As I drove my sister to the airport after her Thanksgiving visit, she shared that she was reading a book on the spiritual gifts. One of the blocks to exercising our gifts, the author noted, is "gift envy."
I pondered this as I negotiated the unusually heavy predawn traffic, peering through the darkness for the sign that would assure me I was on the way to the Fort Lauderdale airport and not Miami. "I had to deal with that at a young age," I responded wryly and let the comment rest. In view of the heavy traffic I was navigating, it was not the time to explore childhood sibling rivalries.
My younger sister's musical gift were evident at an early age and our father did everything he could to help her develop it. The tipping point came for me when I was sixteen. After Daddy asked us to perform for some guests, I could not endure what I perceived as the inevitable comparison. I chose to bury my one talent rather than be outshone anymore by her ten.
In her recent article, World writer Andrée Seu Peterson (whose gift I confess I have several times coveted) exhorts Christians to seek to exercise their spiritual gifts. She gives an imaginary example of what can happen in a church when Mrs. McGillicutty squelches her gift of "distinguishing between spirits" and Mrs. Roberts keeps her counseling "gift of wisdom" under a bushel basket. Peterson exhorts us to "earnestly desire the higher gifts" (1 Corinthians 12:31) for the benefit of our brothers and sisters who may be "sitting across the nave from you."
But how often does "gift envy" stop us short of doing so? For those of us who want to be eyes when God has made us ears, it's tempting to compare ourselves to those who are, and to minimize what God has given us as we covet what God has given to others.
When we fail to submit ourselves to God's sovereign plan and wisdom for our lives by pining for other gifts, we are no different than the chief priests and elders who plotted to kill Jesus. Even Pilate saw that "they had handed Him over because of envy."
Proverbs warns that "envy makes the bones rot." How many of us are sitting in our pews rotting rather than rising up eagerly to serve the body of Christ with the gifts God has given us?
Peter exhorted the dispersed Christians in Asia Minor to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God, "that He may exalt you in due time" (I Peter 5:6). Humbly accepting the gift God has given us rather than coveting those He has given others opens the door to cultivation of our own. As Romans 12:6 points out, the gifts we have "differ according to the grace given to us."
William DeArteaga makes the case in Quenching the Spirit that the spiritual gifts started to die out in the church when the gifts of the Spirit began to be seen as a danger to personal holiness. He notes that the Desert Fathers, many of whom had spiritual gifts, posed a dichotomy between their exercise and humility.
A false opposition was created between humility and the gifts of the Spirit. It was no longer considered proper to do what the lay ministers did in the times of Irenaeus, which was to heal and cast out demons as evangelization.
According to DeArteaga, this view of the Desert Fathers became the ideal of the Western Church through the influence of John Cassian (cir. 360-435 A.D.).
Cassian summed up what he had learned in the desert monasteries about the use of the gifts of the Spirit: "When they did possess them by the grace of the Holy Spirit they would never use them, unless perhaps extreme and unavoidable necessity drove them to do so."
Something of this fear that the gifts of the Spirit are counterproductive to humility must persist today in quarters where it is claimed that the Apostles were the last ones to receive them.
Certainly we should do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than ourselves as Paul exhorts us in Philippians 2:3. Jesus Christ is our perfect and complete example of humility. He emptied Himself of His heavenly glory in order to take the form of a servant and be born in the likeness of men.
At Christmastime we remember and celebrate God's greatest gift to humankind, His Son. Giving a gift that is made or purchased with thoughtful care can convey our love to the recipient and is an appropriate means of celebrating God's loving gift to us.
But we may also be tempted to envy others' gifts. When we do, we can choose instead to thank God for His incomparable Gift and for all the spiritual gifts and talents He has given us-gifts that He intends for us to use in carrying out the good works He's already ordained for us to do (see Ephesians 2:10).
After all, Jesus commended the widow not for the magnitude of her gift, but rather for her willingness to give all that she had.