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Two Tools to Fight the Darkness

Two Tools to Fight the Darkness

The world is a dark place. I could prove it by asking you to open your news app of choice and scroll a few headlines, but I don’t even have to do that. We know that the world is a dark place because we’ve lived it. Experienced it. Felt it closing in upon us. 

There is nothing quite like that, is there? The darkness closing in, squeezing us, suffocating us. 

I’ve felt that, and I don’t think I’m alone. It’s one of the reasons I’m so grateful for the beautiful promise of hope we receive in the prologue of the Apostle John’s brilliant gospel.

John 1:5 “The light (Jesus!) shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

I know there are times where it feels as though darkness has won. Times where it looks like the light of Jesus has been snuffed out like a candle that is no longer needed. Times where all indications are that the darkness has actually extinguished the light. I know that’s true, but John 1:5 is a promise of God. It’s his Word. And what God says, he does. 

Later in John’s gospel, Jesus plainly and boldly declares himself to be “the light of the world” (John 8:12), and as such, he is our ultimate hope and resource in the battle against darkness. 

When you are in the deepest, darkest valley, remember that Jesus, your good shepherd and the light of the world, is WITH you, his rod and his staff protecting you, keeping the light from going out. 

Do you need that good news encouragement today? I know I do. 

And there is more good news, too. Even as Jesus — the true light of the world — is our ultimate resource against the darkness, he is not our only resource. No, indeed, God is a good father who desires to give good gifts to his children, including multiple resources to wage war against the darkness.

Here are two of them, and they are a bit unique, so stick with me. God gives us the gift of friendship and music as resources to help push back the darkness. 

I’m going to be honest: I stayed up WAY too late earlier this summer for two nights in a row binge-watching volume one of the fourth season of Stranger Things. Now I know that show isn’t for everyone, but even if you’ve never watched one minute of one episode, everyone needs to know that it is one of the most beautiful depictions of sacrificial friendship in modern media. 

The theme of friendship is fleshed out in every season in many different characters, relationships, narrative arcs, and more. None were as compelling to me as a young girl named Max and her journey to realize how badly she needs her friends. 

The villain in season four zeroed in on young people with different types of dark, painful trauma in their past, convincing them that they were nothing more than these dark moments. Max’s friends  discovered that music (one of the resources, remember!) helps break this villain’s hold on their friends. Max’s narrative arc powerfully coalesces with the beauty of friendship and music, helping her push back (and escape!) the darkness.

 I so want to provide a link to the scene… but it’s just a bit too intense.

So instead, let’s conclude by reflecting just a bit more on the idea of beauty. Why is friendship a resource against the darkness? Why is music? There are lots of reasons, but one is because true friendship and excellent music are both such pure expressions of beauty. And beauty leads us to light, not darkness.

Isn’t that true of Jesus, too? Who is more beautiful than Jesus? Not in physical form (Isaiah 53:2), but in life lived. Track with me: Jesus is the beautiful light of the world who was an incredible friend (John 15:13) who I’m sure also loved excellent music. Probably, anyway. 

So the next time you feel the darkness closing in, whisper a prayer of “help!” to Jesus, the light of the world, schedule a coffee meet up with a good friend, and on the drive over, listen to “Running up that Hill” by Kate Bush.

Spiritual Gifts: Part 2

Spiritual Gifts: Part 2

[This is part two of a series. READ PART ONE >]

“Well, sure, but how do I figure out which ones I have?”

In almost every conversation I’ve ever had about spiritual gifts, some form of this question has been asked. And I completely understand why. The Apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 4:10, assures us that ALL Christians have at least one spiritual gift: “As each has received a gift…”

So then it is only natural for a curiosity to develop regarding WHICH spiritual gift (or gifts!) the Lord has given to us. But in my view, there is a problem with this approach. If not careful, it makes our spiritual gifts mostly about US, which is not why we have them. Just take a look at how Peter finishes the sentence I began quoting above: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

Yes, Peter says, All Christians have received (at least one) gift, but that gift is not about you! It’s about others! It’s about serving! It’s about giving yourself away!

You may begin to see the problem if we become obsessed with what MY gift is. How has God gifted ME? Me, me, me. But no. Your spiritual gift is FAR more about other people in your life than it is about you.

Our definition from part one of this series matches this emphasis:

A spiritual gift is a Holy Spirit empowered ability, freely given to the believer for the purpose of serving others and building up the church for the common good of all.

Now granted, to accomplish the purpose statement in our definition, one does have to know what gifts they possess. So the question of spiritual giftedness is an important one, it’s just not where the conversation should originate.

 

When you’re ready for it, here’s a helpful approach, first recommended to me by pastor and author Tim Keller: Three places to “look” to discover your spiritual gifts.

Look OUT

The first place people typically look to discover their gifts is IN. Which is important, we’ll get to that. But again, starting by looking IN begins the conversation from a self-centered position. Instead, we ought to look OUT and ask, “What are the needs of the community around me? What openings could I fill? How could I serve?” And it’s interesting, because by jumping in where you are needed, you may be surprised to find out that you are gifted in an area you didn’t think you were! And what a gift that would be! (See what I did there?)

The other way you can “look out” to discover your gifts is to ask questions like these: What needs am I drawn to or stir my emotions? What is broken in the world that I am deeply compelled to fix? By considering problems that draw you in rather than push you away, you may be stumbling into an area where God has gifted you.

Look IN

See, I told you this was important! And, of course, it is. God built and created YOU in a special and unique way. No one else is like you. Which means that no one else can contribute to God’s mission in this world (to make all things new again through Jesus) like you can. Hear this: You (and your gifts) ARE needed. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.

So ask, “How has God made me? What am I good at? What comes easily to me? What brings me joy while I am doing it? What do I seem particularly fitted for?”

And yes, you can take an assessment! Just like personality assessments fall short at capturing the whole of who we are (and even the best ones do fall short—I’m looking at you, Enneagram), so will a spiritual gifts assessment fall short in and of itself. But it is a helpful tool on the journey. The best one I’ve found is by Pastor Jeff Carver at spiritualgiftstest.com. You can take the assessment online (you will have to create a free account on the website to do so).

Look AROUND

Here’s the last step. It’s important, and a ton of people forget it. You see, no one in this world is better at tricking me than myself. I convince myself of stuff that isn’t true ALL THE TIME. So after you look IN to discover your spiritual gifts, you HAVE to look AROUND. Which means, you have to ask people in your life to affirm or deny your giftedness.

Ask, with true humility and an open ear: Do you see this gift in my life? Do you agree with what I think I’ve discovered?

Those are terrifying questions, are they not? But we have to ask them, and we have to be open to hearing hard things in response. Because if we aren’t, what’s the point? We’ll miss our true giftedness, and fail to maximize our fruitfulness to God’s mission.

So talk to your spouse. Your small group. Your mentors. Your friends that love Jesus. Your pastors. Ensure them that you want full honesty. And then, listen. Don’t wait to talk. Don’t formulate your rebuttal while they are still sharing. Truly listen. And if what they have to say is hard, ask them to walk with you as you discover your true gifts.

Conclusion

So there it is, three places to “look” to discover your spiritual gifts. They are not a list to check off, mind you, but are a framework to point us in the right direction. May we never forget who gives us the gifts in the first place. God, yes, but more specifically even, the Holy Spirit. With that in mind, we close this series with adapted prayers from the The Valley of Vision, “God the Spirit” and “The Spirit of Jesus”:

Oh Lord God, I pray not so much for spiritual gifts as for the Spirit himself, because I feel his absence, and act by my own spirit in everything. Give me not weak desires but the power of his presence, for this is the surest way to receive all his benefits, and when I have the seal I have the impression also; He can heal, help, quicken, humble suddenly and easily, can work grace and life effectually, and being eternal, can give grace eternally.

Save me from great hindrances, from being content with a little measure of the Spirit, from thinking you will not give me more. When I feel my lack of him, light up life and faith, for when I lose thee I am either in the dark and cannot see you, or Satan and my natural abilities content me with a little light, so that I seek no further for the Spirit of Life.

May his comforts cheer me in my sorrows, his strength sustain me in my trials, his blessings revive me in my weariness, his presence render me a fruitful tree of holiness, his might establish me in peace and joy, his incitements make me ceaseless in prayer, his animation kindle in my undying devotion. Teach me to find and know the fullness of the Spirit only in Jesus.

Spiritual Gifts – PART ONE

Spiritual Gifts – PART ONE

When you hear the word “gift,” what thought jumps to your mind? Perhaps Christmas, with lots of neatly wrapped presents under the tree. Or the birthday of a child, who is plopped in front of a cake and surrounded by a mountain of presents.

Spoiler alert: Christmas and birthday presents aren’t what the Bible has in mind when it comes to the topic of spiritual gifts! No, something quite different is in view. It will help to begin with a definition:

A spiritual gift is a Holy Spirit empowered ability, freely given to the believer for the purpose of serving others and building up the church for the common good of all.

This definition is meaty, so let’s break it down just a bit.

First, spiritual gifts are given by the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12:8-11, the Apostle Paul emphasizes repeatedly that all spiritual gifts originate from the Holy Spirit. Over and over again, he presses the point: There are a variety of gifts, but they come from the SAME source, the Holy Spirit. This ought to be a humble reminder—we should never grow prideful about our spiritual gifts, because they didn’t originate with us. God gets the glory!

Second, spiritual gifts are not talents. The word “ability” in our definition might evoke the image of a particularly talented person putting that skill to use (i.e., LeBron James dunking a basketball), so it is important to remember that while both natural talents and supernatural spiritual gifts come from God, they are not the same.

“A talent is a natural ability or aptitude given by God to a person at birth. A spiritual gift is a supernatural ability given by God at rebirth. A talent can be anything from athletic ability to musical aptitude to artistic genius. … [Don’t forget that] all talents and spiritual gifts come from God. He can use talents and spiritual gifts to fulfill His purposes and bring Himself glory. The main difference between the two is that only Christians receive spiritual gifts because only Christians have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. As a believer in Christ, you are called to use your talents and your spiritual gifts for the glory of God.”   

– Pastor Jeff Carver[1]

Third, the spiritual gifts themselves.

There are five different places in the New Testament where we find lists of the spiritual gifts:

  • 1 Corinthians 12:8-11
  • 1 Corinthians 12:28
  • Romans 12:6-8
  • Ephesians 4:11
  • 1 Peter 4:11

There are a few different ways to divide up the lists, so you’ll see different totals attached to the question of how many spiritual gifts are listed in the Bible, usually 19, 20, or 21 gifts.

None of the lists, by themselves OR put together, are meant to be exhaustive. In other words, in all likelihood, we do not have a complete list of all the spiritual gifts in the Bible. If we stop and think about it, this makes sense. Our God is the author of ALL creativity and innovation. Are we really to restrict Him to 19 or 21 ways of gifting His children?

“We do not want to limit God’s ability to give more gifts, He most certainly has, but we must be cautious when calling an ability a spiritual gift if it is not found in Scripture. [I] operate within the framework that there are likely many other spiritual gifts that have been given, but they should all connect categorically to those that are found in Scripture. For instance, a ‘gift of songwriting’ could connect with the categories of exhortation, or evangelism, or a ‘gift of cooking’ could be a form of the gift of serving and ministering.” 

– Pastor Jeff Carver[2]

While we do not have an exhaustive list, it’s not wrong to study the explicit gifts that are named.

A great resource to begin with is this list from Jeff Carver’s book on the spiritual gifts, Gifted by Grace.

Fourth and finally, your spiritual gifts are not about you! It might be tempting to make your spiritual gift all about you. After all, it’s your gift, isn’t it? That’s why the purpose statement in our definition above is so clear. What are your spiritual gifts for? They are for serving others and building up the church for the common good of all.

In another passage on spiritual gifts, Ephesians 4:11-12, Paul makes this purpose clear: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.” Edification of others is the end goal—your gifts are not about you!

Furthermore, they’re not just about the church, either. What a shame it would be if the church turned inward with her gifts, forgetting about God’s heart for all people! In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul includes this reminder: “To each [i.e., Christians] is given the manifestation of the Spirit [i.e., spiritual gifts] for the common good.”

This means that it’s just as important to consider ways to utilize your spiritual gifts OUTSIDE the walls of the church as it is inside. How might you be able to employ your spiritual gifts at home? At work? With your neighbors?

Are you gifted in teaching? Teach your children! Are you gifted in hospitality? Open up your home for a party, a study, one of our global partners who is visiting KC, or ________.  Are you gifted in administration? Apply for a job where you could use that gift!

Whatever you do, don’t forget that your spiritual gifts are not about you, but are for the purpose of, as our definition says, “serving others and building up the church for the common good of all.”

Check out PART TWO of this blog post, coming later this year, which will dive into the process of discovering your spiritual gifts!


[1] https://spiritualgiftstest.com/faqs/ under “What is the difference between a talent and a spiritual gift?”

[2] https://spiritualgiftstest.com/faqs/ under “How many spiritual gifts are there?”

3 Ways to Value School as Work

I first began seriously considering vocational ministry when I was a junior in high school. I began to sense a calling to student ministries, in part because of the positive influence of both my middle and high school pastors. “I want to do for others what Brandon and Dan did for me,” I thought.

By the beginning of my senior year, I was convinced of the path that lay ahead: college at a Christian institution to study the Bible, seminary training, and then the pastorate. Only one pesky detail remained before my “perfect plan:” one more year of high school.

The sad truth, as I reflect upon it now, is that my “Sunday to Monday gap” significantly widened upon my decision to pursue pastoral ministry. By “Sunday to Monday gap,” I mean my faith convictions professed on Sunday did not inform or influence my decisions or actions on Monday, or the rest of the week.

In other words, I was perpetuating what is far too common in the church: the disconnect between my faith and my work, which at the time consisted of history and English classes. As a consequence, I was less motivated during my senior year than before. I developed a dangerous attitude toward my education, thinking, “What will I need calculus for when I’m serving God as a youth pastor?” I thought I was honoring God by answering a call to serve him as a pastor, but in the interim, I was dishonoring God by ignoring my call to serve him in my current vocation as a student.

The reality for students, from kindergarten to grad school and beyond, is that their primary work is school. All activity, paid or unpaid, apart from leisure or rest is meaningful and sacred work. But often, as evidenced by my personal testimony, Christian students don’t view school this way. Instead, school is at best viewed as a utilitarian means to an end, or at worst a mandated sentence to be endured.

Thus, as my understanding of a proper theology of work grew, I purposed to make it part of my work with students to help them see value and purpose in their work as students. I don’t have it all figured out, but here are three simple practices I integrate into my ministry with students that I encourage parents and anyone who interacts with youth to embrace:

  1. Celebrate school instead of disparaging it
    Students are often workquick to complain about school: a difficult subject, a tough teacher, the early mornings, and on and on. In a well intended effort to enter their world, youth leaders and parents often subtly encourage this negative attitude toward school.

    Questions such as “What’s your least favorite subject?” or “Have you been caught this year texting in class?” can produce short-term wins—“they get it, school is the worst”—but ultimately result in the long-term loss of the disconnect between the faith of that student and their work in the classroom.

    Instead, we should acknowledge the real and frustrating challenges of school while seeking to convince students of its worthiness through celebrating the parts that are good.

    To do this, you actually have to know the good parts: Is there a teacher they like and find compelling? A subject they are mastering? An extracurricular activity that is giving them life? Our job as a mentor, parent, and leader is to enter into their lives, ask good questions, and then celebrate those things with our students.

  2. Teach about the idea of school as work
    How well does your instruction or teaching to the students in your life prepare them for what they spend the majority of their time doing? Important issues such as dating and sex, friendship, technology, etc. are worthy and helpful. But students spend more than 40 hours a week engaged in their work of school. Isn’t that worthy, too?

    Point them to Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters,” with this driving question: “What if God were your teacher?” Sprinkle in stories from your time as a student, and challenge the students in your life to start seeing their schooling as one of the primary places they follow and obey Jesus.

  3. Begin a conversation about future work
    While I believe it best that everyone remain a lifelong learner, no one does (or should) remain a lifelong student. So while it is important to convince students of the significance of their current work, it is equally important to begin a conversation about what their future work will be. Engaging in the discussion of future work will help create an environment where all work is discussed, and hopefully, celebrated.

    As you begin this conversation, remember not all high school students should go to college. While many students will attend college, others will need to know the value of gaining trade skills that help society in invaluable ways. And, there are other worthy paths beyond college and trade school, too, such as the armed forces, or entering the workforce immediately after high school. It won’t be one-size fits all, and that’s a good thing.

    Be a mentor for upperclassmen as they discern next steps. Ask them diagnostic questions: What are you curious about? What comes naturally to you that others seem to struggle with? What threads of interest have been most consistent to this point in your life? Then, speak the truth of what you see in your student and offer to pray with them.

    More broadly, with students of all ages, ask them what they want to do when they finish school. You might be tempted to think this is too “young” of a question for middle or high school students, but you’d be surprised how much they are thinking about this. When I asked this question in the middle of a message in our youth group, it gave me the opportunity to affirm the vocation and work of stay-at-home mothers as one young woman shared that she wants to be a mom when she grows up.

As parents, student ministries leaders, and anyone who interacts with youth, one of our jobs is to care about how our students view their education as work. We can help contextualize the wealth of resources available about faith and work in a way that helps our students as they walk through seasons of school, transition, and discovery. Let’s work at implementing these three practices and continue to explore how to best help students connect their Sunday faith to their Monday (home)work.