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Identifying Your Spiritual Gifts Is Not as Important as You Think

If you don't know what your gifts are, maybe the best question to ask yourself is, 'How can I love those around me?'

A widow in my church recently fell and ended up in a senior rehab center for an extended period to recover. Our young church has a mercy ministries team, and they have been helping her with rides to church and other tasks for the past several years, as she has no family around. But when I visited her in that rehab center, I realized her fall meant she needed more particular help with her medical care. Having recently buried my mother, I was familiar with the world of elder care and end-of-life medical decisions, so I offered to step in and take on more responsibility in both legal and informal ways, as it suited her.

Was I operating in a gift of mercy? Or was I operating in a gift of administration? What about healing? Shouldn’t I have stopped to consider my spiritual gifts before offering to help? What if I didn’t have the gift of mercy (definitely an asset when dealing with those who suffer)? What if I didn’t have the gift of administration? Would I lose all the proper paperwork and make a mess of things?

Honestly, it didn’t matter.

James 1:27 commands the church to take care of widows. In this particular situation, I have had some life experiences that most in my church have yet to encounter. There was a need presented to me, I had some service and skills to offer, and the Lord provided faith and peace to both of us to proceed. This widowed woman was an acquaintance at first, but now both of us would become more deeply connected. She would have to trust me with intimate details of her life, and I would need to become more available for her needs. It wasn’t a unilateral act, but a mutual decision to proceed. Both of us trusted the Lord to provide the grace we would need in the future to make this new arrangement work.

What Do You Notice?

A lot has been written in recent decades about finding your spiritual gifts — as though they are hard to detect without lots of inspection. That wasn’t the perspective of the early church. In writing about spiritual gifts to the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 12-13), the apostle Paul emphasized three things: the source of the gifts, the purpose of the gifts, and the goal of the gifts. But he seems unconcerned with individuals spending a lot of time identifying their gifts.

Our modern preoccupation with gift lists might be due in part to semantics. The Greek word most often translated as “gift” in English is charisma, which is more about being empowered by divine favor than receiving something like a birthday present. Our English word tends to emphasize the worthiness of the tangible present and the viewpoint of the recipient — Do I want it? What does it say about me that someone gave me this? Can I return it? But charisma emphasizes the worth of the Giver and the spiritual endowment in the gift.

Just as God is the Creator who made us with certain features and abilities, and then placed us in specific circumstances, He will also empower us to accomplish His work. Working through us, He builds His kingdom. Just as an eye does not try to digest food and a foot does not try to hear, we operate in the way we were created — both in the natural and spiritual realms. Often, identifying your gifts is as simple as noting what you notice. What are you attuned to? Where do you see an unmet need?

If you are empowered to be merciful, you will notice and respond to needs in ways that others may not. If you are empowered to be administrative, you may notice ways to bring order out of chaos. If you are gifted with teaching, you will be eager to explain the Word to others and will see them respond to your input.

Some ways of using your gifts are no-brainers. I love worshiping the Lord through music. I make a joyful noise when I sing. But nobody is going to want to put me up front and amplify that noise to the whole congregation! There are others to whom the Lord has given musical talents for the benefit of the whole church. Let them serve that way, and I’ll keep making my joyful noise along with them.

What’s the Point?

But — wait. You can’t find the “gift of music” among the New Testament gift lists, so it can’t be a real spiritual gift, right? Fortunately, those lists are not meant to be exhaustive or exclusive. They are representative lists of ways we are “grace-empowered” for the benefit of others. But they all have three things in common, as we see here in 1 Corinthians 12:4-11:

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. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills (ESV).

All these “varieties of activities” are apportioned by the Spirit for the common good. We all bring something different to the party, but that diversity is exactly what is needed for the common good. There’s no point in comparing or complaining, because not only is the Spirit divvying up the goods as He wants to, it’s not about you, anyway. You get a gift to spend on someone else.

More importantly, when you use those gifts, they become signposts. As theologian Wayne Grudem writes, gifts are given “to equip the church to carry out its ministry until Christ returns.”Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), p. 1018. Their purpose is to be a foretaste of the age to come, when Christ returns and we can know Him fully.

Gifts of knowledge and wisdom prefigure the much greater wisdom that will be ours when we ‘know as we are known’ (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12). Gifts of healing give a foretaste of the perfect health that will be ours when Christ grants to us resurrection bodies. Similar parallels could be found with all the New Testament gifts. Even the diversity of gifts should lead to greater unity and interdependence in the church (see 1 Cor. 12:12-13, 24-25; Eph. 4:13), and this diversity in unity will itself be a foretaste of the unity that believers will have in heaven.Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 1019.

What’s Your Desire?

These gifts point to a unity that is hard to achieve in this fallen, selfish world, so we desperately need the Holy Spirit’s empowerment to be able to love and serve others. That’s why Paul tells us to “earnestly desire the spiritual gifts” (1 Corinthians 14:1). But he doesn’t make the gifts themselves the goal. He says, “make love your aim, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts” (RSV).

If love is our aim, we will desire — and ask for — gifts with the right motives, unlike Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8:18-19. Spiritual gifts are not for our fame or fortune, but for the praise of God’s name and the benefit of His people. To those who are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, Paul counsels them to excel in building up the church (1 Corinthians 14:12).

If love is our aim, we will not neglect our gifts. We will instead become good stewards of them (1 Peter 4:10) and be eager to multiply them into the lives of others.

If love is our aim, hospitality is not about our cooking or entertaining skills; it is about making the stranger feel welcome. If love is our aim, healing is not about attracting attention to your “ministry,” but to pray for relief for one of Jesus’ beloved people. If love is your aim, you don’t require your name to be on display when you give, but you give generously to see various ministries flourish.

And if love is your aim, you will be patient with pastors and elders who don’t see the need that you do and who may not have a well-oiled ministry up and running to deploy your particular gift. I have a friend who is in a church where the elders don’t quite seem focused on the need for women’s ministry. But she is eager to serve other women through teaching them the Word. Even though there is no formal women’s program at her church, she is actively seeking to be trained by other national teaching programs for women, she is attending regional women’s ministry events, she is meeting with women in her own church and organizing various events, and she is faithful in her personal study of the Word. She’s not waiting for an elaborate structure to be created in order to develop and invest her gifts. She is being proactive because she wants to build her church, and she recognizes her own responsibility to do that. She loves the women in her church, and she wants them to love the Word.

To paraphrase our government, if you see something, do something. Do you see that someone in your small group, Bible study or neighborhood is sick? You may want to organize meals to be delivered. Another person may want to come over to pray. Someone else may be inspired to compile a list of Scriptures and send that encouragement in a card. A fourth person may want to take the ill friend to medical appointments and help with the tedious paperwork. Whether it’s gifts of leadership, healing, mercy, exhortation or administration — they all work together to express love and care.

If you don’t know what your gifts are, maybe the best question to ask yourself is, How can I love those around me? Make love your aim, and you never have to be self-conscious about your efforts. Love never fails.

Copyright 2013 Carolyn McCulley. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

Carolyn McCulley

Carolyn McCulley is an author, speaker and filmmaker at Citygate Films. Her most recent book is “The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home.” She is a member of Redeemer Church of Arlington and is the proud aunt of six nieces and nephews.


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