Spiritual Gifts and Words of Knowledge

Romans 12:6-8
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
The "spiritual gifts" are an important part of the life of any group of people seeking to live with the life of God amongst them (a church). The spiritual gifts are mentioned in the new testament three times (Romans 12 above and twice in 1 Corinthians 12). The danger is that we can treat these lists of the different ways that God is expressed through people as a definitive list of how we can express God. I've known many people feel like they couldn't be used by God because they didn't naturally seem to have any of "the gifts" - and they had been taught that as a Christian they ought to have more of these specific spiritual gifts.

A second danger, exacerbated by the term "gift", is that we think of these gifts as mysterious abilities distinct from who we are that are magically dropped into our soul by God when we become a Christian.

The antidote to both of these dangers is to understand that the spiritual gifts are your giftings made alive in God. Our spiritual gifts are the unique combination of character qualities we have. As we are made more alive in God, as we better express life, this will be through our personality (our soul) in a way unique to us. This is our gifting, the way that we love people and bring life. Some of these ways will fit the examples in scripture and some won't. Your task as a human is to work out, and come to terms with, who you are. Your one gift is your personality, your character. When you are alive in the life of God, showing love, then you are (Christian jargon alert) "moving in your gifts". There may well be times when you surprise yourself by doing something out of character but in tune with a specific situation (sometimes called a "specific anointing"), but the general case is that your "spiritual gifts" are the different and interwoven ways that you express the life of God. The lists in those scriptures, those examples, can be useful as something to aim for and something to practise, but they shouldn't be taught as a definitive list of "the gifts". "Moving in your gifts" merely means "being you" showing love. This is the new creation, and as we strive to love one another, in spirit and truth, it will naturally happen in many different ways - some of which are explored in scripture.

Just as we can erroneously think of the spiritual gifts as something magically dropped into our soul by God there is one particular gift that is sometimes taught as operating by the same kind of "magical thinking": words of knowledge.
1 Corinthians 12:8
For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit.
Words of knowledge, as practised and understood by many charismatic evangelistic churches today, are when someone has "revealed to them" knowledge (of varying degrees of specificity) about another person. The purpose of this knowledge is usually to identify a person, or a problem they have, and to bring life or healing to them. Because the knowledge wasn't naturally known by the person but came about by God it is seen as a miraculous gift, a sign that God is real and at work.

The magical thinking is think of (or worse to teach) this knowledge as being "dropped into the mind" of the receiver by God. This kind of thinking shows no understanding of the nature of God and the relationship of God to our humanity. Thinking of words of knowledge as dropped or placed into our mind encourages the view of God as external, and therefore remote, whereas our knowledge of God (and the operation of our giftings) is through being filled with the Holy Spirit: God in us!

From a certain perspective the view that God places words directly in our mind is "true", but it's a perspective that doesn't allow us to understand - and without understanding there can be no growth. From another, better, perspective we can see how we interact with God. How we work with God and how God works through us. Is it us or is it God? Yes! (The more self is banished the more these become the same thing.)

Essentially the mechanism is that your spirit is tuned to God and to the spirit of a place, you pick up on things that in the spirit - whether in the spirit of people present or directly in the spirit of God. So what you're doing is tuning your mind, soul, spirit (take your pick) into reality. It isn't "magic" but it's the operation of your spirit in conjunction with the Holy Spirit. It's something that can, in measure, be understood and we can grow in understanding. How we allow these "impressions" to surface in our conscious mind is an interesting process that I'd like to focus more on, but as always the key factor is being close to the heart of God. It isn't a gift that operates in isolation from the rest of who we are, none of the gifts work like that. The way to get better at everything is to get closer to God.

I think we (Christians) have weak thinking in this area. Just because something surfaces in your mind doesn't mean it's from God. Just because someone responds doesn't mean it's from God! Some words of knowledge are so wide and so vague they are certain to apply to someone! That doesn't mean that God doesn't use them, but if we aren't able to truly judge their effectiveness then we can't get any better. A skill practised doesn't lead to improvement unless there is a quick feedback between something being done and you being able to tell if it is good (there's good research in this area - the larger the feedback time the less able you are to learn from it, this is how the human soul operates).

For me the best judge of the "truth" of any word (whether word of knowledge or otherwise) is what power does it carry. (Sometimes things strike home to someone without carrying apparent power - but how can you judge that? If we are to focus on learning and growing we have to focus on what we can learn from.) Sometimes words carry an obvious power and they do a work in people, and that's God at work! That's what we should aim for and strive for. Dry words that carry no life, no power, generally do nothing... We're not primarily rational beings, the course of our heart and life is not substantially affected by things that we take in and process by our minds - but we can be spiritual beings and words that carry life can reach our spirit and change us. So judge the reality of any word by the life that it carries. How capable of changing someone is this, how much of God is in it.

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