The epistle is about “spiritual gifts,” a topic that often sounds strange to the average Christian. Those who talk most about spiritual gifts almost always talk about “speaking in tongues,” which brings to mind images of people making strange noises or rolling in the aisles of the church–not things most Christians do or want to do. Nonetheless, the New Testament teaches that every Christian possesses a spiritual gift to be used in service to others. As the epistle says, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all” (1 Corinthians 12:7).
Spiritual gifts result from baptism. First Corinthians says, “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.” (12:13). This unity does not consist of people who are all the same. Baptismal unity results in a grand diversity. Each Christian is unique and each is called to do different things that serve the common good.
Now, just a modicum of theology floating around somewhere in our brains will cause a light to go on here–“Wait a minute! Isn’t this just like God as Trinity?” God is essentially one, but the one God consists of three persons who do different things.” Being created in the image of God, the church is essential one, but consists of many members with different gifts, ministries and activities.
The very concept of spiritual gifts teaches us that we were made to giver. We were made for ministry and service. This scares the modern narcissist, who responds, “Well, then, what about me?” We must, again, look at God to understand what this means. God is the pre-eminent giver. God has given us life. God has given us the world to enjoy. God gave his only begotten Son so that we might be saved through faith in him. God gives us spiritual gifts. Yet God is not diminished by the gifts he gives. God is whole and complete. God is a loving relationship within himself. This is precisely why he is able to give. God is literally full of love, which overflows in gifts to unworthy creatures.
We are only able to give to others because we have been made whole and complete in Christ. Because our sins have been washed away; because God has given us his Holy Spirit; because God has filled our empty sinful selves with himself, we are now full and able to give to others in the same way God gives to us.
This is what God intended in the beginning. God’s Trinitarian love overflowed into the creation of beautiful and ordered world and people made in his image. We were supposed to multiply God’s love through procreation and creative activity that reflects God’s glory. Instead, we sinned. Sin separated us from God. Instead of being full of God’s love and able to give, we became hollow, needy creatures, who attempt to fill the void created God’s absence by taking from others.
This is why spiritual gifts result from baptism and faith. They are not a natural endowment. The need to take from others for selfish purposes results from the fall. The ability to truly give to another, as God gives to us, results from our experience of redemption in Christ. If we do not know God, if we have not experienced God’s unmerited grace through the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of new life through the Holy Spirit, we cannot exercise any spiritual gifts.
Spiritual gifts highlights the communal nature of the church. God fills us with himself but one way he does this is through the gifts of the other members of Christ’s body. For example, when we are discouraged, God may encourage us through a spiritual experience or an angelic visitation. However, it is more likely that God will encourage us through another Christian who has the gift of encouragement. Being a member of the body of Christ means being connected to other people in fulfilling relationships in which all are edified in a reciprocal pattern of giving and receiving.
Our challenge with spiritual gifts is two-fold. First, we must determine what our gifts are. What has God called me to do within the body of Christ and for the body in the world? You spiritual gifts are things that you have been given the ability and inclination to do AND which edify other people. The second part is key here. Many people have ability and inclination to complain and criticize, but these are sins, not spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts have two markers. Fulfilment for the giver and edification for the recipient.
Understanding our spiritual gifts saves us from the frustration of doing things we are not called or gifted to do. We should avoid committing to ministries or efforts for which we do not have the gifts. This ends in disaster. Knowing our gifts tells us where to say yes and also where to say no.
The second challenge is to maintain unity in the exercising of our diverse gifts. This is the main point St. Paul makes in the epistle. When there are a variety of gifts at work, there is a human tendency towards division. Division occurs when people with certain kinds of gifts do not value others who gifts are different. We must develop the spiritual vision to see and appreciate the various ways God is working through other people.
Division also occurs when motives are faulty. When people do things in order to get recognized or from a need to be needed, rather than from the fullness of their experience of God’s love, seeds of resentment and discord are sown. St. Paul’s ultimate word on spiritual gifts comes in the next chapter of 1 Corinthians, where he says,
Though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing (1Corinthians 13:2-3).
Part of growing as a Christian is having our motives purified so that we learn to give as God gives and not with strings attached. Over time, God teaches us to give from the fullness of love we experience in relationship with him and not from the need created by our sin.
For, “The manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.”