Grace, Gifts, and Shortcomings (March 22, 2019)
Dear VICC family,
I have been thinking lately about grace, gifts, and responsibility. This morning, in my Bible reading time, I was wrestling with some passages and how best to understand them. There was an interpretation that appealed to me, but about which I was skeptical, and I wondered how self-willed I would be to accept it simply because it appealed to me more than the alternatives. I won't go into the details here, but in the process of wrestling with the biblical passages, I prayed a prayer to God something along the lines of, "God, be merciful to me while I deal with this. If I am going the wrong direction here, be kind to me and bring me back." I don't think the interpretations I was thinking about put me in danger of major sin or anything, but God's Word is holy and even under grace I know I don't have the freedom to decide for myself what God thinks or what his Word "really" means.
For some reason, this experience got me to thinking about grace, gifts, and the ways in which we (at times) culpably fall short of God's standards for us. It got me thinking about the gifts of faith, healing, prophecy, discernment, wisdom, and teaching. On the one hand, Scripture is clear that these are gifts of God's Spirit to his church. That brief list itself is lifted from 1 Corinthians 12. But on the other hand, particularly when we read the Gospels, we see Jesus holding people responsible for not having some of these very abilities. "Where is your faith?" is a common question Jesus asks his disciples. In one situation he expresses incredible frustration at the crowd (and his disciples) for not knowing how to deal with, and heal, the demon-possession of a young boy (Matthew 17:14-20). If his disciples simply "had faith" then miracles like the moving of a mountain would apparently come easy to them (verse 20). Similarly, in the anonymously-penned letter to the Hebrews, the author criticizes his readers for needing to be taught "the elementary principles of God's word" when they had been believers so long they "ought to be teachers" (Hebrews 5:12).
This got me to thinking about how we all fall short of what God wants from us, if not always "willingly," at least culpably. Maybe we don't want to have such little faith, to be so spiritually dimwitted, or to have so little firsthand knowledge of our own faith, but we do. If life before God were simply law, "do this and don't do that, be this and don't be that," then we would be left to ourselves to remain spiritual nincompoops from here to eternity. But life before God is a life of grace, not law (even for those who lived under the law). And life before God is a life in community, not a life standing before God as lonely, naked selves. God demands from his people faith, but also grants the "gift of faith" to some in the community. Maybe I don't believe for the miraculous when I pray, but somebody I go to church with does. I need to go ask that person to pray with me. Maybe I am a little gullible, spiritually speaking, but there are people in my church with the gifts of discernment and wisdom. If I am living in community with those people, my wide-eyed innocence will perhaps provide them some amusement, but their wisdom and insight will provide me the guidance I lack within myself. And so on. Anyone who has been a Christian for a few years really has no excuse to not know their Bibles very well. It's a big book, but not so big. Regular churchgoers who listen attentively to the sermons and go home to read their Bibles for themselves should be able not only to answer their own questions but the questions of others. But not all of us are wired to spend hours in a text, and and many of us just don't seem capable of slowing-down and sitting-down long enough to do anything except watch Netflix and fall asleep. And God doesn't damn us for it. He gives us teachers. He gives us friends who know the faith better than ourselves. He gives us pastors. If we are in community with these people, we will learn more than we realize. As I heard one preacher put it, "If you stand next to a river long enough, at some point you'll fall in."
So we all fall short of being the kinds of Christians we "could be." And God's solution to that is to shower his grace upon us and give us spiritual gifts. But God has done it in such a way that nobody has all the gifts. My weakness is matched by your strength, and vice versa. What you miss, I see. What one person lacks, someone else has. So God has given us everything we need, but he has given it to us by way of community.
Your partner on the journey,