Two reasons to pursue spiritual gifts- and one trap to avoid

Spiritual gifts are not as controversial in the church as they were a generation ago. There is a broad acceptance that the Bible teaches that spiritual gifts are intended for the church today.

However, just because we believe that they are for the church today does not mean that churches recognise gifts or that we use them. Yet, even the most brief reflection on Romans 12.3-8, Ephesians 4.11-13 and 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, underline that the church cannot function to the spiritual capacity that God intended without the use of spiritual gifts.

How can we make sure that the church does function the way that God intended?

First of all we need to remind ourselves of the importance of spiritual gifts.

Paul begins the Romans passage on spiritual gifts with reference to his own apostolic authority: For by the grace given me I say to every one of you (Romans 12.3). That is his way of emphasising the importance of what he is about to say.

You might wonder how any Christian who claims to take the Bible seriously could forget the importance of gifts.

There are all sorts reasons. We can neglect our own gift. We can rely on the gifting of one or two very gifted individuals. If we have experienced the abuse of gifts, we can draw back from the use of gifts. Or we can develop a theology that accepts gifts for today but set the bar so high for the use of gifts that they never get used.

Spiritual gifts are important. In fact they are so important that all three members of the Trinity are involved in the giving of gifts: the Father (Romans 12), the Son (Ephesians 4), the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12 &14).

Secondly, spiritual gifts have impact.

When you think of a gift – whether a birthday present or a Christmas present or a surprise gift, the gift affects in some way or other the person who receives it.

The same is true of spiritual gifts. In a passage like 1 Corinthians 14.24-25 the impact of the use of spiritual gifts is very obvious. In Romans 12.6-8, the impact might not be so obvious. Consider this, however: what if those who have the gift of prophecy didn’t prophesy? If those who are encouragers didn’t encourage? Or the givers didn’t give? And what if you extended that across the range of gifts that Paul mentions? The church would be much weaker. Sometimes we only appreciate the impact of gifts when we realise how much the poorer the church would be if people stopped using their gifts.

Finally, even though gifts are important and make an impact, we should not base our identity on our gifts.

Paul says in Romans 12.3 that we should not think more highly of ourselves than we ought but rather think of ourselves with sober judgment.

There can be a temptation to build our identity on our gifts. Often that results in us having an inflated idea of our own importance.

Instead Paul says we are to think of ourselves in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of us. In other words, we are to base our identity on who we are in Christ.

Jesus said something similar in Luke 10.20 after His disciples returned from a very effective outreach:

However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.

Gifts are important. They have impact. But they do not make us who we are. Who we are is defined by the work of Christ and the impact of His grace in our lives.

A forgotten reason why stuff happens

“Stuff happens” might not be precise theological language. But it sums up precisely not only that unwanted things happen in life, but also the power those things have to bewilder us.

Unanticipated difficulty can cause us to resort to the usual – sometimes unhelpful – answers. Deficient spirituality is often the explanation we latch onto in the face of unanticipated difficulty: “I was lacking in faith” or “there was hidden sin that attracted the displeasure of God or gave Satan a foothold”.

Sometimes that does explain where we are at. Letting go of faith instead of letting loose our faith when difficult days come will cause us to flounder – like Peter when he took his eyes of Jesus and began to sink.

And sinful choices sometimes lie behind the difficulties we find ourselves in.

I would suggest, however, that we need some discernment before we jump to either of those conclusions – especially before we pronounce them the reasons for the problems others are facing!

Or we default to the safe but sometimes unsatisfying answer of sovereignty: “God is sovereign – stuff happens, we don’t know why, but it’s all part of God’s purpose.” Again, there are times when there is no option but simply to accept that we don’t know why, but God is still good.

There is however another approach to unanticipated difficulty. It’s one that we find in 2 Corinthians 1.

Paul and his friends went through circumstances that caused them to fear for their lives.

Writing to the Corinthians, Paul reflected on what he had experienced and reveals how he processed it: it was a lesson in trust:

“But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead.” 2 Corinthians 1.9

Paul’s difficulties were designed to deepen His faith in God – the God who raises the dead.

Our unanticipated difficulties might just be a lesson in trusting the God who raises the dead. Difficulty can be the doorway to a fresh revelation of who God is and what He can do. And it can also provide fresh spiritual resources for ministry: Paul and his friends were comforted and this comfort was now available to others (2 Corinthians 1.4).

The difficulty also caused Paul and company to press into their relationship with the Corinthian church: they needed their prayers (2 Corinthians 1.10-11). Discovering the God who raises the dead is a team effort.

There is no simple answer for why stuff happens. We can be sure however that sometimes it happens to cause us to lean harder into the God who raises the dead.

3 Ways Sacrificial Living Can Impact Your World

General Stanley McCrystal was the soldier entrusted with leading the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq. One of the things that McCrystal discovered early in his appointment was that a conventional approach to warfare would not work against an enemy that was waging war in an unconventional way.

To meet this unprecedented challenge, the general realised that he had to address the competitive culture that existed within the American military and intelligence establishment.

In order to achieve his objective of greater co-operation between the various agencies and sectors, he seconded some of his best officers to American embassies in the Middle East. He tells the story of how an experienced Navy SEAL was sent to one embassy. Despite his experience, it took months for him to earn the trust of the embassy staff. McCrystal recounts how for months all he did was empty the rubbish bins. Then, one day, the embassy found itself facing serious trouble. They turned to the SEAL for help. And because of his background, he was able to call people who had the expertise to fix the problem.

I can’t imagine what it is like to have a career move from covert operations in the special forces to putting out the bins, albeit at one of your country’s embassies. Suffice it to say, it must entail swallowing a whole lot of pride!

In Romans 12.1, Paul talks about offering ourselves as living sacrifices. If being a living sacrifice means anything, it means being prepared to let go of things. Those things aren’t necessarily just or even material things. The “things” might be more along the lines of certain entitlements or expectations.

Unfortunately, whenever we hear the language of sacrifice, we are inclined to think in terms of what we stand to lose. Let’s face it, Navy SEAL to janitorial duties at the embassy is not exactly a career trajectory most of us would want to celebrate!

What we forget is the incredible power of sacrifice.

So what does sacrifice achieve? You could write a book in answer to that question. Let me, however, give you three practical effects of sacrifice that can impact your world and mine.

Firstly, sacrifice has the power to break down barriers.

When we are prepared to let go of things which we have a right to expect, we begin to dismantle suspicion and sometimes even hostility, that others might feel towards us. If that Navy SEAL had demanded the kind of honour his military record deserved and refused the demeaning task that presented itself, his mission would have failed.

Ephesians 2.14 says that Jesus through His sacrifice, broke down the dividing wall of hostility that existed between Jew and Gentile. Sacrifice breaks down barriers.

Secondly, sacrifice builds bridges.

Before Jesus sacrificed His life on the cross, He sacrificed His life in heaven to become an earth dweller. The book of Hebrews reveals that He became for us a Great High Priest. It goes on to explain that because Jesus, in His humanity was tempted like us, He is able to empathise with us (Hebrews 4.15).

In the incarnation, God, in the person of Christ, built a bridge into a world of suffering humanity.

Every time that Navy SEAL carried out the rubbish, he was building a bridge into a world which didn’t understand him, perhaps didn’t want him, but one day would desperately need him.

Living sacrifices build powerful bridges into the world around them.

Finally, sacrifice eventually bears fruit that benefits everyone.

“Do you want to live a fruitful, fulfilled life?” is hardly the most searching question in the world. Of course people want to live fruitful, fulfilled lives! What doesn’t seem so obvious to most is that the letting go of sacrifice, or the sacrifice of letting go, is what opens the door to that life.

Months of doing work most would consider embarrassingly menial for such a capable soldier, eventually paid a huge dividend for everyone concerned.

Jesus described the fruitful life in terms of a seed falling to the ground and dying before it could bear fruit (John 12.24-24). We have to die before we live. We have to lose before we win. We have to sow before we reap. But eventually the sacrifice yields fruit that benefits everyone.