Love gives. God’s love empowers creatures for their own good and for the good of others. The idea that God enables members of the Christian community to perform a variety of diverse but interconnected tasks is an inspiring and empowering one. This notion, the notion of spiritual gifts, occurs on several occasions in the Newer Testament. Its readers are invited to see God at work in a variety of ways, to identify God’s action as lying at the root of a variety of human capacities and activities that contribute to the life of the Christian church, including assistance, compassion, evangelism, exhortation, faith, giving, leadership, ministry, service, teaching, wisdom, apostleship, the discernment of spirits, healing, prophecy, knowledge, speaking in and interpreting tongues, and the ability to perform “deeds of power.”
The process of selecting pastors or appointing local church officers often seems mundane and prosaic. How does it help to talk about the capacities that enable people to fulfill the tasks associated with these positions as spiritual gifts? Are these gifts identical with our natural talents? Such questions are especially puzzling because of our increasing awareness of the role of interacting genetic, developmental, familial, and socio-cultural factors in shaping our abilities, and the evident absence from our experience of extraordinary, immediate divine acts that leave us gifted in ways we were not before. What is the difference between the spiritual gifts the Newer Testament and the Christian tradition maintain are conferred on Christians by God and the endowments received from our ancestors and our environment or developed by means of our own choices? And does the answer matter?
The Significance of Gift-Language
To speak of gifts when describing these endowments matters for several reasons. Viewing our capacities as gifts affects not only how we understand and use them but also how we understand ourselves.
The gift is among the most evocative metaphors available to us spiritually, morally, existentially.1 For Christians, all of life, every aspect of ordered existence, is a gift. The presents we give each other are simply symbols, sacraments, of all the varied gifts we receive and offer—sometimes fitfully, sometimes with mixed motives, but sometimes in love and with power.
To say that something—anything—is a gift is to say both that it is a given and that someone gave it. This is, first of all, to emphasize that a gift is something I did not produce. It is not the result of my achievement or my performance or my activity. It just is. Thus, I cannot take credit for it. I do not deserve acclaim for it. The givenness of the gift means that it cannot warrant pride or arrogance.
Not only is a gift a given; it is received from another. It is thus an occasion for gratitude. If it was given to me by someone, then I must recognize and appreciate and celebrate the giver’s generosity. Further, a gift plays a role in a relationship with the giver. Identifying a trait as a divine gift may underscore divine care for one’s life—perhaps, in some cases, particular concern for one as an individual.
Recognizing the divine generosity that lies at the root of a gift can highlight one’s special responsibility to use the gift in service to God. When, as in 1 Tim., a gift is seen as conferred directly through the activity of the community, its authority and one’s dependence on it may also be accentuated.
Acknowledging that one’s capacities are rooted in God’s action, and so in God’s love, can also highlight the distinctive potential contribution of one’s gifts to God’s ongoing activity in history. It may thus be a source of confidence and power—not only for individuals but for the church as a whole. The presence of spiritual gifts in the church may be understood as a sign that there is something distinctive that the church is in a position to do.
The sense that one’s contribution is distinctive may suggest that one’s role, though significant, is limited, and finds its meaning in relation to the correlative roles of others. If God is the giver, then divine purposes can be seen to underlie the distribution of gifts, and God can be understood as creating an interdependent community marked by mutual giving.2 Further, just as the givenness of gifts means that they cannot warrant pride, so their function in preserving, extending, and enriching the community may imply that one need feel no regret at the lack of a given gift. Gifts are not given for our individual benefit alone, but for service to God’s world.
If God gives spiritual gifts, then perhaps we can expect these gifts to be made available. To believe that these gifts come from God is to believe that we can appropriately ask God for them, and that God will seek to provide them to meet our needs. Gift-language thus serves as a source of confidence in the provision of opportunities to touch the world effectively with God’s love.
This cluster of ideas—gift as trust and source of responsibility, gift as relational bond, gift as the product of something other than the recipient’s will, gift as intended for service, gift as an element of communal interdependence, gift-giving as a basis for hope—gives the idea of spiritual gift its distinctive character. It helps to explain why the use of gift-language matters as we try to understand the traits we might want to characterize as spiritual gifts. Accepting spiritual gifts as gifts means accepting the interdependence that unites us with the other members of the church, and of the wider society, in relationships of mutual giving. It also means recognizing and celebrating the unique contributions our gifts enable us to make to others. Acknowledging spiritual gifts—and others we wouldn’t normally label the same way, as well—as gifts leads naturally to gratitude toward God and, in turn, to generosity toward others.
Spiritual Gifts and Divine Action
It is clear that gift-language functions in a particular way, that it encourages particular attitudes or behaviors. But it does so because it also embodies an assumption—that our gifts are attributable to God. The understanding of divine action I have developed here suggests a model of how God might give us spiritual gifts and thus of the relationship between such gifts and natural talents.
Creation is the primary form of divine action. God exercises enormous influence simply as the designer of the basic patterns, structures, and processes that underlie the world’s operation. In addition, the fact that, as creator, God can anticipate the possibility of particular events in the world as a consequence of divine creative activity makes God responsible for those events which God not only anticipates but intends.
Therefore, even if, as deism unpersuasively maintains, God simply established the initial conditions for the operation of a world which proceeded along its course undisturbed, we could still reasonably speak of capacities for such activities as leadership, teaching, and exhortation as divine gifts. Anticipating the possibility that we would come into being and that we would possess particular endowments makes God responsible for these endowments as creator, provided God intends our possession of these gifts. On this basis alone, we can speak of natural talents as, at the same time, divine gifts.3
Special Providence as a Source of Spiritual Gifts
I believe we can say more than this, however. We can see God at work not only in the establishment of the initial conditions of the universe but also in its ongoing development, not only in the creation of human life but in the formation of particular genetic patterns over time. We can see God’s gentle but relentless persuasion in the growth of societies and cultures and in the birth and ongoing life of particular relationships. Thus, we can see God’s influence at work in and through those processes by means of which particular persons are formed and equipped for service. We can see the divine intention expressed in and through those events as a consequence of which we acquire our genetic endowments—at every level from the molecular to the societal and beyond. And we can see God at work in and through those processes by which we are formed—in the broadest sense—environmentally. In none of these cases will the divine intention probably be realized perfectly: fallibility and moral wrongdoing will take their respective tolls, and the reality of creation what God can accomplish in any given situation. Still, at all times and in all circumstances, God will be at work to shape our capacities.
Creation is an ongoing process that includes what God does through us as well as what God does in the non-human world. And since God is always at work in and through every event in the world, creation includes everything we do. God’s providential action takes place in and through ours; it is not, of course, simply identical with ours. But, with that qualifier, we can surely say that God creates in and through the social relationships and developmental processes that shape our gifts, as well as through our genes.4 Our natural talents are also our spiritual gifts.
Christian Spiritual Gifts as Fostered by Christian Belief and Christian Community
It would be possible simply to define a spiritual gift as an endowment arising from God’s work, intended for the service of God’s world, and used as part of God’s providence for this purpose. And this would capture most of what needs saying about the relationship between natural talents and spiritual gifts. But it needs to be qualified in light of a dynamic understanding of human nature. There is no reason to suppose that all human capacities are simply fixed in rigid fashion. And so Christian belief and Christian community can make a distinctive contribution to who we are.
As a result, we can make some sense of the way in which spiritual gifts might be thought to be related particularly to the church, as they seem to be in the Newer Testament. God can and surely does give gifts everywhere and to everyone. But life in the church will contribute to the shaping and reshaping of a person’s character, to the formation of a distinct structure of existence—the Christian structure of existence.5 Her identity and the way she sees and feels and thinks and acts will be affected, to one degree or another, by her immersion in the church. What she is inclined to do, what tasks she can perform joyfully—and thus effectively—will be different from what they would be if she were rooted in some other concrete community, or in no concrete community at all. Her awareness of options, and the attractiveness of those options, will be different because she is a Christian. She may be able to hear and respond to a divine call to which she would otherwise have been deaf. God may give a person a gift, then, by leading her into a community in which who she is is transformed. (This is not to deny the obvious point that God can give gifts to people who belong to other communities, or none, or that a person’s membership in some other community may facilitate God’s fostering of the development of particular gifts.)
Immersion in the church’s story, its practices, its beliefs, its common life can awaken new feelings and perspectives that condition the development of new gifts or bring dormant gifts to life. But God can also give us spiritual gifts through the church because the institutional structure of the church includes settings in which particular dispositions for service are fostered and particular opportunities for service are provided.
What God can do in the world is a function of the opportunities creaturely circumstances present to God. It is unlikely that God could lead a pre-Newtonian mathematician to articulate the essence of quantum cosmology, or that God could make someone with my physique and skill-set a professional basketball player. Some circumstances will present God with opportunities that others will not. Mother Theresa, for instance, probably would not have heard a call to serve the poor of India had she been a wife and mother rather than a nun. A church-based health care, development, or educational institution can foster the development of new gifts or the transformation of existing capacities in order to facilitate their contribution to the church’s work in the world. The opportunity to occupy a church office may have a similar effect. A person’s connection with the church may provide God with a chance to gift her in a distinctive way.
Belonging to the church will affect our inclinations and awaken our capacities. It will also change what we do because what we do will mean something new. The objective significance of a thing, an act, or an event depends upon its connection with other contemporary, past, or future things or acts or events. We know very little about a lawyer’s life, for instance, if we know only that she defends or prosecutes murder defendants. Who the defendants are, why she assists or confronts them in the courtroom, what will happen to them if they are convicted—a whole host of factors contribute to the meaning of a single act: typing a brief on a narrow point of law, rising to lodge an objection, questioning a witness. Similarly, the subjective meaning of an act to the actor will depend on how the actor relates what she does to a broader context, to an array of relevant circumstances. The subjective meaning of a thing or an event to a given perceiver will depend on how she relates what she perceives to other realities that give it significance. Meanings are not fixed by circumstances in isolation.
Thus, superficially similar acts done inside and outside the church may have different meanings, and thus be different acts.6 I may drive a truckload of food to a refugee camp in order to keep people alive so they can fight in the coming revolution; to curry favor with a demanding God; to express my gratitude for divine love; to express my love for vulnerable and infinitely valuable children of God; to fulfill my contract with Oxfam; to pay off a karmic debt; to poison the refugees living at the camp; or, no doubt, for a variety of other reasons. That I locate my actions within the Christian story may mean, then, that their significance varies markedly from what it might be in another setting. Their place in a particular story, together with my motives for doing them, may render them distinctive and different from similar acts performed by someone else. The point is not, of course, that God cannot touch the world with love through the things Muslims or secular humanists do, but only that what they do may not always be the same in meaning as what Christians do even if it is the same in immediate, overt content. This is another reason, then, that Christian’s gifts may be special and new.
When we develop and exercise gifts in the church, we must choose, at least in part, what to do. God cannot and does not choose for us. God can make no one a preacher, a teacher, an administrator, or anything else against that person’s will. But God can woo a person into the church, where she may develop new capacities. God can call her into circumstances where existing talents—themselves God’s gifts—can be offered up in service to God. And the very disposition with which she chooses has been affected since the first moment of her life by God’s activity: the energy and the inclination to respond to God’s many calls themselves reflect God’s ongoing, loving presence and influence.
The capacities and endowments of those outside the church are, of course, also God’s gifts. Biological, developmental, relational, and cultural factors mediate God’s gifts—truly but imperfectly—to all people. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights . . . .”7 The divine Word is spoken of as the “true light, which enlightens everyone . . . .”8 Generosity, insight, and all other good gifts come from God. But, if we find it useful to do so, we can speak of the gifts exercised within the church as spiritual gifts as a kind of shorthand, to acknowledge their origin and purpose, and because within the church their ground and goal are understood and proclaimed.
• Those to whom these gifts are given are aware that their lives and capacities are God’s gifts, and they acknowledge their gifts as given to further God’s purposes in the world.
• People who identify with the church therefore choose to use their gifts to further God’s purposes in particular ways.
• To the extent that the church has particularly valuable insights into God’s purposes, it may be able to provide particular assistance to its members in furthering those purposes.
Some of these gifts look relatively ordinary: the gift of leadership or teaching, say. Others are truly remarkable, apparently involving capacities, quite beyond those of ordinary persons, to know or understand or to touch the lives of others—special insight into God’s purposes or the needs of others, for instance, or the ability to heal diseases of mind and body.9 If God seeks to heal and perfect the world, then divine power will certainly seek to evoke such gifts for the benefit of creation. Persuasive divine providence cannot give just any gift to just any recipient. How receptive a person is to God’s influence will affect what spiritual gifts she receives; so will her heredity, her environment, and her own choices to develop in certain ways. The church’s shared memory, beginning at least as early as the letters of St. Paul and continuing today, gives evidence that God does impart remarkable gifts to people who are open to such gifts and who are equipped to receive and exercise them. Because they are God’s gifts to people—finite, fallible, morally broken people—spiritual gifts will not always be used wisely, much less flawlessly or infallibly. But God gives them nonetheless as a gift of love, to enrich the lives of the recipients and of those persons and communities whom they, in turn, can love.10
Spiritual gifts may be rooted in biology, psychological development, relationships, or social or cultural forces. They may be evoked or occasioned or fostered by the Christian story, Christians’ active sharing of their convictions, or the claims and needs of the institutional church. Whatever their source, they are, like the capacities of those outside the church, God’s gifts. Grounded in God’s unbounded love, unlimited presence, and ceaseless activity, these gifts enable us to give what we ourselves receive: inspiring, healing, and transforming love in all its forms.
Gary Chartier is Distinguished Professor of Law and Business Ethics and Associate Dean of the Zapara School of Business at La Sierra University.
1. See Stephen H. Webb, The Gifting God: A Trinitarian Ethics of Excess (New York: OUP 1996).
2. This seems to be St. Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians.
3. So Brümmer, “Farrer.”
4. Cp. Nicholas Lash, Believing Three Ways in One God: A Reading of the Apostles’ Creed (Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P 1993) 51-3. “Does not God make cities as well as stars? Is God’s self-gift, the Spirit‘s presence, less intimately and immediately constitutive of promises and symphonies than of plutonium and silt? . . . Does not God make cities as well as stars, symphonies as well as silt?”
5. See John B. Cobb, Jr., The Structure of Christian Existence (Philadelphia: Westminster 1967).
6. Stewart R. Sutherland makes this point nicely (the refugee camp example is his) in his contribution to The Philosophical Frontiers of Christian Theology: Essays Presented to D. M. MacKinnon, ed. Brian Hebblethwaite and Sutherland (Cambridge: CUP 1982).
7. Jas. 1:17a; my italics.
8. Jn. 1:9a; my italics.
9. See Bruce G. Epperly, God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus (Louisville, KY: Westminster/Knox 2001).
10. Cp. Cobb, “Relativization“ 13-20.
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