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What’s so spiritual about gifts?


Have you heard of the 10,000 hours rule?

The 10,000 hours rule was first popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his landmark book Outliers, published in 2008.

Gladwell describes the efforts of psychologists to try to discover whether there is anything innate about talent. Is Michael Clarke “naturally gifted” in some predetermined way that once he picked up a cricket bat the art of batsmanship came instinctively to him? Did the game of cricket mesh in some deep way with something in his soul? Was his gift for cricket almost supernaturally given to him?

We have a hard time relinquishing the idea of natural talent, even though, as Gladwell shows, it actually has no basis in fact. Of course, there are some prerequisites for being an elite sportsperson or a world-class pianist: a nine-fingered person is unlikely to become the latter and physical dimensions play a part in the former. But that aside: is genius born, or made?

Almost entirely made would seem to be the answer. If you analyse the lives of some of the most extraordinarily “gifted” people in all fields, you will find environmental factors played an enormous part in their becoming so gifted. And this is the significance of the “10,000 hours” rule: elite performers in every area will have spent as many as 10,000 hours practicing in their given area. Think Tiger Woods: from two years of age trained in golf by a fanatical father. Andre Agassi describes his own wrathful father’s obsession with the success of his son from before primary school. Don Bradman spent endless hours hitting a golf ball against a corrugated iron surface with a cricket stump because he had nothing else to do. Johnny Wilkinson famously practiced his goal-kicking on Christmas Day.

As Gladwell says, “…even Mozart—the greatest musical prodigy of all time— couldn’t hit his stride until he had his ten thousand hours in. Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing you do that makes you good”.

In each case “natural ability”, “giftedness” or even “talent” can’t even begin to account for the extraordinary powers of these people. So why do we persist in using language that implies someone has had a supernatural visitation of some kind? I think partly it is because what we see is almost miraculous to us; it seems to come from nowhere and to look effortless—it is us saying abilities are mysterious. By calling it a “gift” we seem to say: the bestowal of such abilities comes by some arbitrary force beyond us. That way, if I am not a concert pianist or tennis ace then that is not my fault. It helps us maintain our sense that we are equal, even when some people seem to possess capabilities of which I can only dream. And that’s a comfort, because our envy of the gifted is in part because they have such an easy time with identity: they simply seem to know that they are a chess player or a sculptor, and they don’t have to spend fruitless hours questing after some alternative purpose to their lives.

Now, I want to use the thesis of Outliers to explore the Biblical notion of spiritual gifts. My observation is that we have the same lazy habit in talking about spiritual gifts in the Christian life as we do in talking about gifts in general.

That is, we appeal to something spooky to explain where they come from, and we yearn for them as a marker to our identity. What’s more, the idea of a non-deliberate, almost spontaneous experience simply sounds more authentic than something we have rationally considered. I think this is based on a false dichotomy between the “natural” and the “supernatural”.

Let me explain: we tend to divide events in the world between the “natural” (those caused by natural or physical means) and the “supernatural” (those events that in some way are caused by non-natural agents). But Scripture doesn’t do this, since God is sovereign over both. There are no non-supernaturally caused events as far as the Bible is concerned. Neither are any supernatural events not in fact the way the world was supposed to be, even though the ordinary course of events may be suspended or interrupted for a time (when the dead are raised, or when the sick are healed). These are not surprise events, but things that were always supposed to take place within the natural sphere, and for which purpose it was in fact made.


Now: when Paul addresses the Corinthians about the matter of “spirituals” in 1 Corinthians 12-14 (he actually doesn’t start by using the term “gifts”), he doesn’t mean by “spiritual” what we mean by “supernatural”. Only, we are so used to thinking of talents and abilities in general as “supernatural”, that we readily assume that this is exactly what he does mean.

Actually, that’s not how the passage turns out. By “spiritual” Paul means something about the purpose of the gift. It is given for the purpose of edifying (building up) the church. At one level, he is completely uninterested in what the gift is, but supremely interested in what it is for. And it is spiritual when it serves to unite the body of believers in love, by causing them to proclaim Jesus as Lord—which you can only do if you have the Spirit of God.

This is what true spirituality is: proclaiming Jesus is Lord and living as if it were true.

The list of gifts in 1 Cor 12:28 is fascinating, since it contains things we would ordinarily think of as completely non-miraculous (the gift of administration, anyone?) alongside gifts our habit tells us are “supernaturally” given.

This makes sense, since Paul also says you can “eagerly desire the greater gifts”. Greater, because they serve more effectively to promote unity and love in Christ. You can desire them, which I think means that you can acquire them through training and practice.

We also must observe that, quite apart from seeing a spiritual gift as a means by which I might find my true self, or actualise my inner being, a spiritual gift – if it is in fact “spiritual”- is a gift I exercise in the service of others. It isn’t about me having an experience of God, but about other people and their needs.

In fact, as Paul goes on to explain, the parts of the body cannot live without one another. The “spiritual gifts” are given to the church in order to maintain its bodily life.

This perspective is particularly liberating, since the gift given to my brother or sister or to me, is in fact ours, for our benefit, and not simply for the benefit of the person possessing the gift. To envy the person who has the gift is silly since their gift is something that belongs to all of us in any case.

To return to Outliers, however: that a gift is acquired though conscious decisions, self-discipline and practice does not mean it is in any less sense “a gift”.

In the case of “spiritual gifts”, what makes them “spiritual” is not that they were spontaneously acquired or that they are miraculous in some way, but that they are exercised for the building of the church of Jesus Christ.

So, then: if you are exercising a ministry in the church which is meant to build up the congregation, practice your gift! Don’t think it is somehow less spiritual or authentic if you don’t. It may be an apparently mundane capacity and not at all “supernatural”, but it may be completely and utterly the work of the Holy Spirit. And hone this gift not because it is the path to your own self-expression and to meaning in your life, but rather because God has provided the church with the means for it to grow.