…many gifts (Rom 12:6-8)

(The second of two posts on Rom 12:3-8.)  For the record: I am an “INTP,” for those of you who know what that is (the Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, Perceiving type).  We make darn good absent-minded professors.

If that bit of alphabet soup is unfamiliar, then you’ve never taken the Myers-Briggs Temperament Indicator, or its younger cousin, the Keirsey-Bates Temperament Sorter.  I’ve been surprised, though, how many people have taken one of these inventories and can cheerfully tell you their temperament type.  I’ve even seen people who have proudly announced their type to the world by putting in on their license plates (only the extroverts do this, of course, not the introverts).

If you don’t know your Myers-Briggs type, maybe you know your profile on some other popular inventory.  The True Colors Test will tell you if you have a blue, gold, orange, or green personality.  Christian author Gary Smalley will help you learn whether you’re a lion, an otter, a beaver, or a (pant-pant-pant) golden retriever.

We seem to have a fascination for this kind of test.  Just hearing about it from someone else gets our curiosity up.  Ooh, that’s interesting–which one am I?  Such bits of self-knowledge can be fun and helpful.

But it’s the wrong way to approach the matter of spiritual gifts.

In Romans 12, and in other places, Paul seems to give lists of possible gifts:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.  (Rom 12:6-8, NIV)

If we approach the text as we would a personality inventory, we may be filled with curiosity about which gift is ours.  Am I a prophet?  A leader?  If we don’t find one that fits–or one we would prefer!–we may even look at other lists until we find something more suitable.

But Paul isn’t providing a comprehensive catalog of spiritual gifts so we can find out what makes us special.  After all, gifts (charismata) are manifestations of God’s grace (charis); you can’t separate the gift from the intentions of the Giver.  That’s Paul’s point: we have different gifts, but whatever they may be, they’re all by God’s grace and by his design.

In the social context of the letter to the church in Rome–or for that matter, the church in Corinth!–it makes little sense to take Paul as saying, “God made you special as an individual by giving you a unique gift.”  I’m not meant to read this or any other list of gifts and think “That one’s mine” in a way that makes it my individual possession.  Taken in context, it should be less about me and more about us.  It’s about affirming that God wants to knit together a wildly diverse group of people into one body, to be his representatives on this earth.  We should never separate gifts from the activity and intentions of God: a gift is a gift because it is a manifestation of God’s grace.  And it is a spiritual gift, not because it is somehow intrinsic to my personal spiritual life, but because the Holy Spirit will empower it for the health of the body and the good of God’s kingdom.

What matters, then, is not so much the what of spiritual gifts, but the how: not what gift you have but how you use it.  That’s even more obvious in Eugene Peterson’s winsome rendering of the same passage:

If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.  (Rom 12:6-8, The Message)

And if the emphasis is on the how, one implication should be that lots of “whats” are possible, even those that never make it on any official list.  “If you drive the church bus, drive carefully and courteously.  If you work in the children’s nursery, do it with tenderness.  If you set up chairs, don’t be sloppy about it.”

There are many gifts.  None are cause for boasting.  All are cause for celebration, because they are given by a gracious God for the well-being of the local body.  It may be something as visible as preaching; it may be something as subtle and unheralded as praying silently and immediately for every concern that crosses our path.

Self-knowledge is valuable.  It’s helpful to know how God has put us together, to have a realistic and humble assessment of our talents, inclinations, and skills.  But all such gifts are from a Giver; they’re not individual possessions, but are given for the good of the whole.

“What’s my special gift?” may be a legitimate question to the extent that we may learn something useful about ourselves.  But we shouldn’t let that question distract us from the more basic point: God has designed the body to have many parts; everyone has a part to play; God will empower us in those roles, whatever they may be.  Our job is to show up.  Thus, instead of asking, “What’s my spiritual gift?” we should ask, “What resources has God given me with which I can serve Christ’s body?”  We should ask, “With what attitude would he have me use them?”

Oh, and maybe one last question: “Where do I sign up?”

Gracious Father, Giver of gifts: show me how and where you would have me serve, and grant me the faith to know that you have already empowered me for the task.  Amen.