I recently went to a Benny Hinn ‘Holy Spirit Miracle Crusade’. (Yes, me.) I could, of course, share many thoughts about that, but I simply wanted to mention a flyer I received while waiting in the crowd/throng/line/queue/mob to get in… It was an advert for a local church. It had these words/phrases on it: ‘signs & wonders’, ‘healing’, ‘anointed’, ‘miracles’, ‘fire’, ‘deliverance’… and my personal favourite… ‘the gifts.’
Now, that’s a bit of an extreme example, perhaps, compared with other views of ‘spirituality’, but I think it may reflect what happens when popular ideas/assumptions about ‘spirituality’ are taken to their eventual end point. Before addressing a few of the Scriptures which are relevant to the topic of ‘spiritual gifts‘, I want to point out a key difference between the ways of thinking in our world and the world of the New Testament.
You see, we live after a period in history known as the ‘Enlightenment‘, from which much of the world has inherited (among other things) a view of the world in which the ‘natural’ is sharply contrasted against the ‘super-natural’.
In this view, things like grass growing, rain falling/evaporating, babies being born, working, eating, sleeping – in other words normal life – are quite simply natural. In the case of ‘supernatural’ things, these consist of things such as ‘miracles’, ‘divine intervention’, ‘providence’, etc. As the definition of ‘supernatural’ suggests, the world is bound by ‘natural laws’, so therefore a ‘supernatural’ agent/force/event has to break those ‘natural laws’. This shows up in all kinds of ways, which I won’t go into here to keep this short.
In contrast to todays popular post-Enlightenment view of the world, the 1st century Jewish view of the world (though there are, of course, differences about this and that) was not divided this way. The Jewish God was Lord over all the earth and heaven. Nothing happened or was done apart from His permission, providence and power.
This God was a God who was not detached or distant from creation (like the deist version of ‘god’), but rather, is passionately interested and personally present in it (however, not to the degree that creation itself is itself god’, as in pantheistic worldviews). This God was not simply present when ‘big’ or ‘miraculous’ things ‘happened’, but was always present in His world; and in the case of ‘miracles’ or ‘big’ things, they were times at which God was present powerfully (and with purpose, I suggest; not simply pulling ‘god-stunts’).
This, I think, is how miracles are to be understood. Some, in their adverse reaction to what happens in some more ‘lively’ church contexts have suggested that ‘miracles ceased’ once the Bible was finished and/or when the last Apostle died. There is no warrant for such a view. No, not even 1 Cor. 13:10…
At any rate, we should be aware of how various views of the world affect our reading of Scripture (by the way, there is not one person who doesn’t have any views/experiences/traditions/etc. that affect his/her reading of the Scriptures…) not least when we approach the topic of so-called ‘spiritual gifts’.
One tendency in Christian circles is to start with an assumption that something is true, and then read that assumption into various Scriptural passages. We may, as a result, feel as though we have much more biblical support for a position than we actually do have. In my view, there are only 3 passages that could even possibly be about ‘gifts’, according to the popular understanding: Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.
Sadly, the ‘gifts’ in these passages are often ‘lumped’ together in order to arrive at ‘Paul’s doctrine of gifts’ or something… as if he was at all interested in ‘building’ a systematic outline of ‘things’ God may or may not choose to ‘give’ you, and thought it best to provide this outline in 3 separate letters and in obscure fashion. Even more sadly, many a weekend-conference has been developed to ‘help’ people ‘discover’ what ‘gifts’ they have and which ones they don’t. (I need to say here that my thoughts here are following on from that of Mark Strom.)
These 3 passages have their own contexts, and ought not be ‘lumped’ together sloppily. The Romans 12 passage instructs on how each ‘gift’ is to be handled, which is (in context) to be in service of others! The 1 Corinthians 12 passage is (again, in context) seeking to undercut pride in the Corinthian community (the implications of Paul putting ‘miracles’ and ‘helps’ in the same ‘list’ is simply brilliant!), and again, the things listed here are not for the individual, but for the growth and edification of the community. The Ephesians 4 passage (within the context of unity, growth and maturity), is describing, not individual ‘gifts’, but roles within the body of Christ (again, these roles are for the service of others – to produce unity, growth and maturity).
Not only is each and every ‘gift’ featured in all these passages (have a look for yourself!) intended for service of others (not so you can have a nice, comfortable, individual private prayer experience or whatever…), I also have yet to see anything in Scripture that demands the common sharp distinction between ‘natural abilities’ (which you ‘get at birth’) and ‘spiritual gifts’ (which you ‘get at conversion’). To show how I see things, let me use the ‘mind’ as an example.
You don’t get a mind at conversion. What happens is this: the mind God gave you (and everyone!) at birth gets renewed by the Spirit of Christ. The mind that was formerly hostile to Christ now bows in allegiance. (Baptism may be a good metaphor, in that the mind (in a sense) ‘dies’ and ‘rises anew’.)
This, I suggest, is precisely what happens with our so-called ‘natural abilities’ (which, in a sense, are not ‘natural’ at all!). Everything about us (bodies, minds, abilities, etc.) is God-given. The spiritual person sees themselves this way. Our whole, interconnected selves are spiritually tempered renewed and reborn by the Spirit of Christ – not so we can ‘enjoy our gift’ or be ‘spiritually fulfilled’, but to form us (heart, soul, mind and strength) into the likeness of Christ.