Seven Principles for the Understanding and Exercise of Spiritual Gifts2
While much can and should be said about spiritual gifts, here are a few relevant observations or principles that I believe should guide our understanding and exercise of the charismata.
(1) Every single spiritual gift, whether it be mercy, serving, giving, speaking in tongues, or prophecy, is a “manifestation of the Spirit” given “for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:7). Therefore, every gift is by definition supernatural, since every gift is the enabling presence of the Spirit operating through us. As Paul says, although there are varieties of gifts, services, and activities, it is the “same Spirit” who “empowers them all in everyone” (1 Cor. 12:4-6). So, teaching is as supernatural as tongues; service is as supernatural as word of knowledge, and so on.
(2) In light of the first point, we must acknowledge that a “gift” or “charism” of the Spirit is an impartation to enable and equip us to serve others. Nowhere in Scripture are gifts portrayed as personality traits or characteristics. A person who is gregarious and extroverted can receive the gift of mercy. A person who is quiet and introverted can receive the gift of teaching. A person who lacks self-confidence and is by nature somewhat hesitant to speak can receive the gift of evangelism. A person who has little faith and never expects to hear from God can be the recipient of a word of knowledge. This isn’t to say there is never any overlap between a person’s unique personality and the gift God bestows to them, but we must never identify any particular gift with any particular personality trait.
(3) Building on the previous point, let’s take the gift of prophecy as an example. Paul says that anyone is a candidate to prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1, 5, 24, 29-32). A prophet, therefore, is someone who consistently receives spontaneous revelatory words from God that are shared with others for their “upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor. 14:3). But nowhere does the NT say that “prophet” is a particular set of personality traits. Given that any and all have the potential to prophesy, how could it be?
In other words, a prophet is never portrayed in Scripture as someone who always displays a certain demeanor or interacts with others in a particular way or responds to arguments with a unique emotional energy. A prophet is someone who consistently receives spontaneous revelatory words (pictures, dreams, impressions) from the Lord and speaks them to the edification and encouragement of others.
My guess is that quite often a person with certain personality and relational characteristics is identified as a “prophet” or a person with the gift of “mercy” when in point of fact the Spirit has never imparted that particular gift to them. They are who and what they are, in terms of their personality and character and relational development because they are being progressively transformed by the Spirit to be more like Jesus, but not because they happen to have a particular spiritual gift that someone perceives to be linked with that sort of behavior or relational style.
(4) Spiritual gifts are concrete manifestations of the Spirit through us. They are not who we are, therefore, but rather what we do in the power of the Spirit for the good of others. We should be careful always to differentiate between our particular gift(s), on the one hand, and who we are as God’s children in Christ Jesus, on the other.
In other words, there is an important difference between, on the one hand, our character and personality and how we are being sanctified daily to become more and more conformed to the image of Christ, and what gift the Spirit imparts to us for building up fellow believers, on the other. Simply because a person is extroverted or introverted, self-confident or timid, loves crowds or prefers solitude, is organized or disorganized, does not necessarily mean he/she will have any particular spiritual gift that always corresponds to that particular feature of their personality or relational style. Will the two sometimes overlap? Sure. But we must never insist on a one-to-one correspondence such that because “Sally” or “Steve” display certain personality traits that they are therefore to be classified as a “mercy” or as a “prophet” or as a “teacher”.
(5) The danger in drawing too close a relationship with what our spiritual gift is and who we are as individual believers is that when our gift wanes or grows dormant or isn’t received well by others we would suffer shame and experience self-doubt and have fears regarding our worth as the children of the most high God. Our identity as sons and daughters of God, our identity as believers “in Christ,” must never be tied to a particular “charism” or gift that the Spirit has chosen to impart to us and through us for the good of others.
(6) Again, building on the previous point, we must keep in mind that some spiritual gifts, because of their more overt manifestation of the supernatural presence of the Spirit, are occasional or circumstantial in nature. For instance, the spiritual gifts of prophecy, faith, word of knowledge, word of wisdom, healings, faith, working of miracles, prophecy, discerning of spirits, and perhaps interpretation of tongues, are not so much residential, in the sense that they reside permanently within us and can be used at our will, whenever we please, but are sovereignly given at a particular point in time, on a particular occasion, to address a particular circumstance. Once exercised on that occasion and for that purpose, the gift may no longer be operative (depending, of course, on God’s will for each of us).
Gifts such teaching, tongues, evangelism, mercy, service, and administration, on the other hand, are more permanent and residential: they are always with us and we who have such gifts can exercise them at any time, according to our own will.
(7) No one Christian will ever have every spiritual gift. No one Christian will ever have all the gifts of Romans 12, or the gifts of 1 Corinthians 12, or those of Ephesians 4. This is clear from Paul’s rhetorical questions in 1 Corinthians 12:27-31, each of which calls for an answer of No. Neither is it the case that one should think he/she will have at least one gift from the list in Romans 12 or at least one gift from the list in 1 Corinthians 12 or at least one gift from the list in Ephesians 4.
That does not mean we shouldn’t “desire” or “seek” or “pray” for more spiritual gifts than we currently have. Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 14:1 that we should always desire and seek for spiritual gifts, even as the one who speaks in tongues “should pray that he may interpret” (1 Cor. 14:13).