What is the one possession you value most? Is it your house, your car, a pet? Is it a photo album or scrapbook that carries your memories? Whatever this most favored possession is, how does it compare with the way you value your life? I imagine you would give away every possession you have before you would give away your life? Yet, that is exactly what God calls upon us to do. He wants us to give our lives away. It is precisely in giving our lives away that we discover what real living is all about. Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:24)
Last Sunday we considered how we can give ourselves away by giving of our time. Today I invite you to consider how you can give yourself away by giving of your talents, those unique abilities with which you have been endowed by God. Paul addresses this topic in Romans 12:3-8. Listen for God’s word to you from this passage….
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Paul tells us several things about our talents, or gifts, in this passage. The first thing that Paul suggests is that we need to know ourselves and our gifts.
Paul indicates it is God’s grace that enables us to see ourselves in the correct light. The Jerusalem Bible translates verse 3 as follows: “In light of the grace I have received I want to urge each one among you not to exaggerate his real importance.” God’s grace, God’s undeserved favor toward us in Christ, is what enables us to view ourselves realistically. God’s grace empowers us to look at ourselves without pretense.
Paul says, don’t think of yourself too highly. Billy Graham once observed, “The smallest package I ever saw was a man wrapped up wholly in himself.”
Thankfully, God places people in our lives who bring us back down to earth. The head of a large company was waiting in line to get his driver’s license renewed and his wife was standing with him. He was frustrated at how long it was taking and so he grumbled to his wife, “Don’t they know who I am?” To which his wife replied, “Yes, you’re the plumber’s son who got lucky.”
On the other hand, we also need to be careful of evaluating ourselves too lowly. Pericles once said, “Your great glory is not to be inferior to what God has made you.”
God’s grace allows us to see ourselves realistically. God’s grace sets us free to realize that we have nothing to prove and nothing to lose. Paul suggests that the more faith we have, the more we will be able to accept who we are, in light of God’s grace.
Now, part of knowing ourselves is discovering our God-given gifts and talents. Some people ask what the difference is between a gift and a talent. Not much really. Both gifts and talents come from God. Everyone has a talent of one sort or another, and every talent is given by God the creator to his creatures. However, God is also our redeemer in Christ. When we come to Christ in faith, we receive spiritual gifts through the Holy Spirit, by virtue of our union with Christ. But conversion seems to respect the raw materials we start with. Conversion might turn a Saul into a Paul, but it is not likely to turn Lady Gaga into Thomas Aquinas.
Thus, part of knowing ourselves is discovering our God given gifts and/or talents. This involves finding out what we are good at, what our strengths are. Peter Drucker once said, “Few of us really know our strengths. The great teachers, the great leaders, recognize strengths and focus on them.”
I had a wonderful speech teacher in seminary. Rather than focusing on our weaknesses she focused on our strengths. Instead of saying, “That was really bad. Stop doing that,” she would say, “Why don’t you try adding this to your sermon?”
Fred Craddock once said, “If you discover your strength and work from there, some weaknesses become loveable idiosyncrasies.”
But how do we discover what our gifts and talents are? One way to find out is by taking a spiritual gifts survey, which is something we offer to everyone who becomes a member of our church.
Another way to discover your gifts is to ask yourself: who are my heroes? Often, without realizing it, we admire people who have similar gifts and talents to our own. We are drawn to such people and want to be like them because God has endowed us with similar gifts, though perhaps in a different measure.
Ask other people to tell you what they see as your strengths. Often others see our strengths more clearly than we see them ourselves.
Another way to discover your gifts is by simply trying your hand at different things. When I was in high school, my parents encouraged me to try out different activities or areas of service at school and at church. Consequently, I tried out for the school play and got the lead part. Drama became a lifelong love of mine. Some things I have learned through the dramatic arts have stood me in good stead for life. Another thing I tried doing was teaching a fifth-grade Sunday school class at my church. That first step led me to a lifelong involvement in ministry.
Kent Hughes has said, “There are too many needful things to be done to wait around for someone to feel gifted.” That’s true. There are so many needs in the church and in the community. Why not find a need and fill it? In so doing, you will discover your God-given gifts and talents. But also remember what Doris Freese has said, “Gifts are not necessarily mature at the time of discovery… they are developed through practice.
A second point Paul makes in Romans 12 is that we each have unique functions and gifts. Paul uses the image of a body. He says that the church is like a body and Christ is the head. Just as each member of our physical bodies have unique functions, so also each member of the church has a unique function and gift. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”
Max DePree has written, “A whale is as unique as a cactus. But don’t ask a whale to survive Death Valley. We all have special gifts. Where we use them and how determines whether we actually complete something.”
I believe God wants us to discover the unique gifts that he has given us so we can be set free from trying to be good at everything. Max Lucado has said, “Someone can be a good third baseman, but not a good pitcher. If I’m called to play third base, I’m going to be the best third baseman I can be. It was a liberating moment when I realized I didn’t have to be great at everything.” That is an interesting statement coming from a popular author and pastor of one of the largest churches in the country. Max Lucado has found two things he is good at. He has focused on those things and others have thereby benefited. We need to do the same in our own little corners of the world.
The third point Paul makes is that we and our spiritual gifts belong to all the other members of the body. “So in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” This means that God wants us to work together as a team. God has given us gifts for the benefit of the whole church.
CBS radio newsman Charles Osgood once told the story of two ladies who lived in a convalescent center. Each had suffered an incapacitating stroke. Margaret’s stroke left her left side restricted, while Ruth’s stroke damaged her right side. Both of these ladies were accomplished pianists but had given up hope of ever playing again.
The director of the center sat them down at a piano and encouraged them to play together, Margaret playing the right hand and Ruth playing the left. They did, and a beautiful relationship developed.
What a picture of the church’s need to work together! What one member cannot do alone, two or more can do together—working in harmony.
Because each member of the body of Christ belongs to all the others it also means that each member is important. In March of 1981, President Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., and was hospitalized for several weeks. Although Reagan was the nation’s chief executive, his hospitalization had little impact on the nation’s activity. Government continued.
On the other hand, suppose the garbage collectors in this country went on strike, as they did in Philadelphia at one time. Decaying trash piled up and soon became a health hazard. A three-week nationwide garbage collection strike would paralyze the country. Who is more important—the President or a garbage collector?
In the body of Christ, seemingly insignificant people are urgently needed. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 12:21-22, “The head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the boy that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” You and your gifts belong to Christ and to his body. You are needed!
The fourth point Paul makes is that our gifts come from God. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.”
The spiritual gifts and talents that we have are gifts of God’s grace. Grace is prior to gifting. In fact, the Greek word for gifts, charismata, comes from the root word charis, which means grace.
Ben Patterson has written, “Whatever we have, we have because God in his grace and generosity has given it to us. When we realize this, there comes into our lives a joyful gratitude for what we do have, and we are freed from resentment and anxiety over what we don’t have.” We need to realize that our gifts and talents come from God and therefore we need to thank him.
A couple of weeks ago, we went on vacation to Cape Cod. While we were there, my mother was celebrating her 89th birthday in California. So I decided to buy her a birthday gift from The 1856 Country Store in Centerville, a shop with which she was familiar. I purchased a candle in a beautiful china container decorated like a bird cage with a bird painted on it. As a collector of decorator birds, I knew she would like it. When we returned to Stowe, I sent the gift to her. But then I didn’t hear anything from her for over a week. Finally, I called and asked if she had received my gift. She said, “No”. But then she asked my brother about it and he reminded her that she had left a box sitting on her walker out in the garage. He quickly went and got the box, my mother opened it, and she was delighted with the gift.
Now, I understand how my mother, at 89 years of age, is getting forgetful about some things. But I am not sure we always have such a valid excuse when we forget to thank God for the gifts he has given us. Just like any giver of a gift, God wants to know that we not only have received his gifts, but that we are enjoying them, thankful for them, and putting them to good use.
We need to recognize that our spiritual gifts and talents come from God. We need to thank him for them. And we need to offer those gifts back up to him in service to his church and the world.
The final point Paul makes in this passage is: whatever gift you have, use it for the common good. We need to not only discover the gifts that God has given us, but we also need to use them in the way he wants us to.
The Stradivari Society of Chicago performs and important role in the music world. The society entrusts expensive violins into the hands of world-class violin players who could never afford them on their own.
Top-flight violins made by seventeenth and eighteenth century masters like Antonio Stradivari produce an incomparably beautiful sound and sell for millions of dollars each. Their value continues to climb, making such violins highly attractive to investors. But “great violins are not like great works of art,” writes music critic John van Rhein. “They were never meant to be hung on a wall or locked up under glass. Any instrument will lose its tone if it isn’t played regularly; conversely, an instrument gains in value the more it is used.”
Thus, it is that those who own the world’s greatest violins are looking for first-rate violinists to play them. The Stradivari Society brings them together, making sure that the instruments are preserved and cared for. One further requirement made by investors in such violins: the musician will give the patron at least two command performances per year.
Like the Stradivari Society, God also entrusts exquisite “violins” into the care of others. He gives us spiritual gifts and talents of great value, that remain his property. He wants them used. He delights to hear beautiful music from our lives. And he wants us to play for him.