Charisms and Spiritual Gifts

by Charles Whitehead

Gifts in the Scriptures
    In the Charismatic Renewal, the list of nine charisms in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 is often looked upon as Paul’s list of the most important charisms or spiritual gifts. Here he writes about wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, recognizing spirits, tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. So it is upon these gifts that our attention has often been focused. But there is a danger in taking this narrow approach. In verse 28 Paul offers a second list of gifts—apostles, prophets, teachers, miracles, healing, helpers, leaders, and languages. Then in Romans 12:6-8 and Ephesians 4:11 even more gifts are mentioned. In each list some gifts are repeated, new ones are added, and others are omitted. The most likely explanation for this is that when writing to the Corinthians Paul was addressing some specific problems they were experiencing, and he knew which gifts were involved. In his other letters he did not need to be so specific. The lesson we must learn, however, is that there are many, many gifts of the Holy Spirit. So in this article I am writing in general terms about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, rather than trying to deal with individual gifts taken from one or more of Paul’s lists.
Gifts for Confirmation
    When I was prepared for the Sacrament of Confirmation at the age of 12, I remember being taught that one of the results would be that the gifts of the Holy Spirit would increase within me. I would grow in wisdom, understanding, right judgment, courage, knowledge, reverence, and fear of the Lord. These gifts would all help me in my relationship with the Father, unite me more closely to Jesus His Son, root me in the Church, and give me the courage to be a true soldier of Christ. In other words, these gifts of the Holy Spirit were given to help me grow in my personal faith as a good Christian should. There seems to me to be a clear difference between the purpose for these confirmation gifts and those listed in Paul’s letters. The confirmation gifts are mainly for my own personal spiritual growth and development, whereas Paul’s gifts are more concerned with the growth and development of other people.
Gifts for Ministry
    In Ephesians 4:11 we read that some people are gifted to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, and in 1 Corinthians 12:28 Paul puts them in a definite order—first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, and after them miracles, healing, helpers, leaders, etc. Here he is mixing together descriptions of the persons having the gifts with the gifts themselves. Earlier in the chapter in verse 5 he has reminded us that "there is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit; there are all sorts of service to be done, but always to the same Lord." So we must keep in mind that there are many different gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that in Paul’s letters all of them have to do with ministering to or serving other people.

What are Spiritual Gifts?
    Spiritual gifts have their origin in God, and are given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit. This means that they are ultimately supernatural, and in their operation we see a wonderful cooperation between the supernatural grace of God and the freedom and natural abilities of the person exercising the gifts. Spiritual gifts or charisms are sometimes seen as exceptional graces only given to very holy men and women, but the Church’s recent teaching clearly states that they should belong to the normal Christian experience. They are given to enrich our lives and the lives of those around us, and are not to be confused with natural gifts or talents which are given to everyone. They are gifts, freely bestowed upon us by a sovereign act of God, and they are not rewards or wages we have earned, nor are they prizes given for special merit. They are freely and widely distributed among the faithful of every rank.
Paul uses five important words to describe the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Gifts for the Church
    In Lumen Gentium, section 12, the Church tells us:
"It is not only through the sacraments and ministrations of the Church that the Holy Spirit makes holy the people, leads them and enriches them with his virtues. Allotting his gifts according as he wills (Cor 12:11), he also distributes special graces among the faithful of every rank. By these gifts he makes them fit and ready to undertake various tasks and offices for the renewal and building up of the Church."
    When any gift is correctly used it will be of value and benefit to us, but if it is ignored or misused it has little value or purpose. So when we speak of the charisms or spiritual gifts, these same truths apply. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 799 and 800, we are told:
    "Whether extraordinary or simple and humble, charisms are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world. Charisms are to be accepted with gratitude by the person who receives them and by all members of the Church as well. They are a wonderfully rich grace for the apostolic vitality and for the holiness of the entire Body of Christ, provided they really are genuine gifts of the Holy Spirit and are used in full conformity with authentic promptings of this same Spirit, that is, in keeping with charity, the true measure of all charisms."
Why do we need the charisms or spiritual gifts?
    Quite simply, we cannot meet many of the human needs around us ourselves, but we can in the power of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual gifts are given so we can play our part in building up the Body of Christ and function properly as His Church. Jesus himself was guided by the Holy Spirit in proclaiming and establishing the Kingdom here on earth, and we are called and equipped to do the same (cf. Jn 14:12).
    This is why the Church teaches that we are to accept the spiritual gifts and to use them for the good of the Church and the world. As baptized Christians we have a right to exercise our gifts and service for the benefit of others, and those in authority are not to quench the Spirit but to test the gifts to make sure they are genuine. In our increasingly secular world we need to be able to witness to the activity of the living Lord among His people, and an explosion of His supernatural power through the spiritual gifts is a powerful demonstration of His presence.
    At the beginning of chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians Paul writes of ignorance and wrong impressions about the charisms. This is as true today as it was then. People still need good teaching on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, but before we can receive His gifts we need to be fully open to the Holy Spirit himself. The entry into spiritual gifts comes through the baptism in the Holy Spirit, and unless we are praying for people to be filled with the Spirit we are unlikely to see them exercising His gifts. As leaders we need to use the gifts we have received ourselves, and encourage others to do the same. If we really value the charisms, pray for them, and then use them in love and good order for the benefit of others, God will not hold them from us.
How are the charisms or spiritual gifts to be used?
    There is a very simple answer to this question—in love and in good order. In 1 Corinthians chapter 13 Paul emphasizes the importance of love, and in chapter 14 he gives practical advice about the time and the place for the public use of the gifts. It is good to know all about the gifts God wants us to have, but it is even better to allow those gifts to be used in an atmosphere of love. The gifts themselves are good, but it is when we use them that we discover the love or lack of love in our group, church, or community. We often meet each other on a superficial level—it’s easy to maintain a good relationship at arms length. But when we get really closely involved with one another, then we’ll find out how strong our love is. Love is not just a feeling—it’s an outlook, a way of life, always seeking the best in others, holding on even when we are let down again and again. God is love, and He gives us His gifts to be used in a climate of love, so let’s accept them and use them as He intends to build up the Church.

Reprinted with permission of   ICCRS Newsletter May/June 1998 Leadership Formation Supplement.