By Drew Larson

Breaking Out of the Spiritual Gifts Straitjacket

My friend Jennifer leaned over my cubicle wall.

“You know when my whole life changed?” she said to me. “When I realized I didn’t have to just bake cookies all the time.”

Odd statement, yes. But it made sense in the context of our conversation, which had landed on the subject of spiritual gifts. Jennifer shared that she had the spiritual gift of hospitality, and that for many years she had been a touch ambivalent about it.

That’s understandable. What images come to mind when I say “hospitality”? I’ll bet I can guess the bundle. You crank out brownies for your neighbors like you’re a conveyer belt. Never-ending streams of furloughed missionaries are crashing in your basement. You’ve got perfectly soft throw pillows that HGTV loves—and hey, you’ve just got throw pillows, period. And small group is always at your place. You know—hospitality stuff.

Throw pillows and brownies are great if you like those things. But what if you have the spiritual gift of hospitality—and you don’t?

What if you don’t want to grit your teeth and grind out those baked goods? What if you have no interest in HG-ing any kind of TV? What if hosting small group is great once in a while, but not every week unless people start chipping in on rent?

It might be enough to make you want to return your spiritual “gift” for store credit, like Jennifer did. It wasn’t until she realized that she didn’t have to do those things that she embraced her gift of hospitality. And it was a moment of great freedom for her.

She busted out of the spiritual gifts straitjacket.

The spiritual gifts straitjacket is our predetermined, assumed understanding of how a spiritual gift is supposed to look. 

  • Teaching? Sunday school is just down the hallway; we’ve got the white board all set up. We’re studying Revelation—good luck!
  • Administration? I really hope you like filing cabinets, because that’s all you’ll do 24/7 now.
  • Service? Bless your heart—the sanctuary is a disaster after the youth lock-in. You might need the Wet-Dry Vac.

We can’t help it. We all have a mental picture of how different gifts are supposed to operate, and our first impulse is to assume that people should use them like they’ve always been used before.  

It’s the same if you’re the person who has the gift. We’re all trying to serve Jesus as best we can. We’re trying to find our place in the body of Christ—that spot where our skills and loves fit. None of us come with instruction manuals, either. When we’re born, no one mails us a user guide that outlines our aptitudes, our ineptitudes, and how we might best use our time.

So we look around. What are other people doing? Is that how my gift is supposed to look, and how I’m supposed to be? We take tests that tell us, Here’s what other people with your gift do. We plunge headlong into the welter of everyone else’s ideas of how people like us should serve the Lord. Thus is born the straitjacket.

So once we find ourselves so constrained, what can we do? Two things may help us here.

1. Embrace community.

At the risk of propping up a cliché—“community” is to the 2010s’ evangelical jargon what “story” was to the 2000s’—community is a bit of a silver bullet here. Too often we explore our spiritual gifts in a vacuum—What am I like? What am I good at? What should I be doing? How will I fulfill myself? etc. These are helpful questions, but without community the answers stay abstract. Spiritual gifts have limited usefulness as signifiers of our super-special talents. They have unlimited value as instruments of God’s grace to others through us.

The best way to ask questions about our spiritual gifts is in the context of a church community or other gathering of missional believers. Community gives us a better set of questions to begin with—What is this community like? What does it need specifically? What am I good at that can serve these people right now? How can I help fulfill our mission? etc. Communities trim the myriad intangible ways your gifts might be needed down to the specific ways that your gifts are needed, right here and now.

2. Engage your freedom.

The thing about the spiritual gifts straitjacket is that it’s magic. It only stays tied for as long as you believe it’s tied.

You have the freedom to explore your spiritual gifts simply by (a) obeying Christ in all that he has commanded and (b) paying attention to what it seems you’re most skilled at and what people around you need most.

The world is a panorama of needs. Christ beckons us into it, first by the rescuing power of his Word in our salvation, and then by means of an imagination that has been nurtured and formed by the Holy Spirit through Scripture. As we immerse ourselves in his Word and respond to it with repentance and obedience, our imagination for seeing God’s work in the world develops and expands, like a reader moving from picture books to chapter books. This holy imagination, fueled by delight over what God has done for us, begins to more and more joyfully envision what can be done by us for the kingdom.

This is freedom.

When we pursue freedom and community together, the spiritual gifts straitjacket falls away completely. Remember that the next time you feel it tighten around you. 

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Drew Larson works as a writer on InterVarsity’s Communications Team in Madison, Wisconsin. You can buy his book hereYou can support his ministry with InterVarsity here

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