Eugene Peterson, the insightful pastor and spiritual guide, wrote: “A favorite theme of C. S. Lewis was that ‘heaven will show much more variety than hell.’ All our mistakes turn out to have a sameness about them. There is nothing quite as unoriginal as sin. But … the Spirit is inventive and the forms of grace are not repeated” (Peterson, “Working the Angles,” 113).
Indeed, Lewis writes that God’s “unfathomed bounty” propels us toward a reunion with him “in the perfect freedom of a love offered from the height of the utter individualities which he has liberated [us] to be” (Lewis, “The Screwtape Letters,” xii).
This is a far cry from the world’s perception and indictment of Christianity. The idea that following Jesus includes progressively becoming more uniquely who God created you to be sounds absurd to many. What about becoming conformed to Christ? What about denying yourself? What about saying “no” to your many desires that are unpleasing to God? Doesn’t that all sound like a whip cracking, telling you to fall in line and forsake individuality?
Sages like Peterson and Lewis say that if we think that way, we’ve missed a truth God has revealed in Scripture. And guess what? Spiritual gift teaching in the Bible actually points to this truth about becoming who we uniquely are in Christ. Rather than the popular idea that gifts are just about what you do, and rather than the modern emphasis on categories and testing, spiritual gifting introduces us into the journey of growth into our “utter individualities.”
I develop this theme in Spiritual Gifts Reimagined: The Journey View (SGR). My understanding of Scripture is that we’re not supposed to focus on gifts per se. We’re supposed to focus on people—who are gifted in diverse ways. That may seem like a subtle shift, but it results in fascination with unique individuals, who need to be known at a deeper level than “which category are you in?” or “which new ability (spiritual gift) was added to you?”
The idea that a biblical understanding of spiritual gifts should focus on unique individuals is a premise that needs to be supported from Scripture. I present my arguments for that in SGR. But in this blog, I want to instead mention four dimensions of this insight.
First, this emphasis on uniqueness is frowned on by some Christians because it sounds like the world’s idea that the way to fulfillment is by “finding yourself.” Christian teachers sometimes stress that discipleship is not about being authentic to yourself, but about becoming conformed to Christ. This either/or thinking misses that sin is so often a counterfeit of something that is good—God’s idea pursued outside of the wisdom of God.
Yes, seeking your authentic uniqueness outside of Christ will lead to a sinful distortion of who God made you to be. We must be seeking the Lord first and foremost, which involves many facets of repentance and submission to God. This results in a growing Christlikeness. Yet the way you display that Christlikeness, and the way I display it, will have a glorious diversity through our uniquenesses.
Second, Jesus’ call to discipleship includes this nod to individuality, and implies the wisdom of discerning one’s true and false selves. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Whose cross am I to carry? It is not incidental or simply semantic that he calls each of us to our own crosses. His cross was his unique mission, and our crosses are our unique missions.
His unique mission arose out of his unique identity, and so do ours. Yet seeing and embracing that unique identity and mission requires engaging in the battles of your true self with your false self. This is why he exhorts us to deny ourselves. Jesus denied the false self the world pressured him to be. Your unique gifted contributions to this world arise out of growing into the true self God created you to be.
Third, this growth into your unique gifted self is a journey. Lewis implies that when he says that we finally stand on the “height of the utter individualities” God liberates us to be. I explain in SGR how Scripture points to spiritual gifting being a journey. The journey involves battles, and the spoils of victories are Christ’s gifts to us.
Fourth, as I mentioned above, the fact that we’re each a unique gifted expression of God urges upon us the importance of knowing one another at deeper than superficial levels. The love of fellow journeyers strengthens us as we fight the battles in our growth journeys. In SGR I clarify how loving community is emphasized in the Bible’s spiritual gift passages and lay out what it looks like in actual practice among those on the gifting journey.
I discuss many more nuances to these dimensions in SGR. Spiritual gifts are about more than what you’ve imagined. It’s time to reimagine.