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When and How Do We Receive Spiritual Gifts?

By Mark D. Roberts | Thursday, November 13, 2008

Part 6 of series: Spiritual Gifts in the Body of Christ
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You may be wondering why I am spending so much time in this series on clarifying the nature of spiritual gifts. I am doing so because I believe that a correct understanding will lead us into greater empowerment for ministry and will strengthen the overall ministry of the church. The “discover and use your gift” model of spiritual gifts has been extremely helpful for people who are getting started in ministry. It has given them a focus for their efforts within the church and has, therefore, contributed to the upbuilding of the body of Christ. One way to find out the ministry to which God has called you is by looking at how the Spirit has empowered you in the past, a process some would call “discovering your gift.” (I think Paul would call it “discovering how God has gifted you in the past.”)

Although there are benefits to the “discover and use your gift” model, it only takes you so far in ministry. If, for example, you believe that you do not “have the gift of teaching,” when it’s time for folks to serve as Sunday School teachers, you can simply say: “That’s not my gift. I have the gift of administration (1 Cor 12:28).” But this response might be limiting God’s work in and through you. It may just be that God is calling you to teach Sunday School in spite of your lack of previous experience and gifting. If you don’t say “yes” to God’s call, you’ll never the gifts of teaching God had intended to give through you. Your experience will be limited and the church will be deprived of your contribution to its growth. If, on the other hand, you trust God by stepping out into this new area of ministry, God will then empower you with new gifts of teaching. You will be blessed, children will be discipled, the church will be edified, and God will be glorified. But none of this will happen if you don’t step out in faith, trusting that the Spirit of God who lives within you will give you the power you need to do God’s work.

This example of Sunday School teaching helps to illustrate when and how spiritual gifts are given. After listing out some representative gifts in 1 Cor 12:8-10, Paul says, “The one and the same Spirit energizes all of these gifts, distributing to each one as he [the Spirit] wishes” (1 Cor 12:11, my translation). We can’t make spiritual gifts happen. It’s not our responsibility to do so. Rather, gifts come according to the will of the Spirit.

When does the Spirit chose to provide these added bits of grace? When they are needed for ministry. Gifts that help a person teach Sunday School come as that person is teaching (or, perhaps, preparing to teaching). Remember the story from Acts 14. Paul didn’t receive gifts of knowledge and healing prior to his encounter with the lame man. Rather, when the Spirit chose to heal that man as Paul was ministering, Paul was given a bit of knowledge about the man’s readiness to be healed and the power to restore the man’s legs.

There are two obvious prerequisites for receiving spiritual gifts. First, you must be a Christian and therefore one in whom the Holy Spirit dwells. Second, you must be doing the work of Christ, or, at any rate, be readily available for that work. You won’t receive spiritual gifts by locking yourself in the closet and praying for them until they show up, though it is certainly appropriate to ask God for the gifts you need. You won’t receive spiritual gifts if you live as a Christian couch potato, watching the action but never getting involved. You will receive extra bits of grace for ministry only when you step out in faith to minister. (Photo: Not apt to receive spiritual gifts.)

Of course this can be a little scary. In order to be a conduit for the Spirit’s power, you have to be in a situation where it is needed. This means that you are out on a limb, spiritually speaking, and forced to depend on the Spirit. There is always a sense of risk and adventure in the ministry of the Spirit. But when we take on the risk, the Spirit proves to be both faithful and powerful.

My friend Robert is an avid baseball fan. Even though he lives in Southern California, Robert has found a way to attend almost all of the World Series games in recent history. It doesn’t matter who is playing or where. Robert tries to get there. One year the series was close, with the American and National league teams battling evenly to the seventh game. Robert didn’t have tickets for this final game, which was being played on the east coast. But would lack of a ticket and distance from the game stop him? Not Robert! He started making phone calls to friends he knew who were connected to the home team for the last game. Before too long he found someone named Jerry in the team organization who was willing to let Robert use one of his reserved “family” tickets. Robert didn’t know Jerry personally, but they had mutual friends. Jerry promised through one of these friends that the precious ticket would be waiting for Robert at the “will call” window of the stadium.

Thrilled with his good luck, Robert quickly bought a plane ticket, boarded at Los Angeles International Airport, and began his trip to baseball heaven. But while flying somewhere over the Midwest, Robert began to reflect upon what he had done. Here he was, having spent a wad of money to fly across the country, going to a game for which he had no ticket. He had nothing in writing to prove to the folks at “will-call” that he deserved a ticket. He didn’t even know Jerry’s phone number. Moreover, Robert mused, he was going to use one of Jerry’s “family” tickets, even though Jerry and Robert were obviously from different ethnic backgrounds. They didn’t even look like distant relatives. “I feel like a fool,” Robert concluded. “What am I doing? What a giant waste of time and money!”

When he arrived at the city where the game was to be played, Robert almost turned around to fly home. But he decided to risk still further disappointment and embarrassment at the stadium. He arrived there just a few moments before the game began. Anticipating the worst, he approached the “will call” window.

“My name is Robert Wilson,” he said, “and I have a ticket waiting for me.”

“OK, Mr. Wilson, let me check,” said the man behind the window.

The wait seemed endless to Robert. After what felt like hours but was really only a couple of minutes, the man returned. “Mr. Robert Wilson, do you have some identification?”

“Sure,” Robert volunteered, “showing his driver’s license.”

“Here’s your ticket, sir. Enjoy the game!”

As you can well imagine, Robert did enjoy the game.

If you are going to enjoy ministering in spiritual gifts, you need to step out in faith, trusting that the gifts you need for ministry will be provided when you actually need them. When you show up at the Holy Spirit’s “will-call” window, the Spirit will always give you what is best. Remember whom it is that we trust: not some unfamiliar friend of a friend, but the very Spirit of God with whom we have daily fellowship.

One of the most common contexts for the receiving of spiritual gifts is personal evangelism. I have heard scores of Christians relate a very similar story. They walk out on a limb by beginning to share their faith with a friend. As they are doing so, they need to refer to a specific Bible passage, but they can’t remember the passage. At this moment they approach God’s “will call” window by praying silently: “Lord, help me!” Then, all of a sudden, as if by magic, they know both the words of the passage and sometimes even the reference. It isn’t magic, to be sure, but a gift of the Spirit, an added bit of grace to increase the effectiveness of their faith sharing.

Topics: Spiritual Gifts |

9 Responses to “When and How Do We Receive Spiritual Gifts?”

  1. Billy Coffey Says:
    November 13th, 2008 at 9:20 am

    I’m really enjoying this series. So insightful. Thank you for it!

  2. Kozak Says:
    November 13th, 2008 at 10:39 am

    Ok, Mark, but this process is difficult. I have been open to various ways of serving. So I taught 5th-6th grade Sunday School - until a student told me another student stopped coming to Sunday School because of me. I worked with a 7th-grade confirmation group for a year, until I quit after realizing that every Wednesday evening I left church angry and frustrated. I have indeed found my niche - precisely in areas where I already knew I was/had been gifted. No pleasant surprises, no will-call, just using talents I had developed partly in the secular sector.

  3. Mark Baker-Wright Says:
    November 13th, 2008 at 11:51 am

    “If, for example, you believe that you do not “have the gift of teaching,” when it’s time for folks to serve as Sunday School teachers, you can simply say: “That’s not my gift. I have the gift of administration (1 Cor 12:28).” But this response might be limiting God’s work in and through you. It may just be that God is calling you to teach Sunday School in spite of your lack of previous experience and gifting. If you don’t say “yes” to God’s call, you’ll never the gifts of teaching God had intended to give through you.”

    I don’t want to diminish this argument, but it seems to me that to go here, we need to have a conversation about discernment. While we certainly WANT people to be more open to the movement of the Spirit, we don’t want to set people up for failure either. Just saying, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” expecting the Spirit to jump in, when that’s NOT what God was intending, helps no one.

  4. Mark D. Roberts Says:
    November 13th, 2008 at 12:13 pm

    Mark: You’re absolutely right. Discernment is necessary. But at least, if we aren’t limiting the work of the Spirit by a restrictive view of spiritual gifts, we may be open in new ways.

  5. Mark Roberts Says:
    November 13th, 2008 at 3:05 pm

    Kozak: Your point is a good one. It is generally true that we should serve in areas consistent, not with our spiritual giftedness, but with our natural abilities, temperament, experience, etc. Yet we mustn’t limit God’s potential to use us in others areas, according to his call.

  6. Bill Smith Says:
    November 13th, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    Someone I read suggested that we call natural gifts creation gifts so as emphasize that they originate in the Creator. I like this because it reminds me that new creation gifts are not spiritual gifts while natural gifts are just a happenstances of nature.
    I like the encouragement to try other ministries and look for God to provide. Doesnt the New Testament also teach the Holy Spirit also gives gifted individuals to the Church?
    It seems to me that when the Holy Spirit has regularly demonstrated his empowering of a particular person with a specific gifting that person can be referred to as having that gift resident within them. What do you think?

  7. Bill Smith Says:
    November 13th, 2008 at 6:30 pm

    Sorry for the confusing comment about natural gifts and creation gifts. What I meant to say was that the phrase natural gifts can sound like these gifts are the result of impersonal chance (nature). Thinking of them as creation gifts reminds me of their origin in the Creator.

  8. HenryH Says:
    November 14th, 2008 at 3:45 pm


    I’ve very grateful for this series. I’ve been in a couple churches that were in the “discover and use your gift” camp. For a few years now I’ve wondered about some of the very things you’re discussing. I can’t say they keep me up at night or I would have put more effort into finding some answers but they’ve been on my mind off and on.

    On the one hand, there seem to be those who deny that spiritual gifts are even operable in our time. I have a very hard time with that because I’ve seen healing and I’ve seen many of the “will call” type events you talk about. So, it seems they are real and they are now.

    On the other hand, talking about what seem to me to be natural, God given abilities and talents as though they were spiritual gifts seems to me to diminish what the Spirit can do. I mean, I rarely see the sort of extraordinary ability that “spiritual gift” seems to imply or that was demonstrated in the early Church. I certainly don’t feel particularly “gifted” in an ongoing way, and in general, not in any way that’s noticeably different from a secular person with talents in those same areas.

    The third difficulty I was having was the idea that we need to “serve in our area of giftedness” as it seems to be put. This causes problems for me in a few, related ways. Most importantly, as you point out, it limits us and prevents us from walking outside our comfort zone. I find I grow the most in the times I step out in faith and try to do something I’m not naturally inclined to do. Just stepping out into the void isn’t enough, of course, it must be done for the right reason and with the right attitude — an attitude of prayer and faith in the giver of gifts. When I hear someone teaching about “serving in your area of giftedness” I want to ask about Moses, who didn’t feel particularly “gifted” (in the way we’re talking here) for a confrontational ministry with pharaoh. Certainly the great prophets all felt compelled to point out to God (as if He didn’t know) that they were totally inadequate to the task they were being given. Even Joseph, who seems to have had a naturally organized and patient disposition received special spiritual gifts in special circumstances.

    Your concept (I know you didn’t make this up but you’ve expressed it so well) of spiritual gifts being “momentary empowerments provided by the Spirit to promote the work of God” ties the various parts of my problem together wonderfully. Frankly, I’ve been afraid to even bring up my doubts because they seem so “out of the mainstream.” Thank you so much for taking the time to write this series.

  9. J Says:
    July 9th, 2010 at 6:44 pm

    In the Old Testament God tells Jeremiah I knew you and ordained you a prophet while you were in your mother’s womb. In the New Testament it states when He ascended on high He gave gifts to men.

    So, if God has already predetermined who we are and what our purpose is to be in the earth before we are born, what does that New Testament passage really mean?


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