When I celebrate Christmas with my family, I love watching my little nieces and nephews tear into their gifts. There’s something beautiful about the sound of paper ripping, the tape popping, and my nephew’s squeal of pure joy when he sees his long-awaited toy lightsaber.
And then, in our family, joy turns to laughter when the little squirt (who genuinely believes he is a Jedi Knight) attempts to whack his older brothers, shouting, “I will strike you down like Obi-Wan.”
Everyone in the room smiles, because this is what gifts do: They help us experience joy in helping us be our true selves. The best gifts come from those who know us most deeply, and gifts are the currency through which joy is exchanged.
But some of us lose that childlike joy of gift-opening as we grow older.
Have you ever taken a spiritual gifts assessment and thought, “Does that one come with a gift receipt? ‘Cause I really want to exchange it.”
Spiritual gifts don’t work that way. Spiritual gifts (as described in Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 and Ephesians 4:7-12) are meant for the recipient to experience the joy like opening gifts when we were young—because the gifts we are given are intended to help us become our true selves. Spiritual gifts are all intended to help us serve others, and in so doing, we are ultimately becoming more like the one who gives the best gifts of all.
So how do we discover the spiritual gifts God has given us? Here are three practices you may consider:
What stories in the scriptures resonate deeply with you? With which characters in the Bible do you most identify? What brings you the most joy in your day? What do you hate doing? And why?
These kinds of questions that prompt us to know ourselves more deeply, and that’s counter to the gravity of our culture. Our culture craves instant information, but transformation through self-discovery means doing the hard slow work of observation and reflection. So the more distracted, urgent and routinized lives we live, the less we can hear and respond to the voice of God.
The prayer of examen is a spiritual discipline in which we review the day, and invite the Holy Spirit to see our day through His eyes. We can ask Him to show us our spiritual gifts through what makes us truly ourselves—and He’ll answer, because God loves to give. It’s just who He is.
Contrary to what you might see in a polished Sunday morning service, the practice of developing your spiritual gifts isn’t always smooth. John Ortberg, one of the most gifted teachers I know, was so nervous the first time he preached that he fainted from the pulpit—not once, but twice.
Most folks would give up after such a public spectacle. But if he had given up at first hint of a lack of success, the world would have been deprived of one a great teacher.
If you don’t know what your spiritual gifts are, just start trying to use the ones you think you may have. You will only discover your real spiritual gifts through practicing, gaining valuable experience and developing perseverance. Over time, you’ll act out of your gifts so intuitively that you won’t be questioning or wondering about them anymore. You’ll just be yourself, and enable others to recognize and obey God’s voice.
All of the gifts are intended to be practiced in the context of community. You can’t discover your spiritual gifts apart from community.
One of the best questions we can ask those who are with us in our spiritual journey is, “How do I help you experience God?” The answer to this question from your community of faith is a very telling answer to your spiritual gifts.
My friend Sandra helps me experience God very clearly through asking challenging questions. When I want to moan and complain in difficult times, she says, “Yeah, that really sucks. What kind of man do you sense God is calling you to become through this?”
In a subtle way, she’s speaking prophetically. She’s inviting the presence of God in circumstances when I’d be tempted to throw myself a pity party, and encouraging me to trust that God will help me become a better man out of this. Through a simple question, she’s inviting me to respond and obey God’s voice.
Perhaps this is why Paul says that we should eagerly desire the gift of prophecy (1 Corinthians 14:1). The gift of prophecy is simply the in-breaking of God’s voice to encourage, console or convict. Of course, some Christians are weirded out when someone has “a word from the Lord,” or, on the other hand, afraid to share because they’re worried about freaking others out. Sometimes we perceive the gift of prophecy like an old Magic 8 Ball: cryptic, a little creepy and only used as a last resort.
The result? We limit God to being a spectator rather than a conversant within our relationships. We slide into superficiality, and speak in cliches rather than look to God to provide fresh words that can reach the depth of another’s soul.
Prophets refuse to allow this to happen, because they point us to grow when we’d rather just stay comfortable. Perhaps this is why prophets are in short supply in our American churches today—because keeping it real costs too much.
Yet prophecy, along with all the spiritual gifts, are the primary way in which we enable others to hear and obey the voice of our giving God. The beauty of God’s design for spiritual gifts is that we delight others through their use, we are delighted by using them, and God is delighted because His voice is heard and obeyed.
Andy lives in Chicago and just finished his MBA at Kellogg School of Management after serving as a campus pastor at Northwestern University. Now he's a human capital consultant and is his family's fun uncle. He blogs badly at andybilhorn.wordpress.com and tweets worse at @abilhorn.