remarkable acts and movements since then. When the charismatic movement started taking hold in the '60s and '70s, the most fruitful place it turned to in its search to hook up with the Spirit's work was First Corinthians.
What are Charismata?
charismata (pl.), charisma (sg.):[Greek; 'things given']. Or put another way, 'stuff from grace'. A charisma is freely given, not earned or bought. It is given by the Spirit, not by a leader or a church body. (It can sometimes come from the Spirit through a church body or a leader; it can also come against the desires of church bodies, leaders, or even the body of believers as a whole or the whole world, if need be.) There are many kinds of gifts the Spirit gives - ultimately, life itself is a free gift from God. But when Christians speak of 'charismata', they are talking of a specific kind of gift: a gift that is given specifically to build up the community of believers, those within it, and those it serves. These gifts are given not to save, but to empower the saved and grow the depth of character they need to strengthen other people.
To make it clear, against what many churches teach:
- The gifts of the Holy Spirit cannot be had by method or technique or desire or petition.
- Gifts of the Spirit, whether small or mighty, are not the marks of spiritual fitness or maturity. They don't make you a better person or a better Christian. We are never 'fit' enough, but the Spirit gives them anyway. And mature Christian practice is shown not by gifts but by the Spirit's fruits, by which we will know what God has blessed.
- Spiritual gifts are not given for your sake. You don't own or possess them. You have no right to be proud of them. You will receive much blessing from them (even when you don't feel so blessed). But ultimately, they are given to you for the sake of others. And the responsibility for using them that way is yours.
- Most especially, never try to manipulate the Spirit, nor the people you're supposed to be building up with your gifts. Again, God holds you responsible for what you're given. Double that, if you try to prevent someone else for using theirs without serious due cause. Yield to the Spirit. Surrender, don't fight. The Spirit is working on you.
- Spiritual gifts are not about power or salvation. They are about service.
- Don't seek a gift. Seek the Giver.
Gifts, Talents, and Skills
Gifts of the Spirit do not depend on natural talents and aptitudes or developed skills, though God gave you those, too. A gift of the Spirit is something that God gives for the purpose of building up others in a life of faith. It is the experience of Christians over the years that the spirit usually harnesses one's talents in the service of the purpose for which the gifts were given. Yet sometimes, the spiritual gifts seem to work against a person's natural endowment. This is, after all, the same God who led his people out of Egypt using a stammerer named Moses, made a shepherd boy/musician named David into a renowned warrior and king, and turned rural fishermen into leaders who left a mark on the course of history. There are examples everywhere of people who don't have training, aren't highly skilled, have no particular knack, but when the time comes for them to benefit others, the gift is there. The Spirit takes pleasure in surprises and on turning the tables on the expected. It's wise to leave ourselves open for such action. You can develop a talent, but the Spirit gives the gift it's meant to go with.
Where there's a gift, there are natural abilities and developed skills which can go with it.
God created everyone with these natural foreshadowings of supernatural gifts. They're good, and are meant to be used by all, not just the faithful. If you find that you have a talent, use it and develop it as best you can. But it takes the Holy Spirit, at work within the believer, to put the natural and the supernatural together, with power to be pressed into service.
The 'skill' part of this is important. There is no room to be lazy about it. If your gift is given for a direction or purpose, then you also have a responsibility to use the gift as best as you can, and that means working to get better in the related 'skills'. In fact, most people who have gifts are so steered by the purpose behind the gift that they thirst to get better at it -- to learn from mistakes, to rethink the way it's done, to more thoroughly base it in spiritual living, to connect with those who are built up by its use. They want to be at their best for their Maker. That thirst is an ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
"The Holy Spirit not only unites us, but also ensures our infinite diversity in the Church: at Pentecost the tongues of fire were 'cloven' or divided, descending separately upon each one of those present. The gift of the Spirit is a gift to the Church, but it is at the same time a personal gift, appropriated by each in her or his own way."
What Really Counts
Jesus said his followers would be known by their fruits. The fruits he spoke of were acts of love and marks of a Godly character, not specific manifestations, signs, achievements, ranks, tasks, or for that matter, gifts. There are so many spiritual gifts, and so many ways to put them to use for the church and its mission, that no one gift, no one sign, and no one calling defines the Christian life. The Giver defines it. If you treat any one gift that way, you're putting a limit on the sovereign Spirit in a way Scripture never does. Through the gifts the fruit are borne.
If you want to discover your spiritual gifts, you can take tests, ask advice, talk to those who see you operate. Each of those can have a role in understanding where the gift is and how it fits in the bigger pictures. But you will not actually know the gift until you care about someone enough to take action. When you do that, you are actually following the prompting of the Spirit. The gifts often emerge as you do it - or you find out quickly what isn't your gift. The gift may just be for the moment, but there's a good chance it may be the start of something bigger that God has in store for you.
As the Spirit gives gifts to all who believe in Christ, something strange happens. Priests, pastors, scholars, theologians, and leaders are no longer the sole rivers for the flow of God's knowledge or grace. The Spirit gives just plain folks the power to give the love and grace of God to each other, and to create (or better, recognize) sacred space here in this world. (This was always true, but the Church has usually forgotten it.) Faithful people do this every day in tough circumstances, whenever and wherever the only real Hope is revealed. The Spirit gives gifts, and the grateful believer offers it back by using the gifts to further God's purposes among people. It's the original 'pay forward'.
Other Resources on Spiritual Gifts
Please read this blog post by Donald Nwankwo on common misperceptions about spiritual gifts.
Other thoughts on what are called the 'greater gifts', in a video by Zach Hoag, based on his thoughts from reading the standard lectionary's Bible reading.
Also, read these reference sources:
- Greek Orthodox perspective from Rev. George Mastrantonis,
- Roman Catholicism (from the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis),
- an Evangelical-Pentecostal view,
- Ministry Tools Resource Center (from an evangelical-Fundamentalist viewpoint)
- the official United Methodist Church (US) site's gifts articles, a FAQ, and other resources,
- and the Wikipedia article on Spiritual Gifts.
"We ask you, O Lord, for the gifts of your
Teach us to overcome divisions.
Send us your Spirit
To lead to full unity your sons and daughters
In full charity, in obedience to your will,
Through Christ our Lord. Amen."
-------- from *Litany for Christian Unity*, Pope John Paul II. © Crossroads Publishing Co.
"I found that I believed in the action of the Holy Spirit, but in a limited sphere; in me the Spirit could not call forth from the organ all the melody he wished; some of the pipes did not function, because they had not been used."
--------- Leon Joseph Cardinal Suenens, *A New Pentecost* (Crossroad/Seabury, 1975)
"The Spirit bears witness. ecstasy and enlightenment, inspiration and intuition are not necessary. Happy is the man who is worthy of these; but woe unto us if we wait for such experiences; woe unto us if we do not perceive that these things are of secondary importance."
--------- Karl Barth
"Man discovers his own wealth
When God comes to asks gifts of him."
--------- Rabindranath Tagore, *Fireflys* (1928)
"God doesn't call the qualified, he qualifies the called."
Let thy living Spirit flow
Through thy members all below
With its warmth and power divine;
Scattered far apart they dwell
Yet in every land, full well,
Lord, thou knowest who is thine.
'Jesus, whom thy church doth own', by Gerhard Tersteegen, and translated into English by Catherine Winkworth.)
Study Questions on Spiritual Gifts
(If these questions are being used in small-group study: remember to discuss these at length amongst yourselves, and be honest with each other. And don't get frightened if your gifts emerge.)
What gifts do you think the Spirit has given you? What have you done to find out? How have you checked out if it is the Spirit's?
What have those spiritual gifts done for others?
Take a moment to think about the people closest to you. How has God gifted them with something that builds other people up?
Take a look at the spiritual gifts that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians. (There are many others, but we'll limit ourselves here to Paul's.) Which of these gifts would you find most valuable for your life?
If you go to church:
Which of these gifts do you think is most needed in your congregation? Why? Do you know of anyone there who is spiritually gifted and is using their gift?
Now, use your imagination and be creative. What difference(s) do you think that each of Paul's listed gifts can make for a congregation in a poor urban neighborhood?
What differences do you find between a gift, a talent, and a skill? Think of someone you know (or know about) who is an example of how each works with the others.
Next lessons on gifts:
More on Gifts of the Holy Spirit
Dare to Use Your Gifts!
A Dare: Now that you've studied this chapter, take up anew the task of finding the gifts the Spirit has given you. Pray, read scripture, think about it, and use the tools for discerning God's will (see menu below). Pay close attention: a door will open up if you keep knocking.
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