What If I Don’t Have a Spiritual Gift?
For the past week or so, we’ve been looking at gifts, particularly spiritual gifts. I didn’t design it this way. It was providential that so many episodes touched on the topic. Last week, we looked at the question “What are my skills worth?” That was APJ 1857. If you’re a carpenter or mechanic or plumber or doctor or lawyer — if you have some skill that people in the church assume you will share with them for free — listen to that episode. And then we looked at what distinguishes my life from non-Christians’ in APJ 1858, an episode sparked by a question on spiritual gifts. And then we asked a related question: What makes my gift a spiritual gift? That was last time in APJ 1859.
Today, we close out the week with an email from a listener named Cara. Cara says she has no spiritual gift at all. None. Now what? Here’s her email. “Pastor John, hello! I have been a believer for about a dozen years now, but I don’t seem to have any spiritual gifts. I really feel like a talent-less and sinful mess! Does this mean that the Spirit does not actually dwell in me? How can I discover my purpose in him and fulfill 1 Peter 4:10?”
I think I have really good news for Cara, but I need to say a warning first. She says, “I feel like a talent-less and sinful mess.” And here’s the warning. There is a fundamental difference between talents and sins. If it were — and I don’t think it is true — that she were without any talents, that would not be a spiritually serious problem; God does not judge us on the basis of whether we have talents or not. But to be a sinful mess is a huge problem. God does judge sin. He hates sin. If Cara’s life is spiraling down into sin, that’s a very urgent matter. And my warning is this: Fight that, Cara, as we all must, with all your might — with all God’s might in you. Put to death sinful attitudes and words and deeds by the Spirit by laying hold on the promises of God and trusting him to satisfy you more than any sinful path of pleasure could. Okay, that’s my warning.
Now to the main thing that she’s concerned about. Maybe she’s overstated the case there. I hope so. She says, “I don’t seem to have any spiritual gifts. Does this mean that the Spirit does not actually dwell in me? How can I discover my purpose in him and fulfill 1 Peter 4:10?”
Gift to Each
The first thing to say is that Cara does have spiritual gifts. I’m going to take Cara’s word for it that she has been a Christian for about a dozen years. I’m going to assume — and I think it’s right to assume — that she’s truly a daughter of the living God through faith in Christ. That’s how I know she has a spiritual gift, because God said it in his word.
For example, in 1 Peter 4:10, Peter doesn’t say, “If each has received a gift . . .” That’s not what he says. He says, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another” (1 Peter 4:10). And in 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). He does not say, “To some Christians are given those manifestations,” but rather, “To each [Christian] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
Or a third way to say it is that every Christian is part of the body of Christ. By definition, that makes everyone an ear, or an eye, or an eyebrow, or a foot, or a finger, or a tooth, or a tongue. Paul is speaking of every Christian when he says in Romans 12,
As in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we [we Christians, all of us], though many, are one body in Christ and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:4–5)
And every member of a body has a function.
“To be a member of the body of Christ is to have a role in the body.”
So my conclusion from these texts is that to be a Christian is to be a member of the body of Christ, and to be a member of the body of Christ is to have a role in the body that is essential to the body — not flashy, not prominent, but essential. In fact, Paul is at pains to make sure that no Christian, no matter how insignificant they feel, feels excluded from the body. I think this is really relevant for Cara’s question. Paul says,
If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make him any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I’m not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. . . . But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. (1 Corinthians 12:15–16, 18)
No Insignificant Members
Now it seems to me that these words are almost perfectly suited to help Cara not feel despairing about her role in the body of Christ. These people at Corinth that he’s quoting were looking at their own relative weakness and feeling totally insignificant because they weren’t like others. They didn’t have the gifts of others. They weren’t an ear; they were only a finger.
Now I wonder what Cara would say if someone asked her whether people with profound mental disabilities but with a simple faith are part of the body of Christ. And I think she would say, “Yes, they are.” And Paul has something amazing to say that I think relates to that extreme case and to Cara’s as well. He says,
The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Corinthians 12:22–25)
So Paul is willing to go so far as to say that the gift that some people have in the body of Christ is to be weak and needy so that others may have opportunity to show them special care. Now, I doubt that’s the case with Cara. I mention it so that she will perhaps reorient her thinking about the body of Christ and perhaps not have expectations about the nature of spiritual gifts that make her feel so inadequate.
Aim to Love
Let me touch on one more thing that she asks about; namely, Can I discover my purpose? “How can I discover my purpose and fulfill 1 Peter 4:10?”
“Don’t make it your aim to discover your gift; rather, make it your aim to love people for Christ’s sake.”
In other words, what’s her next step forward from this point of discouragement? And I think there’s a clue to answering that question in 1 Peter 4:10. Here’s what the verse is. “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” So one way to define spiritual gifts on the basis of this verse is that they are simply the outworking of our experience of the grace of God expressed through our personality. Or to say it another way, we look away from ourselves to the grace of God to use us. And then we set our hearts to love people by God’s grace, to show God’s grace to people, to channel God’s grace through ourselves, through our God-given personalities in whatever way feels natural to us.
And that way of loving people will probably turn out to be blessed by God — that is, a gift. I’m encouraged to say this because in Romans 12:6–8, Paul calls some pretty ordinary things spiritual gifts. For example, he says, “Let the one who contributes do it with generosity. Let the one who leads lead with zeal. Let the one who does acts of mercy do them with cheerfulness” (see Romans 12:6–8).
So, Cara, don’t make it your aim to discover your gift. I know that’s counterintuitive, so let me say it again: don’t make it your aim to discover your gift; rather, make it your aim to love people for Christ’s sake. And then do it in as many ways that feel natural to your personality as you can. I think in doing that, you will discover your purpose, and you will fulfill 1 Peter 4:10.