on giftedness and gifts: 1 Cor. 12

I gave my boyfriend rollerblades for his birthday.  Why?  So I can rollerblade WITH him.  You won’t catch me giving him running shoes or a mountain bike. He already runs and bikes like the wind.  Rollerblades ALMOST level the playing field.  They give me a ghost of a chance of keeping up with him.  It’s rare to give someone a gift that would take them away from us.  We’re much more likely to give people gifts that benefit us, too.

So how do we experience other people’s giftedness?  Do we feel it separates them from us?  Does it somehow take them away from us?  Or is there a way to see other people’s gifts as bringing us all closer together?

For instance, how do we react to their physical gifts?  In this world, we value people’s outward appearance.  Are we all Snow White’s evil stepmother, asking our mirrors  on the wall who’s the fairest of them all … and hoping it’s us? Do we envy people who look like models?  Or do we appreciate them?

And how do we process other people’s talents?  We see people winning Nobel prizes in fields we can barely even spell.  We hear of people like the writer Donna Tart who can allegedly recite vast passages of Shakespeare from memory alone.  Some people are virtuosos on the piano.  Others can move us to tears with their singing.  In New York City, where I live, the sidewalks are so crammed with talent that when the artist Banksy tried to anonymously hawk his wares on the city streets a few weeks ago, he was handed only $60 after an entire day.

Lastly, there are gifts we consider more spiritual.  How do we feel if other people are kinder than Mother Theresa?  More gentle than Florence Nightingale? More joyous than Eloise?  More faith filled than a child on Christmas Eve?  More loving than Mary in Michaelangelo’s Pieta?  More peaceful than a sleeping baby?  More patient than Job? More self-controlled than a Buckingham Palace guard?

How we receive other people’s gifts depends on our mood, doesn’t it?   If we’re in a “good” place, if we’re happy ourselves, we can look out at the vast array of human appearances and view the world like a Benetton catalogue, where everyone is attractive, no matter what their cut.  If we’re engaged in our own work, we don’t feel the need to compare ourselves to others.  If we feel God is using us in the world to bless others, we see people with different spiritual gifts as fellow laborers.

But if we’re feeling down, we look around and see a world full of have’s where we’re the lowly have not.  If we’re in a downward spiral, everyone else’s talent seems like an accusation of our lack.  Jealousy can overwhelm us.  The Bible says envy causes fights.  People punish others out of envy.  They slander them.  They criticize and judge.  They kill.  We know jealousy and envy take us down dark paths, but all too often we find ourselves full of these evil emotions.  What can we do to free ourselves of things we hate?  How can we be free of envy?

Paul seems to start off here in 1 Corinthians 12 with a cheer up, friend, message about the gifts of the Spirit.   It’s a lovely image of giftedness.  We see the gifts of others not as competition, but as given by God for everyone’s benefit.  We share in the gifts of others, instead of being threatened.  We are all knit together in Christ, sharing in the joy of others and weeping with their grief.

How then are we to process Paul’s words at the end of this chapter: “So you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts”?  1 Cor. 12:31.  Hold it.  Paul has just finished telling us that we don’t all have the same gifts, and that all gifts come from God.  So why is he now advocating that we desire the “better” gifts?  Is he suggesting we return to the world of envy?  What’s going on?

The resolution to this seeming contradiction, as always, lies in the fact that we tend to look at spiritual gifts the same way we look at human gifts.  But there is a fundamental difference between the gifts of the Spirit and human gifts.  With human gifts, if we find ourselves suffering from a moment of jealousy, we can use it to spur us on to improve ourselves.  If we see someone who looks in good shape and put together, we can get going.  We can work out.  We can eat healthier foods.  We can scour the back of our closets.  We can wear make-up or have our hair darkened or bleached, straightened or curled.  If we have the resources, desire and inclination, we can go under the knife.

Similarly, if we admire the talents of others, we can work harder at our own.  Stephen King in his book ON WRITING says that there are a few people who can’t write at all, and a few who are naturally gifted, but that the vast majority of people can truly learn to write better.  Writing, for the most part, is a craft.  The same is true of most talents, whether piano, physics or singing.

But with these kinds of gifts, there is always a limit.  We can only improve our looks or skills so much.  And no matter how much we improve, we can never account for the role of subjectivity.  Gwyneth Paltrow might be People magazine’s ideal of the most beautiful woman in the world, but others prefer darker skin, a more exuberant personality, a curvier figure or curlier hair.  No one person can be the most gifted in every field and in every pageant.  Humans are too varied for that.  If humans are the judges of gifts, there is no best.

So why does Paul say here we should “earnestly desire the most helpful gifts”?  Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that unlike beauty, talents or achievement, there is no limit to the gifts of the Spirit.  God can give them all to us in unlimited quantities.  The Bible tells us over and over that we should ask God for whatever we want, and that God will give us the desires of our heart.  So perhaps what these passages suggest is that what our heart most desires isn’t to be the most beautiful woman in the world in outward appearance, but rather to be the most beautiful inside.  That sounds trite, but do any of us really know on a day to day basis what it feels like to be beautiful inside?  And if we felt beautiful inside, truly beautiful, would we ever trade it for something perishable and subjective, like muscles, height or the ability to break glass with our high C?  The wonderful news is that God can give us that kind of inner spiritual beauty in unlimited quantities.  He just works in a different way than we expect.  We’re looking in the wrong mirrors.

A person who acts loving to others, even when she doesn’t feel like it, feels beautiful all the time. Or if we have the privilege of healing a sick person because the power of God is flowing through us, we are so filled with the joy of God’s spirit that we barely even notice that God is healing us of our woundedness in the process of our healing others.  We lose our selfish, self-centered, jealous spirits in those moments of service.  But the service has to come from God’s love, not our own desire to look good.

Here is where we walk with our blindfolded human eyes into the realm of the spirit, and it’s a place where our way of looking is irrelevant.  We have walked into the world of God.  It’s a world where God gives all things for the benefit not just of us, but for all.  It’s a world where God delights in giving.  God is not miserly.  He gives because it’s His nature to give.  And if we start to desire the very nature of God, we discover that we, too, delight in giving.  We delight in loving.  We enjoy healing others.  We find we get the things we want by giving them away.

But all too often we forget that’s how God’s world works.  We think we get the things we want by having them.  We have it all backwards.  And honestly, who is free from envy for even a single day – and perhaps even a single hour?

So the reason Paul urges us to “earnestly desire the most helpful gifts” is that God wants us to ask Him for the helpful gifts.  He doesn’t want us to be jealous.  So how do we ask God, and ask with the right motives?  How do we start to want the heart of God more than outward beauty or achievement?  How do we let go of jealousy and envy and seek gifts not for what they bring us but for how they bless others?  How do we value the gift of faith over the gift of bling?  How do we get there?

The answer, I think, lies in our lack.  We can turn envy on its head.  We can use envy as a pathway to show us our emptiness.  The more we want things we can’t have, the more we experience frustration, the more it drives us to fling ourselves on the doorstep of God and hammer until He opens up.  The dread and despair, the self-disgust, bitter envy, the poison of gossip, the small-mindedness, the outrage over petty matters and the self-doubt that beset our days can move us toward hatred of others and self with such violence, that it shocks us.   We beg God for His kind of love.  Who wants to be ugly?  Who wants to be empty?  Who can stand being shallow?  Who wants to look in the mirror and see nothing?

We all hold Snow White’s stepmother’s magic mirror in our hands all day long, and we are enraged by the sight of the beauty of others.  At times, we turn that mirror round and tell ourselves WE are the most beautiful.  But that doesn’t satisfy us for long.  It’s an empty game we’re playing, and we know it’s based on lies.  So one day we look in the mirror and see no reflection at all.  And we suddenly know that that’s how our souls look without God at the center.  So we cry out for God and the next time we look in the mirror, we see Christ.  Peer into Jesus.  Look deeper.  Guess what?  We will see Christ carrying us through our weakest moments, the way Simon of Cyrene carried the cross.  We will see Christ caring for us, the way Mary washed Christ’s feet with her tears and wiped them dry with her hair.  We see Christ looking at us with love, the way Peter looked at Christ after the cock had crowed, and Peter had wept bitter tears at his denial of Christ, and then one day, a resurrected Christ waited for him on a beach, cooked him fish over an open fire, and restored Peter to the fold and made him greater than ever.  We will see in Jesus the love we always dreamed of.

And in the security of Jesus’ love, sometimes, every now and then, just for a moment, we will find ways to be the eyes, ears, mouth and hands of God, just as Simon, Mary and Peter did.  We see in God’s mirror a love for us so astounding that He offers us each a gift that took Him away from us completely.  Jesus left heaven to come to earth; he left earth to go to hell.  He suffered the punishment we all deserve for our selfishness, envy and hatred, so that ultimately He could restore us to Himself.  His gift of the cross gives us each the beauty of His holiness; he covers our flaws with His perfection.  He offers us each gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  His Spirit can come and live inside each of us, no matter who we are, what we look like or what we’ve done.  God’s gifts are as limitless as the sky, as boundless as the ocean – do you hear how those cliches cry out to be fresh again?   It’s because an infinite God created the sky and ocean, and He created us.  His love and come as quickly and mysteriously as the wind.  They’re ours for the asking, ours for the taking, ours for the giving.  The secret is to realize that everything we have is a gift.  When our hearts become grateful, we will forget about envy, because there’s no room for it.  We have to fill up on the gift of love.  We need to almost “envy” love.  We need to desire it, crave it and seek it.  God’s love for us will make us all the most beautiful, talented and best.  Because it enables us to love others, and ourselves, in all of our weaknesses and lack.

by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day on October 22, 2013