We just got through Christmas. I have a pretty set list of who I give Christmas gifts to, and base it on a limited budget. For the most part it is more of an exchange. The people I give gifts to give gifts to me (except my young nephews of course). I have given many gifts without expecting a gift in return, but there is usually an intention of exchange also. It may be affection or appreciation, but usually I can’t help but hope for something tangible. My intention here is not to be critical of these intentions, but merely an observer.
I recently finished a book by Lewis Hyde titled “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.” It was recommended to me by another worship leader. Although it’s not a Christian book, it does have several references to the Bible; Specifically the Old Testament. Honestly I didn’t enjoy reading it. It was dry, and academic. However, after I was done reading it, I found myself ruminating over the content. What does it mean to give a gift? What does it mean to receive a gift? What are our responsibilities or expectations? How do I put that in the context of my artistic ability?
In ancient cultures the expectation of a gift was that it be used, and hopefully shared with the entire tribe or village. For instance if you were given the gift of meat, it wasn’t enough to enjoy it with your family and cure it hoping it would last for the winter. It was more likely expected to be used as a feast for the community. Value was found in the use of wealth and not in the accumulation.
Creativity and Craftsmanship
So as an artist or craftsman what are my responsibilities? “Gift” takes on two meanings here. First it means skill, as in my case, musical abilities. Second, it means the output of my abilities, whether it be a song, a performance, or passing on my knowledge to someone else.
My first responsibility is to develop my gift. It is clear that God desires excellence. When given instructions for building the arc, or the temple, God commands using the best men for the job be it construction or making the curtains for the tent. God designates using musicians for use in worship. It was clear God wanted us to develop and use our variety of skills for building the body of the church.
My next responsibility is to give my gift. What good is having a craft if it is simply for my own pleasure? Music is a form of communication, which means it has to be received. There are three types of gifts I can give the receiver (or in this case the congregation):
1. The gift the receiver wants: We all have preferences, and favorite songs. A group of people can be homogenous in their culture and the style of music be one certain genre, but more often than not we are all drawing on various backgrounds. This ends up requiring the music to be easily digestible.
2.The gift I want to give: I have my preferences. There are certain songs and styles I enjoy playing. Songs I feel are more natural for me to express than others. I want the songs to preach to me. I want songs that have obvious meaning, but with text so rich I discover new truths after singing them over and over. However, if the receiver is unable to understand where I’m coming from I might as well be singing in the shower.
3.The gift the receiver needs: I think of this as the solid food vs the mother’s milk referred to in Hebrews 5:13-14. In the case of worship this means being specific about the attributes of God and all he’s done for us through the lens of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. This might require being exposed to new songs, new styles of music, or studying parts of the word that we don’t have full understanding. The danger of this is being new wine being poured into old wine skins as Jesus refers to in Mark 2:22. One time I heard Albert Moehler say (I may be paraphrasing), “It’s not enough for our songs to not be heretical.” I couldn’t agree more.
The hope is to find the overlap in a venn diagram of these three.
A Gift of Grace
I can’t bring up gifts without mentioning Spiritual Gifts. This can be a divisive subject. I think it’s important we always return to the scripture when understanding what these are and how to use them. In DA Carson’s “Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14” he explains the greek translation to be several versions of the word charisma. The best translation is “gift of grace”. Paul writes that different people will receive different gifts, but all for building up the body of the church. He also warns us of the misuse of these gifts.
So is my musical ability a spiritual gift? It is something I use for the building of the up of the body. It is something I consider God given, and yet have also had to develop. It is not mentioned in the Bible as being a spiritual gift, but I do know the Spirit takes part in my talent.
Whether or not it is craft or gift, I always have to question who I am using it for. I can’t help but seek glory. One or two times a week I fantasize about about playing in front of people, and they falling in awe of my amazing skill and creativity. If not that if imagine everyone realizing how much more talented I am as a worship leader than anyone else. God has a way of bringing me back down to earth whether I want to or not.
I’ve been part of a church that tried so hard for supernatural spiritual gifts. We wanted to see people speaking in tongues and translating. We wanted to see supernatural healing while ignoring professional medical diagnosis. We wanted to see new prophetic words and dreams, not just of encouragement or instruction, but clear visions of the future. This pursuit lead to a lot of people getting hurt. Some people used false prophecies to raise themselves above others. People were lied about and excommunicated for no reason. Untruths were spread from the pulpit. Scripture was taken out of context and used for our own selfish pursuits. The worship services became very chaotic and un-orderly. It was the complete opposite of Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 14.
I don’t want to question anyone’s motives in that situation. I know mine were at best ignorant and at worst twisted. I wanted to display some sort of gifting so that I knew, and people knew God had something special in store for me. I wanted people to recognize I had a special calling. As a church we wanted that too. When I think about what would have happened if we had started displaying these gifts. I can’t imagine us not lifting ourselves above all the other churches, I can’t imagine being able to get out of the way and give glory to God alone. Always ask yourself when desiring spiritual gifts, “who will I be glorifying with this.” There is nothing wrong with desiring God to use our lives to work in miraculous ways, but sometimes the gift we need most is humility.
The Gift of Grace
The Jews would build altars in tribute to God in remembrance of what he’d done for them. They would give a sacrificial lamb in exchange for the penalty of sin. God gave his Son in place of the lamb. He gave us our offering. So what are we giving back to Him?
This brings me back to the idea of gifts as an exchange. What a silly notion that anything I do is making some sort of exchange for the ultimate sacrifice! As if there is some magic number of songs I can sing, scripture I can read, people I can serve that can measure up to Christ. When will I realize Christ is the gift? There is no rate of exchange! Even if I were to die in the same manner for the sake of God’s glory I am still tainted by the fallen nature of man. I will never stack up to the perfection of Christ unless he gives it to me.
Hopefully this revelation is freeing. Not to do nothing, but to pursue Christ knowing the debt is paid. So what is happening when I am using my gift of creativity or skill to worship God? I am partaking in the giving and receiving of Christ.
Carson, D.A. Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians, 12-14. Ada, Michigan: Baker Academic, 1996.
Hyde, Lewis. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. New York: Vintage, 1983.