Traditions, Gifts, Roles

“Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” Or so Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof’s opening monologue. Now that’s never been quite true, even before this postmodern age. Maybe I should go into the same line of work as my father did, but even if Dad had been a shoemaker, should I focus on work boots or dress shoes? Or if he was into electronics, should I look at hardware or software? Digital or analog? Sensors or controls or communications?

And if he taught the 3rd grade Sunday School, should I try to replace (or succeed) him? Or teach the junior-high kids? Or kindergarten? Should I teach Sunday School at all, versus becoming an usher, a deacon, a finance-committee member? Traditions don’t really tell us quite enough.

So then, if every one of us wants to know “who he is and what God expects him to do,” how do we find out? And how important is that, really? Well, my identity and my role are related to my spiritual gifts, and the Apostle Paul wrote that we should be informed about them. So he obviously thought the question of some importance; the letter goes on to tell us that each person’s gift (which implies something they actually do) is important to the church. To the world, too, for that matter.

What Paul doesn’t tell us is how to find out what gift or gifts any given person has.

Now some people say that we ought to just do what’s in front of us. “It’s not your ability,” they say, “it’s your availability” that God wants, something like that. Though I don’t completely agree, they do have a point. The Apostle Paul, for example, had the background and experience to tell Jewish people about Jesus. And yet he ended up preaching mainly to Gentiles.

On the other hand, when he went to Corinth (which is where he decided to focus on preaching to the Gentiles, the text also tells us that “because he was a tentmaker as they (Aquila and Priscilla) were, he stayed and worked with them” (Acts 18:3). Note that the text doesn’t say he worked with these tentmakers because that’s where he was, or because he was a carpenter or fisherman. He was a tentmaker as they were, and that’s why he worked with them.

And so with spiritual gifts; Paul writes in Romans:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

Paul did not write, “We have different gifts, but never mind that — just do what’s in front of you.” No, your gifts really do matter! This passage is about spiritual gifts, but the Acts 18 passage above shows us that other gifts also play a role in what we do. Which reminds me of Proverbs 22:29:

Do you see a man skilled in his work?
He will serve before kings;
he will not serve before obscure men.

Back, then, to the question of how we find these things out. If we’re talking about what sort of career or job to look for, a book like What Color Is Your Parachute? by Nelson Bolles is a great place to start; that book has been a great help to me, and I recommend it highly.

Regarding spiritual gifts, I believe the lists in the New Testament were intended to be illustrative rather than exhaustive (if they were, I’d expect them to be identical, or at least a lot more alike than they are). And as I read them this time around, they read more like lists of roles: Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, 1 Peter 4 — they all seem to be about roles and a person’s effects on the church than about the talent or skill in itself. In other words, the value of these gifts is all extrinsic — how God uses them in the church — rather than having meaning in and of themselves.

I therefore think that what we have to do to discover our gifts, or rather the roles we’re supposed to fill, is to try them out! Again, the New Testament lists aren’t exhaustive; find something that needs doing and do it. Now is anyone blessed by it? Does anyone tell you that you’re good at it, and do they give you a sense of why? Perhaps someone will say to you, “You’re such a good _______, because you _______ so well.”

This isn’t about getting praise from people about how great you are; it’s about confirming whether your gifts enable you to fulfill some particular role in the church. So if you think you’re supposed to lead, but nobody follows, are they all being disobedient? Maybe they are and maybe they aren’t, but one thing is sure: you’re not successfully leading them; you’re not effectively filling that role. So I’ll go out on a limb and say that you don’t have the gift of leadership with these people at this time.

Suppose on the other hand, that whenever you think God wants something done, you suddenly find yourself surrounded by people who all want to help you do it. That may be a sign that your role should be that of some sort of catalyst. The gift of being a “catalyst” isn’t on any New Testament list, but that’s OK! If you’re doing it, and it’s working, you’re filling that role and it is, for now, one of your gifts.

What I think I’m saying is that the way we find out is by obeying and serving the Lord. It’s in the process of moving that we find our direction. Or, as someone has said, “It’s hard to steer a ship that isn’t moving.”

What we must do, then, is act. Serve the Lord with gladness. Help, serve, listen, bless, pray. Sometimes you’ll find that your passion will coincide with a point of need.

And that’s how you’ll find out. At least, that’s how it works for me.

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2 Comments on “Traditions, Gifts, Roles”

  1. Chris James Says:

    Helpful thoughts.

    A professor of mine in seminary, Bobby Clinton, encouraged us to identify our gift mix, including not only spiritual gifts, but natural abilities and acquired skills. The point of these passages on spiritual gifts isn’t simply “Praise God because of the miraculous gift given you by the spirit” but a practical one: “Us what God has given you for the benefit of the community.” And when we’re committed to that end, discovering our gifts almost happens naturally. When we’re desperate to do whatever we can best do for God’s people, we’re pretty likely to pursue discovery and use of all that God has given us whether through miracle, DNA or experience.


  2. The VIA Signature Strengths survey over at http://www.authentichappiness.org is pretty good. It’s 240 questions (a little long) but free with signup.


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