Worry and anxiety is a driving force in our thought patterns and consequently our spirituality. We’re so concerned with deciphering right from wrong that fear becomes our ally rather than the Spirit, and fear is really the enemy.
I think it’s for these reasons that God’s very mysterious work is often sidelined. Take any round of prayers at a church and you can see this. We all want others to pray about medical conditions, but few stand up and say, “Let me pray over you and ask God to take this away.” I say this as one who is guilty of not responding correctly. Likewise, we present medical problems as something to be prayed about, but rarely have the kind of honesty that even an Alcoholic’s Anonymous group would have: “I’m John and I’m a sinner. This [you name it] happened recently and has made me tempted to [you name it].” Or, “I gave into [you name it] sin recently, and need prayer so that I can overcome it.”
I’m not suggesting a 12-step based Christianity. Instead, I’m suggesting the kind of honesty that empowers us to utilize the spiritual gifts we each have been given, so that we can help one another. Medical problems are generally easy to talk about, because no one blames sin for those, but when it comes to spiritual struggles that are equally (and at times much more) detrimental, we’re silent. We will name the sin in our communities, but rarely admit to it. The shame is too much. Yet, the freedom of Christ suggests that an admittance, and cry out for prayer, is precisely what we need—grace not only permits this but promotes it. Honesty really is the best policy.
We’re meant for a purpose: to help one another. But we’re meant to do that in unique ways. Paul’s description of how God works in our communities, using gifts, subtly explains why the problems I’ve described here exist.
First, there are gifts. And there is no reason to be concerned about how they will be used, or who will get what gifts, because they will be unified under the banner of God’s Spirit. Then, there are different ways in which people serve. Here, Paul is likely alluding to the acts of service required for ministries to function. He tells us that these are empowered by the same “ruler” or “Yahweh” (the Greek word for Lord, Kurios, here either means the divine name, Yahweh, or simply “ruler” or “master”). Paul is referring to Jesus, whom he often calls by this title. God’s service is empowered by the one that saved us.
Paul then references various activities, which he tells us come from the same God—the source of the empowerment we seek. In this description of the trinity’s work, Paul explains that God is at work among us through all three of His persons in three different, but very similar, ways. And spiritual gifts seem to be the mode of operation for all three acts. That idea presents something beautiful: God’s Spirit operates within us, using us, for His purposes of bringing unity and love to the world. It’s us, who don’t deserve an opportunity, that have a chance to do His work.
It’s possible that by using the terms “services” and “activities” Paul is classifying various types of gifts, and perhaps even using “activities” as a word to distinguish church offices, apart from spiritual gifts alone and spiritual services (perhaps a classification or type of gifts). This case could be made based on Paul’s usage of the word “activities” to later refer to something that is distinctly a spiritual office (according to the syntax of 1 Corinthians 12:27–28), being miracles. However, this seems unlikely: If Paul is distinguishing between spiritual offices, services, and merely gifts, he likely would have been clearer in his syntax, like he is in 1 Corinthians 12:27–28. There, he uses “first … second … third … then …” to list spiritual offices, before turning to “then gifts …” to offer a list of spiritual gifts. Here, in 1 Corinthians 12:4–7, it appears that Paul isn’t making distinctions between the types of things God offers people, but instead using synonyms for the same kinds of things. After all, spiritual offices require spiritual gifts. Furthermore, if Paul distinguished any further between types, he may have just helped the cause he was arguing against: disunity due to a belief that speaking in tongues, or practicing other gifts, makes someone more spiritual than others.
If it’s the case that Paul is using synonyms, then there is another lesson here for us: Spiritual gifts are first gifts—given by God—and are then services we perform for others and activities we do. This makes sense in light of the other defining features Paul uses when discussing gifts, like that they are meant for unity and showing love, for the sake of spiritual growth.
Yet, spiritual gifts—even though they have such a great purpose—are often set aside, either because post-enlightenment logic convinces us that they’re not real, or we’re afraid of the possibility that promoting them will allow for a rapid disunity of our churches. (This demotion of spiritual gifts is very subtle, basically to the point of quiet abandonment.) The concern is that spiritual gifts will be abused to hurt others and perhaps even dispose good leadership. But the truth of the matter is that they’re probably already at work in our communities and that we’re just not acknowledging them. And if our leaders are really those chosen by God, they’re probably holding spiritual offices without calling them that, and God is waiting to use those offices in unexpected ways, when our hearts are open to Him doing so.
God is no respecter of persons, as the saying goes. And when we let the Spirit work among us, it will do things we may not like, but it’s for the good of God’s work in our communities. This may even mean that leadership is disposed. As someone in church leadership, I’m ready to take that risk, because the price of not following God’s will in this matter is far more detrimental. Not following God’s will, and the subtle abandonment of His plan and purposes, is the true risk; yet, somehow this is often overlooked.
Paul tells us that if it’s really the Spirit working, we will see the same Lord and God at work among the gifts—meaning, God’s vision will be clear. This clarity not only could be, but will be, the best thing that ever happened to our church communities.
How can you enable the work of the Spirit in your community? How is it currently being hindered and how can you kindly and humbly change that?
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