Those Christians Sure Talk Funny
In the many years before I was a Christian, I used to hear believers talk about their ‘spiritual gifts’. They would describe their ability to sing or teach or perform a certain task, and for the life of me, these abilities just sounded like ‘natural talents’. I came to the conclusion that those wacky Christians just had a language all their own and a strong desire to see everything as a gift from God when it could more easily be described in natural terms. Now that I’m a Christian myself, I’m beginning to realize that there are a number of abilities that have either emerged or blossomed in my own life. Were these just latent talents, or is there something to this ‘spiritual gifting’ stuff? Maybe it’s time to take a second look at the issue of ‘spiritual gifts’ and compare them to what we used to think of as ‘natural talents’.
It All Comes From God Anyway
Now, even before we start to look at the differences between ‘gifts’ and ‘talents’, we need to recognize that they all come from the same source. If we accept the premise that an all-powerful God is the creator of all matter and life, then it is reasonable to assume that abilities that ultimately emerge in our lives (even if we are quick to attribute them to genetics or environment), must ultimately come from the source of genetics and environment: the God who created everything in the first place! We can squabble over whether something is a talent or a gift, but we need to be careful, as thoughtful Christians, not to exchange the two words as if they had identical meaning. They don’t.
So What Are They?
Everyone has some sort of natural talent. You may not think that you are particularly talented, but if you take a closer look at yourself, you’ll discover that there is some ability that you possess that is stronger than all the rest. Sure, there may be someone out there who is better at that particular thing, but that’s not the point; you also have an increased ability in this area relative to your other abilities. Maybe you’re a better athlete than musician, or maybe you’re a better artist than mathematician. You know where you are talented and where you are not.
But how do you know if that ability you are considering is a ‘natural talent’ or a ‘spiritual gift’? Well, maybe we should start by looking at what the Bible has to say about spiritual gifts. Paul describes spiritual gifts in three places:
1 Corinthians 12:7-11
But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.
For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
Now some Christians look at these verses and wonder if the ‘gift list’ described here is exhaustive. Are these the only abilities that are actually ‘spiritual gifts’? Are there any more? Well, considering the fact that Paul wrote these three letters to three different groups of believers and did not routinely repeat the same list of gifts, it’s probably safe to assume that there are additional spiritual gifts that are NOT listed here. So the question is, what are the differences between natural talents and spiritual gifts, and how might we recognize a spiritual gift when we see one?
There Are a Few Important Differences
Now I’m sure that there are a number of theologians who might disagree with each other when talking about talents and gifts, but there are a number of differences that seem obvious and clear. Let’s take a look at the major differences:
#1 Talents Are Inherited / Gifts Are Received
This is perhaps the biggest and most important difference. Natural talents are those abilities that are simply inherited from one’s parents and nurtured in the context of one’s family. We all know people who are talented and come from a long line of family members who share the same talent. If one member of such a family does NOT possess that talent, they typically will say something like, ‘I didn’t get the (insert talent here) gene”. Natural talents are just that: ‘natural’! They can be attributed to the natural genetic material that exists within all of us and is passed down from generation to generation. Spiritual gifts, on the other hand, come directly from the Spirit of God; that’s why they are called ‘gifts’ in the first place! The “Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” Natural talents are imparted at our natural birth; spiritual gifts are given when we are born again.
#2 Talents Are Possessed by the Saved and Unsaved / Gifts Are Possessed by the Saved
Everyone, whether they are a believer or a non-believer, has some sort of talent, but only believers have spiritual gifts. The Spirit of God resides in each and every believer, and “God has allotted to each a measure of faith,” and an ability that transcends our natural talents. Because the Spirit of God is the source for spiritual gifts, we shouldn’t be surprised that those who have God’s Spirit residing in them (those who are saved), would have more than natural talent; believers also have gifts of the Spirit:
The Word of wisdom
The word of knowledge
Faith (extraordinary trust and surrender)
Gifts of healing
The effecting of miracles
The distinguishing of spirits
The interpretation of tongues
There are a number of spiritual gifts listed here that sound a lot like natural talents. After all, don’t you know a non-Christian who is a talented leader or teacher? Nonbelievers can be very talented in some of these areas without having been given a gift of the Spirit. But in addition to the gifts that sound like talents possessed by nonbelievers, there are others on the list that seem specific to the lives of believers. Believers have many natural talents, but in addition to these talents, they are also gifted by God.
#3 Talents Are Developed and Expected / Gifts Are Matured and Surprising
Let’s say you are a talented leader and you then become a Christian. If God decides to use you in some role of leadership, you just may find your talent is greatly multiplied when God also gives you the spiritual gift of leadership. You may now discover that your leadership skills are above and beyond anything you were capable of doing prior to being saved. God has a tendency to surprise us in this way. We can all develop our natural talents with hard work and perseverance; we practice and train and along the way we can achieve the expected results. Spiritual gifts, on the other hand, are increased as we mature in our relationship with God:
As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
When we have been gifted by God to accomplish something, we should expect the unexpected. As we mature in our relationship with God, he will surprise us by gifting us beyond our natural talent.
#4 Talents Can Be Used Selfishly / Gifts Are Used to Serve God’s Purposes
The Bible clearly tells us that spiritual gifts are given to us for a specific reason. While we may find ourselves using our natural talent to serve our own selfish interests and desires, spiritual gifts have been given to us by God “for the common good” and to the glory of God; they are given to us so that we can give them back to God as we serve his purpose of building the family of believers. Spiritual gifts are given to us so that ALL of us can perform “the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ”. That’s why ALL of us are gifted in some way by God. We’re not supposed to sit and watch the pastor do the work, we are supposed to get out and utilize the gifts that God has given us.
Natural talents are the result of our genetic inheritance and the training that results from our family environment. They are possessed by both believers and non-believers, and they can be used to serve God or serve ourselves. Spiritual gifts are given to us by the Spirit of God once we have been saved. They blossom as we mature in our faith and they are used to glorify God as we serve others and build the family of God.
OK, Give Me An Example
Let’s take a look at an example from Old Testament that will help us understand the difference between natural talents and spiritual gifts. Moses gives us a glimpse of how God can use our talents, grow our gifts, and overcome our limitations. Let’s join the story of Moses in the Book of Exodus:
Now it came about in those days, when Moses had grown up, that he went out to his brethren and looked on their hard labors; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. And he went out the next day, and behold, two Hebrews were fighting with each other; and he said to the offender, “Why are you striking your companion?” But he said, “Who made you a prince or a judge over us? Are you intending to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and said, “Surely the matter has become known.” When Pharaoh heard of this matter, he tried to kill Moses. But Moses fled from the presence of Pharaoh and settled in the land of Midian; and he sat down by a well.
Moses clearly had a natural inclination to act aggressively (maybe even a bit impulsively) as he quickly intervened in this situation. He also demonstrated a natural desire for leadership and justice as he sought to right the wrong perpetrated against the Hebrew slave. But it’s also interesting to hear one of the Hebrews later accuse Moses of wanting to be a ‘prince or judge over’ them. Perhaps they saw that Moses’ wanted to use his natural talents to serve himself in some way (or maybe they’re just accusing him without justification). Whatever the case may be, we also get to see one of Moses’ natural limitations as he succumbs to his fears and his natural sense of self preservation, fleeing to the land of Midian. Once he is there, he gets a chance to meet and speak with God at the ‘burning bush’:
And the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of My people who are in Egypt, and have given heed to their cry because of their taskmasters, for I am aware of their sufferings. So I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians…
Isn’t it interesting that God came to Moses and began the discussion in an area that was of interest to Moses? God began the conversation with Moses’ natural concern for justice? God knew Moses’ talent and inclination and he was going to use this talent (along with a few additional gifts!). Moses and God then began what I refer to as the “Talent/Gift Conversation”:
“Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring My people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?”
God knew that Moses had the raw natural talent to get the job done and He alone also knew that He would give Moses the rest of the gifting required to complete the task. Unfortunately, Moses wasn’t privy to this information! So as God told Moses what he was going to do through him, Moses was probably measuring his own natural talent and finding himself a bit limited…
Then Moses answered and said, “What if they will not believe me, or listen to what I say? For they may say, ‘The LORD has not appeared to you.'”
God then reassured Moses by demonstrating some of the signs that he would also perform in front of Pharaoh. Moses was not all that reassured:
Then Moses said to the LORD, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither recently nor in time past, nor since Thou hast spoken to Thy servant; for I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
There you have it. Moses told God, in no uncertain terms, that he simply didn’t have the natural talents required to do what God wanted to do. But God would have none of that. He simply responded by telling Moses that this was not a matter of natural talent; this was a matter of spiritual gifting:
And the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? “Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.”
God told Moses that He would gift him with the ability to speak and articulate God’s message. God would give Moses the spiritual gifts of prophecy and leadership. But Moses still wasn’t convinced…
But he said, “Please, Lord, now send the message by whomever Thou wilt.” Moses was still not convinced that God would give him an ability that he didn’t already possess. Moses knew his own natural talents, and he simply couldn’t imagine that God could give him a spiritual gift. That didn’t please God, who ultimately told Moses he could bring his brother to help him in Egypt:
Then the anger of the LORD burned against Moses, and He said, “Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he speaks fluently. And moreover, behold, he is coming out to meet you; when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. And you are to speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I, even I, will be with your mouth and his mouth, and I will teach you what you are to do. Moreover, he shall speak for you to the people; and it shall come about that he shall be as a mouth for you, and you shall be as God to him.”
God told Moses that He could take Aaron along on the trip. Moses knew that Aaron had the natural talent of communication, but even at this point, Moses had to trust that God would give him spiritual gifts that he didn’t already have. This meeting at the bush marks an important moment in Moses’ life. There is no doubt that Moses may have heard about God from his father-in-law in Midian, but now Moses is a true believer. He’s met God and heard his voice. The Spirit of God now resides in Moses and his gifting is assured.
You probably know how the story turns out (if not, take a minute and read through the Book of Exodus from Chapter 4 to Chapter 14, you’ll be glad you did). Moses and Aaron returned to Egypt and ultimately confronted Pharaoh over and over again as they demonstrated the power of God through the plagues and miraculous events performed by God. As you read the narrative, watch how Aaron and Moses develop their gifts. Moses began by letting Aaron talk to the elders of Israel to tell them what would happen. Not only did Aaron do all the talking, Aaron also did all the miracle working.
Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the sons of Israel; and Aaron spoke all the words which the LORD had spoken to Moses. He then performed the signs in the sight of the people. So the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD was concerned about the sons of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed low and worshiped.
When things didn’t go well initially, Moses was filled with doubt. He questioned God several times in the early going and even continued to remind God that he simply didn’t have the talent needed to persuade Pharaoh. But God had already gifted Moses as a prophet, even if Moses wasn’t aware of this fact:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “See, I make you as God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh that he let the sons of Israel go out of his land.
Moses was 80 years old during all of this. He knew the talents he had possessed in those 80 years and never imagined that God would now give him a spiritual gift beyond his natural abilities. But that is exactly what God did. Moses did exactly as God commanded him and grew in confidence. Aaron did all the talking at first, but by the time Pharaoh was ready to let the Jews leave Egypt, Moses was the man in charge. He spoke fearlessly to Pharaoh toward the end; Moses seemed to be completely transformed. He was no longer the cowering man who tried to convince God to use someone else. His gifts had now been exposed and he was confident of his new abilities. Toward the end of the confrontation with Pharaoh, Moses was the man who was doing all the talking and all the miracle working. God was using Moses through the new gifts that he had given him:
And the LORD gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Furthermore, the man Moses himself was greatly esteemed in the land of Egypt, both in the sight of Pharaoh’s servants and in the sight of the people.
Moses had matured into the man that God knew he was all along and was now comfortable with his spiritual gifts. From this point on, it was Moses who did all the talking and leading. When it was time to tell the Jews about the Passover, Moses addressed them on his own. In fact, Aaron’s role began to diminish as Moses grew in faith and in the confidence of his gifting. By the time that the Jews are allowed to leave Egypt, Moses was the singular voice of God. Finally, when the Jews were chased to the edge of the Red Sea and complained to Moses that they were about to die, Moses responded in the confidence made possible by his new gifting:
But Moses said to the people, “Do not fear! Stand by and see the salvation of the LORD which He will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you have seen today, you will never see them again forever. The LORD will fight for you while you keep silent.”
Moses had been transformed. He probably knew he had some natural talents, but I bet he never imagined he would have the spiritual gifts necessary to do what he did.
That’s the Difference
The world around us is becoming more and more secular. As a result, nonbelievers are quick to reject the idea that spiritual gifts exist at all. When I was a child, I was part of a program that existed for those students who were academically advanced in one way or another. It was called the “Gifted Program”. Our classes were listed with a “G” following the title so that people would know that this particular class was more challenging than the ordinary course offerings. By the time that my own kids were in school, the title for this program had change. It was now called the “Academically Talented” Program. Classes were now labeled with “AT” following the title. Think about that shift for a minute, because it is an important one. It’s not just a matter of political correctness; it’s a fundamental shift toward naturalism. Our emerging culture is more and more inclined to deny the existence of God and as we shift in this direction, we should expect that people will see all personal abilities as simple natural talents that have resulted from genetics and environment (nature and nurture).
But as Christian, we ought to know the difference. We ought to know how talents and gifts work. We recognize that natural talents and predispositions are passed down to us and nurtured in our family. And we expect that we can improve our talents if we work hard and practice. But we also know that spiritual gifts come from a supernatural source; they surprise us. We find ourselves doing things that we never expected, or we find ourselves doing what we used to do with unexpected effectiveness. God is now with us, empowering us to do and be more than we ever thought we could do or be. We find ourselves engaged in His work instead of just our own, and our efforts are no longer all about us; they are all about Him. As Christians, we ought to know the difference between living as a ‘natural man’ and living as a ‘spiritual man’, and we ought to know the important difference between ‘natural talent’ and ‘spiritual giftedness’.
–Rev Jim Wallis