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Monday, February 24, 2014

What Are My Spiritual Gifts? Peter's Simple Yet Profound Perspective

What are my spiritual gifts? Is a question every Christian asks him- or herself initially and then again, at some point along the journey of faith. There are numerous good resources, such as questionnaires based on the lists found in Scripture and some lists of gifts extrapolated from those to fit today's context. The lists can be overwhelming and one sometimes emerges confused and with even more unanswered questions. Can my gifts change during the course of my life? Are all the gifts mentioned still valid for today? What is the appropriate context for the use of my gifts?

However, answering the basic question about spiritual gifts is especially vital for young people seeking direction for their life, desiring to serve in their church or contemplating full-time Gospel ministry or mission. We usually tend to go the apostle Paul for advice about spiritual gifts because he mentions a plethora of them in Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; and 1 Corinthians 12:28. But the other apostle whose name starts with a P, namely Peter, also has something to say about the topic. His is the broadest and simplest categorization of all spiritual gifts in the New Testament and it is only two-fold.

Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power forever and ever (1Pe 4:10-11 NIV).

Speaking and serving gifts
According to Peter, all the gifts are divided into two categories: speaking and serving. This is a simple, straight-forward and helpful way to identify spiritual gifts. Speaking and acting are part of our human experience and both can be infused and used by God for His purposes, hence becoming a "spiritual" gift intended to be put to use in loving God and serving our neighbor. This means that every Christian is gifted! Everyone can speak and serve. Here they are:

·         Speaking: teaching, preaching, prophesy, discernment, knowledge, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, evangelism, encouragement/exhortation, intercession. Writing belongs in this category as well, whether books or letters, journalism, and even blogs!
·         Serving: giving, hospitality, healing, mercy, administration, serving the needs of the church and the world in practical ways. There are no limits to the possibilities of serving in supportive roles of mercy and justice, tailored to needs of individuals or communities here and across the world.

This simple categorization of the gifts into speaking and serving reveal to us how God's grace is administered and applied through us to people's lives both in- and outside the church. Grace can be either spoken into people's lives or applied to people's lives through tangible acts of service. And oftentimes it is the powerful combination of both that administer grace most profoundly. Think of how Jesus' holistic approach not only healed people, but also forgave their sins. Peter does not elevate one category over the other, nor does one exclude the other. They function in tandem. When it comes to individual believers, there are people with a clear primary gifting in one or the other. This should not be cause for jealousy amongst us since they are equally weighted in Scripture and equally needed in all aspects of ministry. We need each other for effective ministry. Not only is this categorization of the gifts true for individual Christians, it is also reflected in the church body. A healthy biblical model of church will have both elders and deacons,  ministers of the word and diaconal ministers. A well functioning church will be like a tandem bike where the gifts of speaking and serving are coordinated for the most roadworthy advance of the gospel in the church and in the world. 

Words that serve
Speaking is serving. It could be tempting to say that the one who speaks is not doing anything. This is not true according to the Bible. There is power in the Word when it is preached, spoken in counseling, used to encourage or witness. Of course, Peter is quick to say that we are to speak the very words of God, not our own. God's word, truth for all time, has the power to transform, to bring new life, to convict of sin, to speak wisdom, to guide and correct. God's word accomplishes the purpose for which it was sent out. When a minister faithfully preaches and applies God's word, he serves his congregation because he is the Holy Spirit's agent to minister truth to needy hearts. Many lay Christians mistakenly believe that the ministry of the Word is the preacher's job only. This couldn't be further from the truth. Peter exhorts all believers to speak the very words of God! And beyond using people to speak his word, God also gave us the sacraments. They are God's pictorial word given to us to remind us of God's great redemptive work and administer grace to us in a fresh way every time we partake of the sacraments. Speaking is serving a spiritual need.

Service that speaks
Serving, on the other hand, is speaking about a practical need. It's the language the Spirit uses to assess and address a need. Service skillfully applies grace where need is most felt and where its administration will produce the most gratitude on the part of the receptor and ascribe most glory to the God who provided. Grace-filled service is a balm to the soul and a faith-builder. This sort of sacrificial action speaks louder than words. It is clear from Scripture that we are to serve our brothers and sisters in Christ in this manner, but also those outside the household of faith and that such service, if done in God's strength, also has the power to move hearts toward Christ, who came to serve and not to be served and give his life as a ransom for many. When Jesus fed the 5,000, he did not give bread only to the one ones he knew would believe. But he did couple feeding the crowd with giving them manna for their souls. Service is not just the job of the deacons in a church. No, every believer is called to serve. Peter points out that true Christian service is winsome for the cause of Christ and exhorts to do so with the example of believing wives lovingly submitting to their unbelieving husbands. It is the wives' loving service that has the power to woo, not their sermons, and this is true of all of us.

Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives (1Pe 3:1-2 NIV).

Pitfalls of only speaking
Being naturally gifted by God in one area does not mean we should not practice the other. Cultivating the gifts and stretching ourselves to do what doesn't come as naturally to us is part of our growth in sanctification. A pastor who never comes out of his study to participate in acts of service to his congregants, with the pretext that his calling is only to preach, will not only lose credibility with his flock, he will distance himself more and more from what God might want to teach him through service. He will become atrophied and lopsided in his ability to love well. Peter has a special admonition to pastors here:
 Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers--not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.
 (1Pe 5:2-3 NIV)
Some pitfalls of only speaking are:
  •  Pride. It is easy to slide into the teacher mode and speak as an expert, slowly growing in disdain of one's fellow man, instead of speaking out of the brokenness and humility that only personally learned Gospel lessons create.
  •  Not putting our money where our mouth is. Our speaking will be perceived as hypocrisy if we don't  first apply to ourselves what we say and expect of others.
  • Speaking or preparing sermons from ourselves instead of spending the required time in prayer to hear from God. We should not be wondering what we ought to say, rather, what does God want said?

Pitfalls of only serving
Those primarily gifted in serving may also be tempted to become one-sided if they do not push themselves past their comfort level and also open their mouths with confidence. Peter has something to say to this group as well:
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience (1Pe 3:15-16 NIV).
Our words can accompany our actions and make them even more effective.
Some pitfalls of only serving are:

  • Fear. The fear of speaking is really a symptom of fear of man, whereas we are to speak the truth in love.
  • Serving can turn into a need for affirmation. We are to serve others as unto the lord, not for the pats on the back we receive. Self-pity when we are not recognized is a sure symptom of a wrong motive for serving.
  • Serving in our own strength instead of in God's power. We should not be asking where we should like to serve, rather, where does God see need?

The pitfalls listed for both categories of gifts are true for individuals as well as for church bodies. Some churches lay a heavy emphasis on the speaking gifts or Word ministries, and others on the serving gifts or diaconal ministries. Churches need to stretch themselves in their areas of weakness as well. All of our gifts, whether speaking or serving are to be held in check by our motive: to glorify God, not ourselves. Whenever the result of our speaking or our service is frustration, bitterness or anger, we must ask ourselves: “Whose glory was I seeking? God’s or my own?” When we are seeking our own glory and someone doesn’t respond the way we want, we become angry. When we are seeking God’s glory and someone doesn’t respond the way we want, we are saddened. Gifts are not given to us for us to keep, rather, for us to share with others and give away. Our gifts are not given to us to just beautify our lives, rather to be of service in the cause of the Kingdom. So whatever type of gifts we have, whether speaking gifts, or practical gifts, it is good to ask ourselves some diagnostic questions. Jack Miller in his book, The Heart of a Servant leader, asks himself some good diagnostic questions and these can be used just as well for a church body:
“What is my concern for the glory of God in my life? How much am I led by concern for my own comfort and well-being? Do I witness out of enjoyment of God? Do I love people, not just on the mission field, but people? Am I willing to imitate the good shepherd and die for them? Do I really know the power of the Holy Spirit as I daringly witness? Do I really confront the lost with heaven and hell? Am I repenting regularly?”(28)
These questions are harrowing because we cannot always answer them in the affirmative. We seek glory for ourselves instead of using "our" gifts so that Jesus Christ might be praised. But Jesus came to redeem even our sinful motives, and of course, our poisonous words and grievous actions.

Jesus, the perfectly gifted man
The motivation Peter gives for speaking and serving is God's glory and the pattern for doing so is Christ himself in the form of the Isaianic suffering servant. Our words and service, even to ungodly rulers, cruel masters or oppressive spouses is to be patterned after the way Christ served and delivered us, his people, through his suffering.

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. "He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls(1Pe 2:20-25 NIV).

When Jesus spoke, it served. He could speak two or three words and a person was served at the deepest core of his or her being ("be healed," "your sins are forgiven"). When he suffered and served quietly, his actions spoke louder than words, such as the humility displayed when Jesus washed his disciples feet, his silence before Pilate or at the apex of his love, namely his crucifixion. The eternal Word became silent to serve and give up his life for the healing of the nations.

The perfectly gifted church
The world's need for word/speaking and mercy/serving ministries is determined not by the church but by God's estimate of the depth of our sin and extent of our lostness. There is no wedge driven between word and deed in the Bible or in Jesus' incarnational purpose. The Word became flesh so it could be turned into action. Jesus' life, death and resurrection, are a powerful demonstration and perfect combination of speaking and serving gifts, in applying grace to the sinner. We needed to hear Jesus' words, as the Word, but we also needed his salvific act of service in which he bore our sins, healed our wounds, sealed our pardon and returned us to our Shepherd.
The uniting of word and deed in ministry is the only way the church's mission can be fulfilled in this world because it was the only way Christ used in procuring our salvation. We have no other method. If Peter could stand in front us and describe the ideal church, the current debates as to what type of church is the most effective could be moot. An effective church, according to Peter,  would be a missional, reforming, confessional, and an ordinary means of grace church. That church would hold in perfect balance both incarnational mercy ministries and heralding the word of God as central in all aspects of the church's life and ministry. This powerful combination would lead to a dynamic, forward-marching, irresistible, transformational, truth-upholding movement of God's grace in the world. This very thing happened in the early church when preaching, evangelism, yes, even martyrdom were combined with feeding the poor, rescuing exposed babies and caring for the sick. The church, though opposed by the Pagan majority, grew exponentially and spread throughout the world. Today, it is important that orthodoxy and creativity in how we seek to reach unbelieving communities around us not be pitted against each other. Orthodoxy, infused with creativity cuts through to the marrow of the soul in brand new ways. Creativity infused with orthodoxy lays bare the skeptic's stereotypical objections to truth because the form surprises and opens up new venues for the Gospel. The church needs Christians of both types of gifting to be willing to use their gifts in the service of the church so it can truly be an effective witnesses for Christ in this broken world. All Christians have an important part to play in God's great story of redemption and therefore have a duty to strive to discover their gifts, develop them to their fullest potential and offer them up back to God in service to Christ, through His body, the church.

Identifying your gifts
Some sample diagnostic questions may help to identify your primary gifting.  But remember, being primarily gifted in one of the categories does not mean you ought not ever venture into the other or stretch yourself past your comfort zone. Doing what comes naturally may be the way God uses you most, but you may be surprised that he sometimes will use you mightily in your area of weakness.

1. Speaking gifts:
·         Do you express love better through words or actions?
·         Do you prefer to write a note of encouragement or make a meal for someone in need?
·         Do you enjoy expressing truth through teaching a Bible study or does that stress you?
·         Do you enjoy processing thoughts in writing, journaling, public speaking, or teaching?
·         Do you thrive in a world of words?
·         Do people seem to respond well to the things you say or write?

2. Serving gifts:
·         Do you like surprising people with a visit?
·         Do you enjoy making things for people, organizing events, implementing ideas?
·         Would you rather open your home for a Bible study than teach it?
·         Do you love to bless people financially?
·         Do you thrive in a world of action?
·         Are people encouraged by your practical acts of service?

Being able to discern your primary gift, whether speaking or serving, is a great first step in identifying and narrowing down how God might be calling you. Specifics can be determined as a second step. May Jesus be lifted up in his Church and in the world as we use our gifts together and to our utmost for his glory!