The New Testament periodically mentions gifts that have been given to us as Christians. In Romans 12:6–8, for example, Paul writes: “According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts…” and then proceeds to encourage us to use those gifts. Peter similarly writes: “Just as each one has received a gift, use it to serve others, as good stewards of the varied grace of God” (1 Peter 4:10). The lengthiest discussion of these gifts comes in 1 Corinthians 12 where Paul tells his readers that he does not want them to be unaware of these “spiritual gifts” (verse 1) before launching into a discussion about them.
But what exactly are spiritual gifts?
The Nature, Types, and Purpose of Spiritual Gifts
Simply put, a spiritual gift is a gift from God that enables one to serve and encourage His people, the Church. Paul calls these gifts “[a] manifestation of the Spirit…given to each person for the common good” and distributed “to each person as [the Spirit] wills.” (1 Corinthians 12:7, 11) A little further on, he states that gifts should be used for the building up of the church (1 Corinthians 14:12, 26).
Numerous types of gifts are mentioned in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 12 alone, there are gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues (verses 8–11). More examples could be added from Romans 12:6–8, Ephesians 4:7–12, and 1 Peter 4:10–11.
But while many gifts are mentioned, they are, again, given for a singular purpose: the edification or building up of the church. To receive a spiritual gift then is to receive a responsibility to use that gift for the good of other Christians. Paul compares a church where each person is doing this to a body in which each body part is performing its function (1 Corinthians 12:12–31).
Identifying and Using Your Spiritual Gift(s)
If spiritual gifts are how we serve other Christians, it’s only natural then to ask: “What is my spiritual gift?” While this is no doubt a great question to ask, there is perhaps a more helpful one to ask instead. Theologian Richard Gaffin once gave this encouragement regarding spiritual gifts: “The [better] question to ask is, ‘What in the situation in which God has placed me are the particular opportunities I see for serving other believers in word and deed?…What are the specific needs confronting me that need to be ministered to?” (Gaffin 1979, 53).
Gaffin’s point is that if spiritual gifts are gifts given to build up the church, it is perhaps better to look around our church, assess the needs, and determine which needs we can meet. This is important to remember because sometimes as Christians we can talk about spiritual gifts as if they were personality test results or qualifications on our spiritual resumé that our church must cater to, rather than ways in which we can serve our church.
One benefit of approaching spiritual gifts this way is that it helps us to assume a posture of humility and a willingness to be used by God in whatever ways He deems best. For example, someone with the spiritual gift of teaching may prefer to exercise that gift by teaching in a classroom setting. But God may instead be calling them to teach the four-year-old class at church or go through a book of the Bible with two or three other people. When our heart is to serve others, we will be content to let God dictate the contexts in which our gifts are exercised.
Another benefit to asking “How can I serve?” instead of “What are my gifts?” is this: one of the best ways to find out the ways God has gifted you is simply to start serving! This was always my pastor’s advice to those wanting to discover their spiritual gift: get plugged into the life of your church. Over time, as people get to know you and watch you serve, they will be able to speak into your life and show you the ways they see God working through you to build up the church.
What about you? Do you know what your spiritual gifts are? If so, how are you using your gift to strengthen the faith of others? If you’re not sure what they are, what practical steps can you take in that direction? What needs of your church exist that you can meet?
Gaffin, Richard B. Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1979.
Additional resources on spiritual gifts: