Spiritual gifts are usually understood to be a list of abilities that the Spirit distributes to new converts upon conversion. These include the gifts of faith, service, teaching, speaking in tongues, miraculous healing, and things like these. One person might receive the gift of prophecy when becoming a Christian, and another the gift of healing, another teaching, and so on. Discussions regarding spiritual gifts usually involve discerning which gift or gifts the Holy Spirit has given you from among Paul’s list in 1 Corinthians 12.
I believe that reevaluating what the Bible has to say about spiritual gifts is beneficial. Here are a few tenets I have found to be important:
Spiritual Gifts are not synonymous with “Supernatural” Gifts.
This is usually the first misunderstanding about spiritual gifts. When we hear the word “spiritual” we tend to think “supernatural” or “not physical”, and so spiritual gifts are essentially heavenly or supernatural gifts; they are essentially supernatural abilities that God gives us when we become Christians. In other words, we would not have these abilities if we were not Christians.
But listen carefully to how Paul begins the discussion in 1 Corinthians 12:1-3:
“Now concerning the spirituals, brothers, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were Gentiles you were led astray to mute idols, however you were led. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”
Importantly, in verse one Paul does not say “spiritual gifts”, although many translations render his wording as such. Really, Paul is using the Greek word pneumatikos, which could mean spirituals, spiritual things, spiritual gifts, or spiritual persons (most versions at least have a footnote which recognizes this).
He goes on to clarify what he is talking about; no one speaking in the Spirit (pneuma) of God says “Jesus is accursed!”. Paul is clarifying what it means to be a Spirit-filled person. Then he goes into his discussion of karismaton (graces/gifts) (v. 4 and on). The crucial concept to catch as you begin reading 1 Corinthians 12-14 is that spiritual mean Spirit-filled rather than supernatural. Verses 1-3 show us that Paul is teaching us how to be Spirit-filled people.
A “gift” becomes “spiritual” when the Spirit uses it for the glory of the name of Jesus. This is like the sails of a ship. The sails become empowered and useful when the wind blows on them. Likewise, a person’s “gifts” become “spiritual” when the Spirit blows on them and empowers them.
There is no exhaustive list of spiritual gifts in the Bible.
There are three recognized lists of spiritual gifts in the Bible: 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and 1 Peter 4. The thing to notice about these three lists is that none of them are exactly the same. There is much overlap, but there is also much that is unique. This leads me to believe that none of these lists are exhaustive, and that these authors were listing examples of what could be a much longer list.
So spiritual gift tests which help you determine which of the listed spiritual gifts you might have are in danger of missing the point entirely. We are not to figure out which spiritual gifts we have by choosing from these short lists in the Bible, as we will see, although they may be a great place to start.
God’s gifts include all aspects of our personality, passion, and circumstances.
The spiritual gifts listed in the New Testament should bring to attention the fact that every member of the body has unique characteristics and qualities and passions and even circumstances.
Paul says this in 1 Corinthians 7:
“Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches… brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”
We are prone to understand God’s “calling” in our life to be some distant vocation, perhaps becoming a pastor. Yet Paul here views calling not as some distant occupation to strive for, but rather as the very circumstances one finds himself or herself in. To be sure, in the middle of these verses he urges slaves to avail themselves to opportunities for freedom, so clearly he also has a theology of taking initiative especially in the face of unjust situations. But his general principle is to receive the circumstances the Lord has given you. This discussion of course leads him to singleness, and he urges his readers to receive their singleness as a gift, as a calling.
I bring up 1 Corinthians 7 to show how much deeper the theology of “gifts” ought to go than a mere list of abilities and talents given upon conversion. The idea of “gifts” is God’s grace to you in every aspect of your life: your talent and abilities (to be sure), but also your circumstances, your crappy job, your social anxiety, your singleness, your difficult living situation, and so on.
Spiritual Gifts can Change.
In view of the above, we should also recognize that this means that gifts may change. To be sure, there are aspects of our personality and character that we will carry with us our entire life. These will most likely not change. But most aspects of our life are much more fluid.
A job is a gift which usually only lasts for a season. Singleness is also a gift that may very well change. We should embrace these things as gifts from God and receive them with thanksgiving. It is God who is working in our life in all circumstances for his glory and purposes.
The Bible exhorts us to receive what God gives, to not envy or covet others or other situations, The Bible never uses the language of “figuring out our calling”. The Bible always assumes that, if we are in Christ, we are already positioned square in his exact calling in our life.
The will of God is that we receive all things with joy (1 Thess 5:16-18). So, in a word, we ought to receive the gifts and graces from the Good Father. He gives us all things. We are called to rejoice with great thanksgiving in all that he gives every day. The degree to which we ascribe to the Lord thanksgiving for everything he gives is the degree which we magnify his character as a loving Father and therefore bring him glory and declare that “Jesus is Lord”.