In some Christian traditions they are emphasized to the point of exhaustion; in others they are so diminished as to barely exist at all. Whatever we believe about the spiritual gifts, we at least need to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit gives a great range of gifts to his people and that they are given to glorify God as we use them to serve one another (read 1 Corinthians 12).
Yet since we are sinful people, we can take even the good gifts of the Holy Spirit and use them as a means of discouragement. This can happen in at least two ways: when we envy the gifts given to others or when we assume that others should share our giftings. In his book Accidental Pharisees, Larry Osborne refers to the first of these as gift envy and the second as gift projection.
Whatever gifts I have been given, evangelism is definitely not among them. But I know people who have this gift. They are the ones whose hearts leap with excitement when they think about standing on a street corner and preaching to a crowd of strangers. They are the ones who have the ability to make every conversation a gospel opportunity and to do so without making it weird. They come to prayer meetings with a long list of people to pray for that they have met and evangelized in just the past week. They love to strike up conversations on planes or busses or wherever else they find a captive audience. They have met every person in the neighborhood and told them all about Jesus. They make it seem so easy.
I am not so gifted. My ideal flight is the one where the seat next to me remains empty so I can settle in with a good book. I am pretty sure I would pass out if I tried to do street preaching. When I attempt to steer a conversation toward the gospel, it always feels so unnatural. It’s not that I don’t want to do the work of an evangelist and not that I haven’t done it plenty of times in the past. It just comes with great difficulty and with little skill.
When I look at those friends who are greatly gifted in this way, I am tempted toward guilt and from guilt it is only a short step to envy. I hear them describe all the opportunities they had, they created, they took, and I feel my heart sink a little. I can begin to envy this gift, to wish I had it. Why shouldn’t I be gifted in this way? I want to reach the lost, I want to be a skilled evangelist, I want to share the gospel with friends, family and neighbors.
If I do not guard my heart, those God-given gifts become opportunities for me to harbor sinful thoughts against others and ultimately against God, for “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11).
Gift projection is the opposite side of the coin from gift envy. Your gift ensures certain things come easily to you that come to other people with much more difficulty. If you have a gift for evangelism, sharing the gospel may be easy and natural; if you have a gift for hospitality, you love to invite other people into your home and find it the easiest and most normal thing in the world; if you have a gift for discernment, it seems almost instinctual to identify error and point to the truth beyond it. What we can do is project our gifts onto others, forgetting that what comes so easily to us comes easily because the Spirit has specially gifted us. We can assume others should share our gifts and that they should share the passion and skill that comes with them.
The evangelist may assume others will sense opportunities the way he does and that they should share his ability to steer conversations from the weather to the gospel. He may subtly project all of this upon others and quietly condemn them, forgetting that this God-given ability is, by its very nature, rare rather than common. The person with the gift for hospitality may neglect to consider that for some people opening their home is gruelling rather than gratifying. The person with the gift for discernment may marvel that others do not see the world in the black and white terms he does. We can so easily look at what comes to us by our gifting and forget that others have been gifted in different ways.
Perhaps part of our difficulty is that spiritual gifts are abilities and desires we should all have, but heightened. We should all be evangelists, we should all be hospitable, we should all display discernment. The gift does not make us these things; it simply gives us a greater ability to serve God in those ways.
Whatever the case, the tragedy in all of this is that the gifts are meant to promote unity between believers, not to arouse envy or dissension. This unity comes when we contentedly use our gifts to serve God by contentedly using our gifts to serve his people.