Over the years I’ve been given many gifts I didn’t want. The Christmas sweater with the neon green looped lace around the neck comes to mind first. This present came wrapped in colorful silver and gold sequins with giant red bows pinned on top. I was in junior high when I received this hideous monstrosity, but because it was from someone who was close to me, I was forced to wear it. Never mind that the neon green lace left itchy red marks around my neck or that my friends laughed themselves silly when they saw it. I still had to wear the awful sweater throughout the entire Christmas season—to parties, church programs, the Christmas card photo shoot, and even on Christmas morning.
Then there was the Dalmatian-shaped telephone I was gifted with the year I chose my first puppy. But just because I chose a Dalmatian didn’t mean I needed a phone in the shape of a Dalmatian! The heavy plastic dog-statue of a phone barked instead of ringing, which meant that whenever someone called, the phone would summon me with sharp incessant bark patterns that repeated over and over and over and over until I answered it.
And let’s talk about answering it. The keypad could be found on the underside of the dog-statue phone, and I listened to my caller through holes under the dog’s head. Which means—some of you can already picture what comes next—all the calls I placed that entire year were spoken through the rear end of a plastic Dalmatian!
These awful gifts are just two disappointments on a long list of other gifts I wish I’d never received: the perfume that was so stinky it was only used for pranks; toys for my kids that flash and sing songs so annoying they make me want to bang my head against a wall; dishes so ugly I’ve used them for planter bases in my garden; photographs so strange they would never even find a home on my closet walls hidden behind my clothes; and the world’s worst cat in all the history of human domestication of animals. Terrible gifts! Horrible gifts! Gifts I absolutely did not want!
You’ve probably been making your own list as you’ve been reading mine—gifts you’ve been given that you never really wanted. Some are funny, some are sad, some are mean, some send us straight to the Goodwill drop-off center, and others leave us wary of all future gift exchanges for the forseeable future.
The Holy Spirit’s gifts
Because of these experiences, several of us might feel a bit wary when the Bible talks about “spiritual gifts” that the Holy Spirit gives us. What kinds of gifts are these? What are they for, and why is He giving out gifts, anyway?
First of all, unlike our well-meaning grandparents and neighbors, the Holy Spirit intimately understands our characters, our personalities, how we were made, and what sort of things would bring us the most joy. That’s why He chooses gifts that suit us perfectly. Several places in the Bible mention the Holy Spirit’s gifts, so it’s important that we make a couple of distinctions right from the start.
One distinction to note is that the gifts of the Spirit are different from the fruit of the Spirit. Galatians 5:12 lists the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are great gifts—gifts I’d definitely love to have more of in my life. But instead of gifts, the Bible calls them “fruit.” What is a fruit? Something that grows, that’s living, that’s planted; something that needs nurture and care to bring to maturity. The Bible describes these wonderful qualities as fruit because the Holy Spirit plants them in our lives, and when we spend time with Jesus, they grow stronger in us. They mature and develop during the time we spend in God’s presence.
This is good news for the followers of Jesus, because most people attempt to try-try-try their way into having more patience or self-control. There are myriads of books that offer strategies to bring more peace, kindness, and joy into our lives. But the Bible teaches that we don’t have to force these things into our characters. They grow in us when the Holy Spirit is present in our hearts. So instead of disciplining our way into having these traits, all we have to do is spend time with Jesus. What great gifts!
But wait a second—these aren’t the gifts, this is the fruit.
So let’s talk about the gifts of the Spirit—what Christians refer to as “spiritual gifts.” Three primary passages in the Bible describe the various spiritual gifts: 1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, and Ephesians 4. Several other Bible texts also speak of spiritual gifts.
The Bible’s list of spiritual gifts is fairly long. It includes things like apostleship, healing, leadership, miracles, mercy, faith, teaching, hospitality, the ability to reach people in other cultures, the gift of prophecy, and intercessory prayer.
The Bible says that when a person chooses to become a follower of Jesus and welcomes the Holy Spirit into his or her life, He blesses that person with spiritual gifts. While these gifts will almost always be in line with our natural talents, personality, and individual preferences, sometimes they also may challenge us to think and grow in ways we didn’t expect. Some of these gifts, such as healing and prophecy, may seem strange to us, but the Bible teaches that God’s people will be given these gifts, so we should expect to see them show up in the lives of the followers of Jesus.
Discovering your spiritual gifts
How can you discover what your own gifts might be? There are spiritual gift tests available from churches, Christian organizations, and many online websites. But you don’t have to take a test to begin learning what gifts the Holy Spirit may have given you. You can consider the lists of spiritual gifts on your own and simply ask yourselves a few questions:
1. What do I enjoy doing?
2. What do I think I’m good at?
3. What do other people say I’m good at?
4. What things do people often thank me for?
I might really enjoy singing, but that doesn’t mean I’m good at singing at all (in fact, I definitely am not). Or people might say I’m really good at organizing big parties, but I don’t enjoy the process; in fact, I dread it. As you consider your various options, look for those that hit on as many of the above four markers as possible, then work on developing these more fully.
Some of you may wonder, Why would the Holy Spirit just give people a bunch of random gifts and say, “Hey! Here ya go! Have fun!”?
Actually, all the spiritual gifts share one purpose: to build up the body of Christ—the church of God’s people (see Ephesians 4:1–13). Like the human body, the church is made up of many different people who serve a large variety of purposes. The church functions best when all the parts work together to do what each one is best at.
But what about the parts of the body that aren’t functioning quite the way they’re supposed to? Do we just get rid of them? As much as my five-year-old little boy’s feet might stink, I would never think to tell him, “You don’t need those feet—cut ’em off!” Similarly, there may be people we encounter in the church who have stinky attitudes, stinky habits, or stinky stories, but we can’t discount the fact that these people may have an important role to play and gifts to offer the church as well. They might at first seem like gifts that nobody wants, but don’t be surprised to learn that even these people and their gifts can have something important to contribute.
I still remember the first spiritual gifts assessment I took in a religion class when I was 17. The words teaching, preaching, leadership, and discernment stared out at me from the page. I felt uncertain and small. I enjoyed leading school worships and sharing spiritual thoughts with my friends whenever I could, but I was planning to become a veterinarian! I didn’t see how teaching or preaching would fit into neutering cats and dogs.
Looking back on that now seems funny, because following Jesus has led me to be a Bible teacher, a missionary, a girls’ dean, and, currently, a pastor. Today, I don’t just use these gifts; I’ve literally come to depend on them! It brings me a lot of satisfaction and joy to see the things I’m good at blessing other people and building up the church. I might even go so far as to say these are some of the best gifts anybody’s ever given me.
And they sure beat an ugly Christmas sweater and a barking phone!