“For it is by works that you have succeeded, not by gifts”

September 11, 2014

There is nothing wrong with acknowledging our giftedness.

Last night I began a new Bible study on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It was a lively discussion, with much laughter. After it was over, a parishioner asked me, “How do you know all that stuff?” After pausing for a moment, I said, “It’s a gift, I guess.”

Just saying those words, “It’s a gift,” didn’t feel right, and we both laughed it off. But I would be a hypocrite to answer any other way.

Why? Because I had made reference, just the night before at church council, to this brilliant new Christianity Today column from my favorite young theologian (and pastor), Andrew Wilson. He writes:

Imagine asking two successful people how they managed to accomplish what they have. The first says, “I’m just very gifted.” The second says, “I’ve just worked very hard.” Who sounds more smug?

Our meritocracy—in which people are valued based on ability alone—has conditioned us to consider it arrogant to attribute our accomplishments to God’s gracious gift. For some reason, gift talk sounds elitist. Conversely, we think we’re being humble when we say we worked hard for our success. The gospel polarity of grace versus works, though correctly understood in theory, is capsized in practice: “You succeeded? You must have worked harder than others,” we think. “You didn’t succeed? Try again.”

For it is by works you have succeeded, not by gifts, so that no one can boast. Logical as it may seem, it’s far from the gospel.

Why does believing that we’re gifted seem conceited when, technically, it’s exactly opposite of conceited? When we say we possess a gift, we acknowledge that credit doesn’t belong to us: it belongs to the Gift-Giver. And it’s not like we did anything to earn it because, again, it’s a gift.

I suspect one reason we’re reluctant to say that we’re gifted is because we don’t want to be misunderstood: to say we’re gifted is not to say that we’re more gifted than someone else. When I was ministering in Alpharetta, I would think twice about saying (or even believing) that I’m a gifted preacher because, after all, I’m no Andy Stanley.

But that isn’t the point: to whatever extent we possess a gift, we do so because of God. On this point, Wilson’s words resonate with me. I know what it’s like to play that potentially deadly game of comparing my success to other people’s success—and worrying that I don’t measure up.

I’m preaching to myself here. For years I’ve struggled with envying a friend who is more gifted than I am. He’s a better leader, a more prolific writer, a superior linguist, and a more effective preacher. When I think like a meritocrat, I feel dispirited: He’s a better Christian. He deserves success. When I think like a charismatic, I experience freedom: He’s been given a different gift and doesn’t deserve it any more than I do. Grace—gloriously—brings liberty. What do you have that you did not receive?

I’m anticipating an objection: “Sure, our talents, to some extent, come from God, but don’t we have to do something to develop them?”

When I think of Jesus’ parable of the talents, for instance, I can’t help but answer yes. But mostly what we do is to allow God to do through us. God offers us grace. We receive it. God offers us grace. We receive it. Et cetera.

Regardless, our role in the process, when compared to God’s role, is very small—which is why we acknowledge that it’s a gift.

2 Responses to ““For it is by works that you have succeeded, not by gifts””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree that we receive gifts from God, and therefore should not “brag” as to what we, in fact, “received.” I also agree, however, with your mention of the parable of the talents (and many of the Proverbs). It can certainly be difficult to “distinguish” between what we received and what we “brought to the table.” Nonetheless, I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying, “I worked hard on that,” as opposed to (or, perhaps better, in conjunction with), “I’m gifted in that field,” or whatever. It is people who say things like, “I did it my way,” or “I’m a self-made man,” etc., who are guilty of failing to recognize that they received much of what made them a success not only from God, but the assistance of other people. I guess what I am saying, though, is that I don’t think it is always necessary for someone who just delivered a great solo that she worked hours to perfect to say, “Thank you,” to, “That was great!”, as distinct from, “Give God the glory.” In fact, if we start attributing everything we do to God, we may sometimes be besmirching his name more than the converse, such as in the example of one of my friends hearing a radio singer say, “God gave me this song,” to which my friend thought, “God must not be a very good musician!”

    • brentwhite Says:

      Some day I’m going to use your last point in a sermon illustration. 😉 I don’t really disagree with what you say here. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and. It’s our cooperation with God, who gives us these gifts. I do think that when we consider all that God has first given us—and continues to give us through the ongoing gift of life—our contribution is very small indeed. But not nothing!

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