The Forgotten Gifts of the Holy Spirit
How might we forget a spiritual gift? This could happen in several ways:
- First, we might forget certain gifts of the Spirit by failing to recognize a particular ministry to which Christ has called his church, and thus failing to look for the resources which Christ gives to enable Christians to carry out that ministry. For example, if we were a church that focused all its attention on correct teaching and none on the practical outworking of love among Christians, we could easily neglect the vital role of deacons and of others who have gifts for service and giving to the needy.
- Second, we might assume that certain ministries can be carried out without the power of the Holy Spirit – although we might not say this out loud! We might take it for granted that people can attend to the nursery, or perform secretarial work, or set up chairs, or operate the p.a. system, or sing in the choir just as well in God's sight whether or not they are renewed and enabled by the Spirit to perform these tasks. Part of our confusion here might arise from the fact that certain spiritual gifts seem to be similar to skills which even unbelievers may have by virtue of being created in God's image. For example, while Paul speaks of Christians who sing in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 14:15, 26), it is among Cain's descendants that the Bible first records the use of music (Genesis 4:21).
- Third, we might fail to appreciate the New Testament's teaching regarding the gift which is the Spirit and the gifts which are given through the Spirit. We might narrow our focus on a few controversial gifts and the question of their cessation, or we might fail to see the close connection between the fruit of the Spirit, Christlike qualities which the Spirit produces in every believer, and the spiritual gifts by which God's Spirit empowers each of us to carry out a distinctive service so that we all are built up in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 13 Paul embedded his supreme lesson on love, the Spirit's fruit, in the middle of a discussion of Spirit-given abilities. But we might fail to see how imperative it is that gifts of the Spirit such as teaching, governing, counseling, evangelizing, and giving be exercised in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – which are given to us by the very same Spirit!
Now, I am focusing on "spiritual gifts" as we normally think of them: different abilities imparted and empowered by the Holy Spirit so that various members of the body of Christ can carry out different ministries toward each other for the growth of the church. But we should remember that such gifts can be used effectively only as they are exercised in the Christlike maturity which the Spirit produces in us all.
Help and guidance
It is evident from Paul's discussion in 1 Corinthians 12 that there were certain gifts which some of the Corinthian Christians were "forgetting." Some believers had abilities to minister in certain ways, but these Christians and their Spirit-given abilities were regarded as insignificant or unimportant by others who had more visible gifts. You can see it in Paul's metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12:21-26:
"The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I don't need you!' And the head cannot say to the feet, 'I don't need you!' On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor… God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other."
Certainly in the physical human body no personified eye would be so foolish as to think that it could do without the hand, and no head would be foolish enough to think that it could roll along nicely without feet. But in the Corinthian church there were some members treating other members in just that way. They had forgotten that God assembled the body, and that he decreed that every member needs the ministry of every other member. They had forgotten that some indispensable gifts of the Spirit are not high-visibility, high-glory gifts, but rather the quiet, behind-the-scenes gifts.
Now, when we move from the body metaphor to the reality which Paul is illustrating, it is pretty obvious what gifts the arrogant eye and the self-sufficient head symbolize: these are people who speak in tongues or interpret tongues, or perhaps who do miracles or prophesy. But what about the "hands and feet" gifts – the forgotten gifts? Does Paul give us any hint about the sorts of gifts which correspond to hands and feet, less highly visible and less honorable, more likely to be forgotten and despised by others? Yes.
In v. 28 Paul lists a series of gifts: apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, helping, guiding, and tongues. Then in vv. 29-30 he repeats the list in a series of rhetorical questions. These questions challenge the Corinthians' competition and pride over the highly visible gifts: obviously not everyone who has the Spirit has any one of these particular gifts! But in these rhetorical questions two of the gifts in v. 28 are omitted. The order of the lists is identical in v. 28 and in vv. 29-30; but the second time around Paul skips from healing directly to tongues, omitting the gifts of helping and guidance (NIV: able to help others, gifts of administration). Why did Paul not say: "Do all have the ability to help others? Do all have the gift of administration?" It is not because Paul has forgotten these two gifts, but because the Corinthians are not competing over the gifts of helping and guidance.
We can get a feel for what "helping" is if we survey the places where this New Testament word is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which was probably already being used by the Corinthians:
Psalms 22:19 – But you, O Lord, be not far off; O my Strength, come quickly to help me. Deliver me… rescue me…
Psalms 83:8 – Even Assyria has joined them to lend strength (or help, or reinforcements) to the descendants of Lot.
Psalms 84:5 – Blessed are those whose strength (or protection, refuge) is in you.
Psalms 89:18 – Indeed, our shield belongs to the Lord, our king to the Holy One of Israel. (Thus the king is Israel's shield or protector.)
Psalms 108:8 – Gilead is mine, Manasseh is mine; Ephraim is the helmet (protection) of my head, Judah my scepter.
So we see that in its Old Testament usage this word expresses the help that supports and protects.
Now we add a second line of evidence. The verb from which the noun "helping": is made does appear in the New Testament:
Luke 1:54 – Mary's song praises God who "has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever."
Acts 20:35 – Paul reminds the elders from Ephesus that he showed by his own example that "by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"
Clearly in these New Testament contexts "helping" includes mercy, compassion, a readiness to meet the needs of the weak and "helpless." So we can say that this word "helping" speaks of an exercise of strength to meet the needs of those who lack strength, whether in protecting them from harm or in relieving their hunger, thirst, or lack of covering. It appears, then, that "helping" in the 1 Corinthians. 12:28 list corresponds fairly closely with three other spiritual gifts listed by Paul in Romans 12:7-8 – serving, sharing, showing mercy.
What we are considering is the sort of ministry that is not highly defined, does not call attention to itself, and may go unnoticed. It is a special grace of the Spirit that is ready to do what is necessary so that others' needs are met, so that others' ministries are furthered.
In the person who exercises the gift of helping we see clearly that our exercise of the Spirit's gifts depends on our growing in the Spirit's fruit – especially love. The helper does not boast is not self-seeking, not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs. In fact, the high-visibility gifts are hollow without love as well; but those ministries are sometimes pursued lovelessly out of other motives – to wield influence or gain attention. But no one will exercise the gift of helping unless she or he has learned the lesson of servanthood: the leader among Christ's followers must be servant of all (Mark 10:45).
Perhaps "the gift of helping" will be displayed in a readiness to change diapers and comfort toddlers in the nursery, to hook up microphones, to mix punch, to pull weeds, to bake cookies, to type letters, to mow a widow's lawn, to fix a single mom's car – a whole variety of mechanical activities that look, at first glance, as though they could be performed as competently by people who have never been touched by the Spirit of God. But God calls us to look deeper, to pursue the most excellent way; not to fix our eyes on external actions, but to search the motives of our hearts. It is true that no prophet can confess, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3). But it is equally true that no one can hand out bulletins for the glory of Jesus, except by the Holy Spirit.
For this word, too, we need to go to the Corinthians' Greek Old Testament, where the word speaks of wise counsel, good advice.
Proverbs 1:5 – Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance.
Proverbs 11:14 – For lack of guidance a nation falls, but many advisers make victory sure.
Proverbs 24:6 – For waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers.
This word originally referred to the piloting of a ship; then, as we have seen, it is applied metaphorically to that wise advice which "pilots" plans to success. In a tombstone inscription from the New Testament period a son praises his mother who "guided her household blamelessly and raised her child." While the NIV translates it "administration," we are not to think of a paper-shuffler or memo-sender. Rather, as the Proverbs passages make clear, this gift is the ability to offer that practical and godly advice which applies God's wisdom, revealed in his word, to the nitty gritty of life. Perhaps it is similar to the "word of wisdom" which Paul mentioned earlier in the chapter. Or it may include the gift of "encouragement" mentioned in Romans 12:8, since in the New Testament "encouragement" is not just cheering people up, but rather includes stimulating them by our words to do what is right.
This may be the first "spiritual gift" specifically associated with the Spirit's work in Scripture: In Genesis 41:38 Pharaoh recognized the "spirit of God" (or "of the gods") in Joseph not only because he could interpret the dreams of the fat and lean cows, the good heads of grain and the thin heads (the gift of prophecy), but also because of Joseph's wisdom and discernment in formulating a plan to handle the coming years of abundance and famine. Joseph was able to offer wise guidance to Pharaoh.
Shouldn't we seek this gift from the Spirit – this quiet, all-but-forgotten gift? The Corinthians were impressed with people who claimed to speak words directly sent from the mind of God, who prefaced their pronouncements with, "The Lord revealed to me …" They were not so impressed with people who simply offered wise and godly counsel, who humbly observed, "It appears to me that the principles of God's word apply to this situation in this way for these reasons …" Yet such counsel and guidance, offered by a person who has grown wise in the Word by the Spirit's renewing grace, is a hidden treasure of great value. Better to have godly guidance humbly offered by people who have patiently learned the ways of God than to follow bogus certainties mouthed by religious performers.
Where do you go for some good advice? To people gifted by the Spirit as guides – elders, certainly, but also others (apparently all kinds of folks in the church at Rome are able to admonish one another, Romans 15:14) to whom the Spirit gives the gift of guidance, of wise counsel.