Thursday, February 12, 2009

Spiritual Gifts- The Right Fit

When I got married I received something I had wanted for a long time, something I had put on my registry, a beautiful KitchenAid mixer. But after setting up house, I realized I had no idea how to use the bulky contraption. It looked professional and impressive, but I already had a simpler electric, hand mixer. So I found myself in the unhappy position of owning a gift I was unsure I wanted.

Sometimes a spiritual gift feels like an expensive KitchenAid mixer. We want to have one but we’re not sure what to do with it once we have it. It’s an embarrassing and awkward to long for a gift, then to get it and let it sit idle. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that after six and a half years of our marriage I still don’t know how to use my KitchenAid for more than mixing. I’ve heard I’ve been told its uses are amazing, but I haven’t experienced it.

Pink and Blue Spiritual Gifts?

Often I’ve mused how much more practical and comfortable it would be to have the gifts of serving instead of the gifts my spiritual inventory tells me I have: teaching, exhortation, prophesy. If I had the gift of serving I imagine myself supporting my husband’s speaking ministry on the side-lines, preparing sustenance (like healthy snacks on the road) and encouragement (sweet notes tucked in his suitcase) without the distraction of writing, speaking, preaching in my own right. I puzzle at how to fit my spiritual gifts into the church.

At times it feels like I’m in the wrong body, like a man should have gotten my bundle, not a woman who loves kids and homemaking. But, no mater how hard I look, I cannot find any evidence that the Spirit reserves some gifts just for men. 1 Corinthians 12: 4-11 shows us that the Spirit of God has the power, the freedom and the joy to distribute “to each one, just as He determines.” If he determines it, then he must provide the grace to juggle a multifaceted life. So far he has along with some other sweet gifts like joy in my work.

In both complementarian (ministry roles differentiated by gender) and egalitarian (equal ministry opportunity for both genders) camps, theologians believe God gives to both men and women all formal spiritual gifts listed in Scripture. New Testament Professor and complementarian, Craig Blomberg, writes,

“Virtually every Bible student today agrees that when these terms (teachers, administrators, leaders, evangelist and pastor-teachers) are used as spiritual gifts, women may receive and exercise them just as powerfully as men may.”[1]

The Spirit doesn’t dole out his gifts in pink and blue: a man may have the gift of helps or service (Samuel to Eli in I Sam. 3) and a woman may have the gift of teaching (Priscilla to Apollos in Acts 18:26) or leading (Deborah) or prophesying (Huldah, 2 Kgs. 22:14). Spiritual gifts are given as the Spirit of God chooses. And often God chooses to give his gifts without regard to my plans, but with a deep regard to use me with my femininity in his kingdom.[2]

Lately, I’ve found myself in a church where instead of an invitation to use my gift of teaching to benefit all men and women, I’ve been requested to help with women and children. For the last year, I’ve volunteered for the nursery and taught the women’s groups. But this summer my husband and I came up with a new idea; we’ve decided to open our home for a weekly Bible study for all people,. We have families attending, young teens asking questions, their parents giving input alongside their children, church leaders, pastors, elders, presidents of local non-profits, friends all having a voice to share and we get the chance to teach as a husband-wife team. No leadership in my church officially sanctioned this activity, but all, even the all-male elder board, are excited about the work we’re doing: a Bible study for the common good. I’m still praying that the more hallowed places of teaching, like the pulpit on Sunday mornings, will be opened up for women to exercise their gifts for the common good. In the meanwhile the body still needs to be built up. The Spirit is still giving abundantly for what we need; we just need to take our creative cue from him.

Make it Fit, or Else . . .

Somewhere in Sunday school lore I learned that you must use your talents for God and if you didn’t, just like that stingy, lazy servant in the parable, God would take your talents away. No matter that Jesus was talking about gold talent not spiritual talents (see Matt 25:14-30), the pressure was on. Find your gift, make it fit you and the church.

The very idea that I could lose my spiritual gifts was an awful pressure. It would be like finding at my door one morning the generous givers of my KitchenAid Mixer demanding it back because I neglected to fully use it. That’s not what I’d call a true gift. A gift is a releasing of ownership, transferring the joy of owning to someone else. Some might say a gift is a matter of stewardship, but a gift is more a matter of grace. Romans 12:6 links spiritual gifts with grace, “We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us.” “Gift”, in Greek charisma, comes from the same root as “grace”, charis both of which God gives lavishly, freely, graciously, without ticking off how many people you’ve touched with your gift.

In Junior High I heard that we should discover our spiritual gift as soon as possible by taking a Spiritual Gifts Test. It sounded accessible and easy. A natural test-taker, I easily discovered a smattering of gifts that matched my personality and seemed to make sense. Some of my friends didn’t fare as well, their tests coming back all vanilla. In the end many lost confidence in this whole spiritual gift thing, feeling they didn’t belong, couldn’t compete, like God only handed out pre-fabricated gift, or gifts that didn’t fit them—all revealed through a man-made test. Meanwhile I learned that smart little girls could appear more spiritual.

Limited by the List?

I gravitate towards spiritual hierarchies, the comfort of knowing my gifts are spiritual not merely natural. I liked knowing that I had some gifts that were accredited by the Spirit of God. Accreditation feels so official, so secure and permanent. But God isn’t stingy with his gifts, he gives them irregardless of good test-taking skills.

I’ve found the lists gleaned from New Testament passages (Rom. 12:4-8; I Cor 12:7-11; I Cor 12: 28-31; Eph. 4:11; I Pet. 4:10-11) are more like starter-kits, designed to get our creative juices flowing. They are not the final masterpiece. The rest of Scripture doesn’t give me tidy, predictable ways for understanding the Spirit’s work. When the Spirit first fills people in the New Testament, he’s like a violent wind, unpredictable and rather life-altering. The Spirit’s gifts range from speech to a donkey to prison breaks (Numbers 22:28, Judges 15:14). He’s hardly limited by our list.

The first time the Spirit is recorded as filling a person is not for a preacher or even a leader like Moses, but Bezalel from the tribe of Judah, an artist. God gives him “wisdom, understanding, knowledge and all kinds of skill to make artistic designs” (Ex 35:31-32). James says that every good and perfect gifts comes from God (Js 1:17). Just a little digging and we can find a cornucopia of spiritual gifts, many given to women to build up God’s people: the gift of good food (Abigail, I Sam 25:18), the gift of artistic skill (engravers, designers, embroiderers, weavers, Ex 31:34-35), the gift of dance (Miriam and the Israelite women, Ex 15:20-21), the gift of gatekeeping (women at the tabernacle, Ex 38:8), the gift of patronage (benefactresses, Luke 8:3, Rom 16:2), the gift of overseeing house churches (Mary, Acts 12:12; Lydia, Acts 16:14-15; Nympha in Col 4:15).

Customized for Us

The only pattern I’ve been able to make out in God’s gift-giving abundance is that he gives to fill the gaping holes in his people, his church. So his gifts are ready-to-use, powerful, customized, things we will want to use because we all need them right now.

Let’s keep a sharp eye out for the creative work of the Spirit in our lives, a Spirit like the wind, changing out new gifts according to the need. Like when we get a new pair of shoes, instead of wondering if they’re comfortable we have to put our feet into them and walk around, the best way to see if your spiritual gift fits you is to try it on. What is the Spirit is pouring into you in this moment, filling you to walk into the needs around you?

"The Right Fit" first appeared in a different format in Today's Christian Woman, September 2008

[1] Two Views on Women in Ministry, ed., James R. Beck (MI: Zondervan, 2005), 152.

[2] To read that journey thus far see my Ruby Slippers: How the Soul of a Woman Brings Her Home (Zondervan, 2007)