Talents & Spiritual Gifts: Finding the Balance

As I mentioned in an earlier post (Talents and Spiritual Gifts: What Do We Mean By “Talents”?), I have borrowed the distinction between natural talents and spiritual gifts from work being done some of my Roman Catholic colleagues in lay spiritual formation and discipleship. To be sure, it is a useful distinction but as I mentioned before (Talents & Spiritual Gifts: What Are the Charismata?) we want to be careful that we don’t think about our spiritual gifts as “supercharged” talents.  Not should we imagine that our natural talents are somehow “deficient” relative to our spiritual gifts.  Each has its own integrity; the challenge is to respect both and to find the balance between them.  Otherwise, we risk creating spiritually and/or psychologically unhealthy people and communities.

This might take the form of ordaining to the priesthood a man who while very talented in music or theology or public speaking has no real gift for prayer or preaching or hearing confessions.  When this happens the man’s ministry remains superficial and is one that fosters in others a merely mechanical or moralistic approach to life in Christ.

Alternatively, imagine a man who is a gifted confessor or preacher but who lacks appropriate social or administrative skills.  His sermons are inspiring and not only challenge but instruct people on how to live a deeper life in Christ.  In confession he is humble, insightful and forgiving.  But if he has to interact with people outside of confession or explain his views to colleagues, or provide practical leadership for the parish council, he simply fails.

Neither man is well-balanced.  And both men will foster an eccentricity in the parish and their spiritual children that undermines humility in the short run and in the long run, charity.

(This is not simply a challenge facing clergy.  Parish communities can also become quite eccentric. But this is for another time.)

So what to do?  How do we find a balance between the grace given in creation (our talents) and the grace given in the sacraments (our spiritual gifts)?

I don’t think that either secularism or sectarianism offer an answer.  Will we find the answer in neither accomadation nor in simply criticizing the world.  We cannot abandon Holy Tradition but neither can assume that the modern world has nothing of positive value to offer us.

Beyond that, I am not sure.  But I think Chesterton points for us if not the way than at least the feeling.  He writes that “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”  For him orthodoxy is

…sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly.

And all the while, the

…Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.

But we must he says the easy temptation of falling

…into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom — that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame.

What we must do to avoid falling is to understand that the Christian life, the life of the Church, is a “whirling adventure.”  It is a “vision [of] the heavenly chariot fl[ying] thundering through the ages.”  Heresies leave us “sprawling and prostrate,” but “the wild truth” of the Gospel leaves us “reeling” but upright.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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  • http://www.AnitaAshland.com/ anitaashland

    An interesting blog series but it leaves me with several questions, as I was not raised in a tradition that discussed spiritual gifts much and in my 12 years of involvement with the Orthodox church I don't think I've come across any discussion or materials about it.

    How do you discover what your spiritual gifts are? Many of the descriptions of gifts are vague and are virtues most Christians practice from time to time (wisdom, showing mercy, etc.) so concrete examples of spiritual gifts in action would be helpful.

    Which spiritual gifts does a priest need?

    How are the charismatic gifts like speaking in tongues, prophecy, etc. received in the Orthodox church today?

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  • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

    Anita,

    Thanks for the comment and the questions. If I may, let me answer the question about gifts and the priesthood in a separate post and respond here more generally to spiritual gifts.

    Your experience in the Church is pretty typical; we generally don't talk about spiritual gifts. We should though. All of us who have “put on Christ” in baptism are given spiritual gifts to help build the Church. This isn't simply a matter of gifts to add people to the Church–though it could be–but to help deepen people's relationship with the Holy Trinity and each other.

    As for how I discover my spiritual gifts–first I have to know that there are such a things as spiritual gifts and that God has given them to me in baptism. Many, actual MOST, Orthodox Christians I've talked to over the last several years don't know this.

    Second, I have to know myself and my situation. This is not done simply empirically, but theologically. I must know myself and my life from Christ's perspective. This means that I need to pray, participate in the sacraments (especially Holy Communion and Confession) and liturgical life of the Church, read Scripture and serve others (the corporal works of mercy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, etc., are key here). Not to minimize the rest, but I think confession is key since this is where I can take a serious look at my life and, by God's grace and with the priest's help, come to see myself as God sees me.

    After that, I think I need just to try things out. Yes a life if virtue is important–but I should try different ministries in the Church. Do I have a spiritual gift for music? I don't know–but singing in the choir or at the chanters' stand is a way to find out if music brings me (and others) closer to God. Or, I can just sing at home–not everyone who has the gift of music necessarily has to do so liturgically.

    Basically what I'm looking for our things I do that seem to draw people closer to Christ. As I go through my materials for the upcoming conference, I'll see if I have a list of gifts. Such lists, or any of the spiritual gifts inventories that are floating around online, aren't definitive or exhaustive but they are a good place to start.

    As for the so-called charismatic gifts…first of all, all the gifts are charismatic or they aren't spiritual gifts. The gifts come from the Holy Spirit. The one's you lost–tongues, prophecy, etc., are sometimes called extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.

    Speaking in tongues (i.e., a real language unknown to the speaker but known to the listener) seems to no longer be given (though I spoke with one Elder who spoke only Greek. I need a translator, he didn't. Draw your own conclusion.) As for prophecy–that's still very much part of the life of the Church. We find it not only in sermons but above all in the sacraments. The sacraments are above all else the prophetic witness of the Church.

    I would argue that just as the Church as a whole is called to bear a prophetic witness in the world, the clergy are called to bear a prophetic (sacramental) witness within the Church. Sadly, we neglect this gift to the detriment of all.

    Does this help any? If not, or if you have other questions, let me know please.

    In Christ,

    +FrG

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  • http://palamas.info/ Fr Gregory Jensen

    Anita,

    Thanks for the comment and the questions. If I may, let me answer the question about gifts and the priesthood in a separate post and respond here more generally to spiritual gifts.

    Your experience in the Church is pretty typical; we generally don't talk about spiritual gifts. We should though. All of us who have “put on Christ” in baptism are given spiritual gifts to help build the Church. This isn't simply a matter of gifts to add people to the Church–though it could be–but to help deepen people's relationship with the Holy Trinity and each other.

    As for how I discover my spiritual gifts–first I have to know that there are such a things as spiritual gifts and that God has given them to me in baptism. Many, actual MOST, Orthodox Christians I've talked to over the last several years don't know this.

    Second, I have to know myself and my situation. This is not done simply empirically, but theologically. I must know myself and my life from Christ's perspective. This means that I need to pray, participate in the sacraments (especially Holy Communion and Confession) and liturgical life of the Church, read Scripture and serve others (the corporal works of mercy, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, etc., are key here). Not to minimize the rest, but I think confession is key since this is where I can take a serious look at my life and, by God's grace and with the priest's help, come to see myself as God sees me.

    After that, I think I need just to try things out. Yes a life if virtue is important–but I should try different ministries in the Church. Do I have a spiritual gift for music? I don't know–but singing in the choir or at the chanters' stand is a way to find out if music brings me (and others) closer to God. Or, I can just sing at home–not everyone who has the gift of music necessarily has to do so liturgically.

    Basically what I'm looking for our things I do that seem to draw people closer to Christ. As I go through my materials for the upcoming conference, I'll see if I have a list of gifts. Such lists, or any of the spiritual gifts inventories that are floating around online, aren't definitive or exhaustive but they are a good place to start.

    As for the so-called charismatic gifts…first of all, all the gifts are charismatic or they aren't spiritual gifts. The gifts come from the Holy Spirit. The one's you lost–tongues, prophecy, etc., are sometimes called extraordinary gifts of the Spirit.

    Speaking in tongues (i.e., a real language unknown to the speaker but known to the listener) seems to no longer be given (though I spoke with one Elder who spoke only Greek. I need a translator, he didn't. Draw your own conclusion.) As for prophecy–that's still very much part of the life of the Church. We find it not only in sermons but above all in the sacraments. The sacraments are above all else the prophetic witness of the Church.

    I would argue that just as the Church as a whole is called to bear a prophetic witness in the world, the clergy are called to bear a prophetic (sacramental) witness within the Church. Sadly, we neglect this gift to the detriment of all.

    Does this help any? If not, or if you have other questions, let me know please.

    In Christ,

    +FrG

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