Coming from a Pentecostal/charismatic background, I am accustomed to much talk of spiritual gifts.
Now, I’m fortunate to have spent many years in a church where it was emphasised that spiritual gifts are not limited to the so-called “power gifts” such as healing and miracles, but can cover a very wide range including such humble gifts as hospitality and administration.
But, let’s be honest, when it comes to spiritual gifts, the power gifts are the main attraction. Any old Joe (or Jane) can claim to have the gift of hospitality, but only spiritual black belts can legitimately claim to operate in the gift of healing.
And, of course, we read the gospels and what do we find? Jesus healing people wherever he went, whatever their affliction. Surely what we need is more people operating in this gift! After all, tell someone Jesus loves them and they might laugh in your face or ignore you; heal them from a dread disease and they’ll be impressed – maybe even impressed enough to consider going to church.
Let me say straight away that I’m not one of those who believes that the gifts of the Spirit are no longer in operation today. I’ve seen enough healings up close to believe beyond doubt that God can and will perform miraculous acts even in our post-biblical, post-modernist age.
I do believe there’s an unhealthy fascination and obsession with spiritual gifts, at least in some sections of the charismatic church.
At this point, I need to bring another word into the discussion that will be all too familiar to those from a Pentecostal/charismatic background: revival.
I’ve been in Pentecostal churches for 29 years, and I can attest that the notion of “revival” has been part of the landscape for much of that time. From tales of dramatic events in Wales, Scotland or San Francisco in the early twentieth century to more recent accounts of a “Welsh outpouring”, revival is widely held up as the Promised Land of divine activity on earth.
And, of course, it is widely understood that one of the defining characteristics of any authentic revival is an outbreak of the miraculous, mainly in the form of dramatic healings and spontaneous conversions.
And so we have two phenomena which, taken together, are very much seen – in charismatic circles, at least – as the pinnacle, the Holy Grail of the manifestation of the kingdom of God in this present age.
At this point in my spiritual journey, I have grave misgivings about this emphasis on spiritual gifts and revival.
You see, I think there’s something that’s far more important than spiritual gifts or revival (at least, revival as it’s usually defined), and yet which is missing from many churches and many Christian lives. Let’s remind ourselves of Galatians 5:22-23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
These fruit of the Spirit are, of course, very familiar to most Christians, in word if not in practice. My contention is that they are widely neglected in many charismatic churches, and that this is a big problem. Possibly the single biggest problem in such churches.
Charismatics may disagree about exactly what it means to be “filled with the Spirit”, but most agree that the indwelling of the Spirit is part and parcel of being an authentic Christian. However, if you ask ten charismatics to tell you what is the purpose of this infilling of the Spirit, I’ll bet at least six or seven of them will answer that it’s to empower you to operate in the gifts of the Spirit. Few are the believers and the churches that place the emphasis on the fruit of the Spirit rather than the gifts of the Spirit.
Why is this?
Well, I think it’s quite simple. On the one hand, we live in a world that’s impressed by the spectacular and the extraordinary. If you want to get people’s attention, you need to do something eye-catching. Getting results means being out there, putting yourself about, being seen, making a splash, doing exploits that can’t easily be dismissed. The power gifts play right into this space.
On the other hand, producing spiritual fruit such as that described in Galatians 5 is hard, solitary work. Anyone who struggles with impatience or anger knows just how difficult such things are to overcome.
And so what often happens is this: faced with a choice of majoring on the fruit of the Spirit or the gifts of the Spirit, churches anxious to attract new people (because that’s how success is defined, right?) place the emphasis firmly on the gifts. A lot of teaching on the gifts of the Spirit revolves around technique – this is what to look for, this is how to pray, these are the scriptures to quote, etc. That means anyone can have a go and dream of being the big shot miracle-worker. But spiritual fruit? Well, there are no short cuts to that – just the promise of a lot of anguished soul-searching, worn knees and frustration.
Added to which, if you go out and pray for someone and they get healed, you can bask in the afterglow, safe in the knowledge that your gift won’t go unnoticed. But if you labour with the Holy Spirit to overcome your impatience or your temper, no one much might notice.
But here’s where we come back to the notion of revival.
I’m not really a proponent of revival as something we should strive for and aspire to. Historical revivals may have been dramatic and seemingly ground-breaking, but there are plenty of studies suggesting they have had little power to effect real, lasting change in people and communities.
You see, you can have an army of believers who regularly go out looking for people to practice spiritual gifts on; but the rest of the time, when those believers are at home, work or school, their lives might look no different from anyone else’s.
But I have a hunch that if any army of Christians got serious about asking the Holy Spirit to grow real, lasting fruit in their lives – or, to put it another way, producing Christlike character in them – well, we might just have a kingdom revolution on our hands. We might just have a level of individual and community transformation that makes previous “revivals” look paltry.
Gifts can be imitated, taught and even sold. But the fruit of Christlike character can only be produced when a person commits to a life of repentance, self-sacrifice and surrender to the ways of God. Jesus did not say “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His power gifts”. What he told us to seek was God’s righteousness – and that sounds to me a lot more like spiritual fruit than spiritual gifts.
It’s interesting to me that most people seem to equate “the works that Jesus did” with his miracles. I guess it’s understandable. But wasn’t the greatest miracle of all that Jesus, who was fully human, lived a sinless life, thus providing us with a living model of what it means to embody the love of God in the flesh?
By all means, eagerly seek the gifts of the Spirit. But don’t for one moment make the mistake of thinking they’re more important important that the fruit of the Spirit. Gift should always flow out of character, never the other way around. To put it another way, if you were to ask God whether He’s more interested in your character or your gifts, which do you think He’d answer?
May God raise up a people who are willing to forsake the pursuit of the spectacular and seek instead the genuine, lasting fruit of Christlike character. In the long run, that’s what will change the world.
[Image: Fiona Shields © Some rights reserved ]