Learning another language is hard. There are special kinds of verb tenses, past and future forms, plurals, and dozens of exceptions to every rule, not to mention the languages that require you to memorize the gender of every single noun. Not only is learning a new language hard – it can also be embarrassing. I discovered this firsthand on a study tour to France, when we were watching a group of musicians performing in the town square in Avignon. My friend Billy started goofily dancing to the music and shaking his hips back and forth, so I yelled “je te veux!” – “I see you!”

At least, that’s what I thought I had said, until my French teacher and several of my fluent friends started laughing. As it turns out, “je te veux” actually means “I want you” – a fact that fortunately neither Billy nor his girlfriend spoke enough French to understand!

When I was a kid reading about spiritual gifts, I remember being jealous of the apostles in Acts 2 who receive the ability to speak different languages so they can witness to the diverse crowd. I even tried praying a couple of times for me to give me the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues so that I wouldn’t have to study for French tests. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t work.

In 1 Corinthians 12 we find the Bible’s main list of what we call spiritual gifts: special talents or abilities granted to believers by the Holy Spirit. Different people receive different gifts, Paul explains, but they are all gifts of the same God, and they are all meant to be used for the good of everyone. “To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom,” Paul says, “to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues” (12:8-10 NIV). We can divide these gifts into two distinct categories: those which contemporary churches consistently associate with the direct and imminent presence of the Holy Spirit, and those which are often taken for granted by contemporary churches.

In the more glamorous category of spiritual gifts are speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, and prophecy. Speaking and interpreting in tongues are perhaps the most well-known spiritual gifts today thanks to the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, so named for their emphasis on repeating the visitation of the Holy Spirit as Pentecost in the book of Acts. The Pentecostal church emphasizes individual spiritual experience of the presence of God; they believe that anyone can speak authoritatively on behalf of God if they are filled with the Holy Spirit. Speaking in tongues in this context is often manifested during worship services for these types of Christians. Often a second person or the gifted speaker themselves will give a translation of what was said to the congregation.

Some theologians have debated on whether or not the gift of tongues demonstrated in Acts 2 is the same gift spoken about in 1 Corinthians 14. In Acts, the gift is used to convert thousands of people by preaching, but in 1 Corinthians it is emphasized that people might not understand what is being said. Whether it is some kind of heavenly language or simply foreign human languages, the gift of speaking in tongues is both mysterious and dramatic, so it’s not a surprise that members of the early church saw it as a very desirable gift.

But if Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is any indication, they were facing an epidemic of individuals speaking in tongues, and it was getting in the way of congregational study and worship. In chapter 14 he gives careful instructions for speaking in tongues: no more than two or three total in one service, with each one speaking individually and being translated. Speaking in tongues does nothing to benefit the congregation or unbelievers if there is no translation, he says, and thus other spiritual gifts are preferable for that purpose; most notably, prophecy.

Interestingly enough, while there are several denominations that emphasize at least one individual’s gift of prophecy, including Seventh-day Adventism, these denominations put much less emphasis on speaking in tongues. In some ways, the competition between prophesying and speaking in tongues that Paul hints at still continues today.

While prophesying and tongues receive a lot of attention, however, Paul draws the reader towards quieter gifts, such as giving, service, administration, and knowledge – and reminds his congregation that everyone’s gifts are a valuable part of the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). We tend to think of these as natural qualities, and not to see these as Holy Spirit-inspired at all; can the Sabbath school superintendent or the janitor really claim the same aid of the Holy Spirit as a prophet or church member crying out in tongues? How can we tell if someone is truly receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit?

One answer is that the gifts of the Spirit need to co-exist alongside the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT). God does not simply give people gifts for the sake of giving special abilities, but rather gives gifts as part of a larger project. God wants to shape people to be more like him, and to bring about his goodness in the world through the actions, character, and gifts that people have. What gifts has God given to you? How will those gifts shape who you are and what difference you make in this world?

Related texts or passages to consider: Romans 12; Ephesians 4; Acts 2:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:20-21

Talk Back:

  • Why do certain denominations seem to favor certain spiritual gifts over others? Why do you think that certain gifts (teaching, preaching) are not particularly controversial, and others (prophecy, speaking in tongues) are?

  • Read through Acts chapter 2. Does it seem to you that the Disciples were speaking languages from other cultures, or a mysterious heavenly language that no one could understand?

  • In 1 Thessalonians 5:19-22 (NLT), Paul says "Do not stifle the Holy Spirit. Do not scoff at prophecies, but test everything that is said. Hold on to what is good. Stay away from every kind of evil." What does this mean? How do we differentiate true spiritual gifts from false performances?

  • There are several lists of spiritual gifts in the Bible. They can be found in Romans 12:6-8; 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, 28; Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 4:10-11. Read through these passages with a friend or a group and compare the different categories of gifts. Which ones appear more than once? Do you think that these lists include every possible spiritual gift, or do you think that there would be others besides the ones listed in the Bible? Why or why not?

  • Do you have any spiritual gifts? When did you first experience them? Read through the list in the previous question again if you're not sure. Also, ask people who know you well if they've seen any evidences of spiritual gifts in your life.

  • Can you tell the difference between a natural talent, a cultivated skill, and a miraculous gift from God? Or is it not necessary to differentiate between these things? What do you think?


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