It is a good and noble pursuit to ask how God has gifted us to serve his church. We find a call for such assessment in Romans 12. Paul writes that believers are to “think with sober judgment” (v. 3) as they consider how to use their gifts in the body of Christ. However, the question remains how exactly we should assess spiritual gifting. How do we bring sober discernment to our modern membership classes and discipleship programs? Far too often, our answer is to hand out a survey or a spiritual gifts test and tally up the results. If you have ever taken one of these tests, you know the kinds of questions asked. “When you walk into a room, do you feel more compelled to pray with someone, stack chairs, write a check, or tell everyone else what they should do?” The test’s results might suggest that you have either the gift of encouragement, service, giving, or leadership based on how you answer. I certainly do not intend to mock these tests. I’ve taken them in the past, and they have been somewhat helpful in matching gifts with specific needs in the church.
However, the longer I’ve been in ministry, the more I’ve found how ineffective these tests are in actually discerning what a person’s spiritual gifts may be. In some ways, these tests have caused more harm than good. In this post, I want to question our use of spiritual gifts tests and suggest that we retire them altogether. However, whether you use them or not in the future, my primary goal is to highlight the place of the local church in assessing spiritual gifts accurately.
Three Reasons Spiritual Gifts Tests Do Not Work
First, the reality is that we are not sober-minded enough to spiritually assess ourselves. A person may think of themselves as a giving person. And yet, what they call “giving” may be a veiled cop-out from doing the more difficult labors in the church—such as greeting others, hosting a small group, mentoring youth, or teaching in the children’s ministry. The gift of giving requires more than a few PayPal transactions made on the first of the month. Instead, it is the evident commitment to give not just one’s money but his or her very life (time, energy, etc.) that proves the presence of the “giving” gift. I’m sure if we’d given them a spiritual gift exam, Ananias and Sapphira might have shown they had the spiritual gift of giving (Acts 5:1). Yet, the testing of their hearts revealed a very different reality. What at an initial glance might seem to be “sacrificial giving” was actually a blasphemous and prideful attempt to become self-important. It’s worth remembering that even our best actions may not be all that they seem. Therefore, we should never trust ourselves to assess ourselves.
Second, traditional spiritual gifts tests might foster complacency and, sometimes, pride. If I tested “positive” for one set of gifts, it might lead me to overlook or avoid other giftings. The idea begins to creep in that our hands are tied. “I’d help with A, B, and C, but unfortunately, God has gifted me for X, Y, and Z.” This is why Jim does not serve in the kindergarten class. Having taking a test, he seeks out more important roles because God has gifted him with the spiritual gifts of leadership and wisdom. Similarly, everyone knows that we shouldn’t ask Angelica to go on the mission trip. She’ll tell you directly that she’s not gifted with evangelism. If we’re honest, many of the traditional spiritual gifts tests reveal more about what we want to do rather than what we are gifted to do. However, true spiritual gifting sometimes means seeking out things we would not naturally want to do.
Finally, traditional spiritual gifts assessments have sometimes inadvertently provided believers justification for sin. Spiritual gifts tests tend to focus more on labeling a person’s actions rather than assessing their spiritual health. What I do and why I am doing it are both critical. For example, suppose in filling out a typical spiritual gifts inventory, I answer that I enjoy organizing things, leading events, or managing people. In that case, the test is sure to suggest that I might have the spiritual gift of leadership. However, it does not help me discern whether my desire to lead is healthy or truly deriving from the Spirit’s leadership. Maybe, I want to lead because I struggle with domineering over people. Why I want to lead is just as important as my propensity to lead.
However, a spiritual gifts test typically does not provide such nuances. It only affirms or suggests whether I “have” the leadership gift. The result is that I now have a verbal defense to explain why I might tend to boss other people around. “My spiritual gifts test said I have the gift of leadership.” Ultimately, a propensity to dominate over others is easily shrouded in the rhetoric of leadership gifting. This lack of motivational discernment happens in the other gifts as well. How many times have suspicion and gossip been cloaked as “discernment”? Mercy can become an excuse to avoid biblical conflict. Exhortation may become a rationale for angry tirades and accusations, and the gift of knowledge may be offered as a “justification” for a person speaking as an arrogant know-it-all.
While I readily admit that none of us employ our spiritual gifts perfectly, I think we are too quick in justifying specific sins as a misadministration of spiritual gifting. Sin is deceptive and always looks for a disguise, even if it must wear the guise of a spiritual gift. However, sin is still sin and should not be mislabeled as the inevitable downside to a few specific Spirit-borne gifts. Suspicion may cloak itself as discernment, but pull back the hood, and you’ll only find the ugly face of divisiveness. A propensity to domineer may wear the mask of leadership. Still, when the mask falls off, we do not find a true Spirit-led leader but a sinful autocrat. When it comes to true spiritual gifts (i.e., Spirit-given gifts), the Holy Spirit superintends and governs the gift. Any sin we bring to the table comes from the residual sin in our hearts, not from God’s gifts. Spiritual gifts assessments have at times been used to justify “quirkiness” that comes from various gifts instead of commending sanctification and repentance.
A Better Assessment
What if I were to tell you that there is a tried and proven spiritual gifts assessment, and it is not found on any written survey or exam? For generations, the only effective means of assessing one’s spiritual gifts has been the local church. If you want to know your gifts, then commit to serving alongside other Spirit-led Christians on a consistent basis. Proximity and exposure to ministry inevitably reveal how the Lord has uniquely equipped you to serve his people. It’s in the trenches of missional life that one’s spiritual gifts are accurately tested. An accurate assessment comes with extended time spent in the ministry, as well as a substantial number of difficulties and challenges that demonstrate the existence of a specific gift. For example, it is impossible to tell who has the gift of mercy until a person has demonstrated a consistent concern to show mercy even when helping people means sacrificing convenience. “Testing” requires challenges, and to be challenged you first have to get involved. In facing the challenges of day-to-day church life, we begin to see who we are and how God has gifted us.
In addition to engaging in ministry, we must also open ourselves up to the loving and honest evaluation of others. God’s gifts can and should be affirmed by those around us. It is by undergoing the risk of honest assessment from those who love us that we can accurately determine how God has equipped us for specific spiritual work. Is my aptitude to teach a genuine gift or is it a cloaked means to build a platform? Do I truly have the gift of giving, or am I using it as a smokescreen to fund my laziness? Has God truly gifted me with exhortation, or am I just using that term “gift” as a license to berate others? The only way of knowing is by committing ourselves to the risky and, oftentimes, painful business of gospel-centered community. When we allow ourselves to be surrounded by people who are not all that impressed by what we do or easily duped by our façade, we can finally differentiate the dross of sin from the true spiritual gift. That said, the local church is your spiritual gifts test. It is only by being members of the body that we find out what specific function—whether it be an eye, a hand, or a foot—we play in the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-10).
Take all the paper exams you want; but until you finally commit yourself to a body of believers, you will never know how God has gifted you to serve them.