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This is the first of two posts about spiritual living. The first post is about spiritual gifts and natural talents. The second post is about the fruits of the Spirit and spiritual disciplines. 

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Not too long ago, I was back at my church in Kalamazoo, Mich. The sermon was about how the Holy Spirit equips God’s people with spiritual gifts. The text was 1 Corinthians 12:1-27, the first part of which talks about different kinds of spiritual gifts and how they all come from and serve God, and the second part talking about the unity and diversity in the Church (“As it is, there are many parts, but one body”). One of the preliminary points was that spiritual gifts should not be confused with natural talents, the fruits of the Spirit or spiritual disciplines.

But what’s the difference?

I wanted to find out what the differences are, and figure out a way of thinking about each of these categories, so I did a little thinking and exploration. Here’s some of what I found:

Spiritual Gifts

In 1 Corinthians 12, there are nine spiritual gifts listed: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, “miraculous powers”, prophecy, discernment, speaking in different kinds of tongues, interpreting tongues. Romans 12 and Ephesians 4 list ten other spiritual gifts: administration, apostleship, evangelism, exhortation, giving, leadership, mercy, pastoring, serving and teaching. That’s 19 spiritual gifts specifically mentioned in scripture, and there may be more I haven’t come across (for instance, I’ve heard hospitality is a spiritual gift).

These gifts each represent unique abilities given by God to his people. All believers are granted at least one spiritual gift.

What are yours?

You probably have a pretty good idea what your spiritual gifts are already. What are you good at? What do you take joy in? How do you tend to serve people? What do others in the Church say you’re good at?

And if you’d like a more concrete way to think about your gifts, a Spiritual Inventory might help.

Three notes on spiritual gifts:

1. Just because we are gifted in some areas doesn’t mean we are excused in the others. To use a personal example, my spiritual gifts — at least according to this Spiritual Inventory, which seemed reasonable — are in administration, wisdom and teaching. My weakest areas are giving, prophecy and evangelism. Am I, therefore, excused from the tithe or from witnessing? By no means. In fact, I should want to grow stronger in those areas through personal effort and prayer.* Our spiritual strengths are not substitutes for those gifts where we are weaker.

2. I think a Spiritual Inventory is helpful, but only to a point. God knows our spiritual gifts better than we do, and he can use whatever gifts he likes in us. In fact, God rather enjoys using our weaknesses for his glory. Think about David, the scrawny younger brother. He probably wouldn’t have said leadership was among his spiritual gifts, and yet God made him Israel’s great king. Or Peter, who is most famous for almost drowning in doubt — literally — and denying Jesus at the crucifixion. God turned him into one of the greatest evangelists of all time. It’s important to recognize that, when God intervenes, sometimes turning our weaknesses into strengths, our spiritual gifts can surprise us.

3. No spiritual gift is more important than another. They are all valued by God and effective in the life of the Church. Some might be tempted to think that leadership is better than mercy, or faith better than knowledge, but there is no better or worse. We should not even envy a person who is given many spiritual gifts while we have few. Just as the master’s servants could not envy one another when one was given five talents and another two — for each gift was given freely to the undeserving — we should not envy the person who has many gifts while we have fewer. It is a matter of what we do with the gifts we’ve been given. It might also be true that we come to feel jealous of others because they have spiritual gifts we wish we had, but there’s no need for this jealousy. The one who is discerning cannot say the one who does miracles is not needed, any more than the eye can say that the hand is not needed. The diversity of the gifts make up the unity of the Body.

Note that in 1 Corinthians 31, after describing the spiritual gifts and the importance of each member of the Body, Paul says, “Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.”

When I first read that, I thought Paul was saying that some of the spiritual gifts are “greater” than others. But I think he is actually referring to the next chapter (which, of course, was not a separate chapter in the original letter). 1 Corinthians 13 is the famous chapter about love, and ends with Paul writing, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” I think it’s this love — maybe faith and hope, as well — that he’s referring to when he talks about eagerly desiring the “greater gifts.” We should all desire faith, hope and, especially, love.

Natural Talents

I think these are unique gifts that each person is given, too. They are similar to spiritual gifts in that 1) they come from God and 2) every person has some talents and not others.

When I think about natural talents, my mind goes to things like creativity and athleticism. Some people are great musicians, others are intrinsically good artists. Some people are meant to play sports and others have a seemingly inherent understanding of technology. Some are naturally comfortable in social situations and some find differential equations easy.

I think the differences between spiritual gifts and natural talents are their users and use. In terms of users, all people have natural talents, but not all people have spiritual gifts. Why? Because of the use: God gives spiritual gifts to Christians for the purpose of serving others, building up the Church and glorifying him.

Of course, this does not mean we shouldn’t use our natural talents to serve, support the Church and honor God, too. It also doesn’t mean that unbelievers won’t ever have the gifts of, say, teaching or administration or giving or mercy. It only means, I think, that natural talents can be used for any purpose by any person, but spiritual gifts must be used for specific purposes (Kingdom purposes) by specific people (Christians).

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*I’m not sure how one grows stronger in the gifts of tongues, interpreting tongues or performing miracles. These seem unique in that, as far as I can tell, we cannot practice or improve on them without God first endowing us with these gifts — we either have them or we don’t. However, all of the other gifts seem like things that every Christian is able to possess to one degree or another. 

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