How to Squander Your Spiritual Gifts
What particular abilities has God given you? When God wove you together before you were born, and when he made you new in Christ, he chose gifts for you — special resources, experiences, and abilities for you to steward and practice. Do you believe that? If so, do you know what they are? Can you name some specific ways you’re striving to use them and grow in them?
If you believe in Jesus, he has given you something of his power and ability. Whoever you are, and however “gifted” you feel compared to others, you have abilities from God that are meant to make a difference in the lives of others.
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:4–7)
In everyone means “in you.” To each means “to you.”
Where Abilities Wither
The reality is that while all of us have particular potential for good, not all of us realize that potential. Some squander the miraculous and personal gifts of God. They sit, as it were, on shelves in the basement, decorations of a life focused elsewhere.
The apostle Paul charges the church in Rome, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them” (Romans 12:6). So what keeps us from using our gifts well? What keeps you from putting to work the grace-filled abilities God has given you? When we squander our God-given resources and abilities, we often don’t realize we’re squandering them. This is part of Satan’s craft. If he can’t convince us to reject God altogether, he’ll draw us away from him in a hundred smaller ways. He’ll embed some subtle temptation, barely discernible, that slowly corrupts our impulses and buries our potential.
“Most spiritual gifts die not by outright rejection, but by distraction.”
Most spiritual gifts die not by outright rejection, but by distraction. These temptations become spiritual cul-de-sacs, comfortable places to live, but leading nowhere. Paul passes by four of these cul-de-sacs in Romans 12.
Perhaps the most common way we waste these gifts is by assuming they are about us and not about meeting the needs of others. Paul’s charge to use our abilities comes directly after this remarkable statement of our identity:
As in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:4–5)
The abilities God gives us are not mainly for advancing our careers or unlocking favorite hobbies or giving us a sense of achievement or fulfillment; they’re for blessing and supporting the body of Christ, the church. You’re good at what you’re good at because the church needs that, in some way, shape, or form — because the church needs you.
This is not how the world thinks. What are gifts if they’re not mine to use and spend however I want? Like the 5-year-old hovering over his host of Matchbox cars, we survey our abilities, resources, and time, and declare, “Mine!” God sees gifts so differently. What are gifts, he asks, if they die on the vines of self? No, gifts are only truly experienced and enjoyed when we hold them loosely and gladly say to God, “Yours!”
Beyond a selfishness that blinds us to the needs of others, we might squander our gifts because we think too highly of ourselves. A couple of verses earlier, Paul writes,
By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:3)
Sometimes gifts spoil because we’re too focused on self; other times, because we think the needs we might meet are below us. We assume we’re too gifted for quiet, ordinary, thankless love. Pride inflates our heads, lifting us out of reality and making real needs seem small, even trivial, next to our conceited priorities. God-given abilities, however, suffocate at that elevation. They breathe and flourish when they’re rooted in real, ordinary lives with real, ordinary needs. Our gifts won’t reach the heights of their potential if we refuse to use them on our knees.
“Our gifts won’t reach the heights of their potential if we refuse to use them on our knees.”
Paul tucks a weapon against this gift-smothering pride in the verse quoted above: think sober thoughts about yourself, he says, “each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.” The abilities you have are assigned by God. Even the faith you have is assigned by God. “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7). Anything you do well, remember, you do well only by the creativity and generosity of God.
A third cul-de-sac may be the most prevalent and subtle: worldliness. We waste or misuse our gifts because we prize and prioritize what the world does, rather than seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33). It’s far too easy to fall in line with the crowds casually strolling away from the cross. “Do not be conformed to this world,” Paul warns, “but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).
What does the wrong kind of conformity look like? We spend the best parts of ourselves at the office, rather than at home and in church. We’re more excited about our hobbies than we are about heaven. We find the most comfort and “rest” by scrolling through the leftovers of others’ lives on social media. We stay up to date on our favorite shows and movies, but struggle to find time to sit and meet with and enjoy God.
When our hearts are in all the wrong places, it’s no wonder when our gifts — our time, our attention, our resources, our abilities — consistently land in the wrong places too (or never land at all). Those who use their gifts well reject what the world would teach them to do with their gifts. They carry and spend their gifts where God leads them through his word, prayer, and the fellowship of other believers.
The last cul-de-sac along this narrow path of faithfulness brings us back to Romans 12:6: “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” Like an especially fertile weed, passivity poisons the gardens of giftedness.
How many God-given abilities shrivel because we’re too preoccupied or insecure or lazy to even try? We had an impulse to serve in this way or that, but we kept putting it off. We knew that person might need a call or a visit, but we assumed someone else would reach out. We heard the church was looking for someone to cover that base, but we kept finding excuses to stay in the dugout. Paul says to the church — young and old, male and female, new believers and older saints, healthy and hurting, outgoing and shy, musical and, well, not — “You have abilities (yes, even you), so use them.” Find some way, any way, to use whatever you do well to care for someone else.
Being gifted in these ways doesn’t mean you’re more gifted than everyone else or that God doesn’t expect us all to teach and serve and exhort (and give and lead in various ways); it just means that there’s evidence God has given you greater measures of grace in certain areas to meet the needs of others. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Peter 4:10). Whatever experience or ability God has assigned to you, start using it.
Wait, What Are My Gifts?
Some, however, still may not know what their gifts are. Perhaps you’ve never really thought of yourself as “gifted,” and can’t point to any particular skill or knowledge you would consider a gift. How does someone begin to uncover his or her gifts?
In Romans 12:6–8, Paul does give us a few examples: Some are gifted to teach, so find someone to teach, even if it’s three or four 6-year-olds in Sunday school. Some are gifted to serve, so find someone to serve, even if it’s helping out around the house for a widow who sits a few pews away. Some are gifted to exhort — to encourage, to challenge, to correct, to inspire — so find someone to exhort, even if it’s the guy faithfully teaching three or four 6-year-olds.
A lot more could be said here, but you might start with a simple question: What do you enjoy doing well that a ministry or family in your church might need? What do other people thank you for doing? It could be teaching, or encouraging teachers. It could be leading music, or setting up equipment. It could be serving meals, or cleaning up meals. It could be hosting big gatherings, or befriending lonely people. It could be greeting guests as they come in on Sunday morning, or faithfully praying for fellow members. Every church, however small, has real and significant needs. Sometimes the needs are even bigger in smaller churches because there are fewer leaders and resources. What’s something you do well that meets the needs of others?
If your gifts have wandered into a cul-de-sac and begun to wither, it’s not too late to revive them and put them to use. Lay aside the pride, selfishness, worldliness, and passivity that devour what God has given you. Liberate your gifts from the cul-de-sacs that suppress them. Identify something you do well by God’s grace, and ask him to help you find a need to meet.