October 15, 2011
Biographies (Others

and Your Own)

Not Losing Sight of Your
Unique Gifts and Potential
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We often talk about the inspirational value of Christian biographies. Yet have you ever come away from reading the account of some great Christian’s life feeling more discouraged than uplifted?

C. Peter Wagner expresses such frustration in his classic Your Spiritual Gifts Can Help Your Church Grow: “At one point, earlier in my Christian life, I used to read quite a few biographies. Then I stopped almost completely and at first did not know the reason why. What I did know is that, while they were enjoyable reading, when I finished I felt miserable. I always felt that ‘if he can do it so should I.’ . . . The ‘dear believing reader’ bit got to me.”*

Let me hasten to say that I’m not against reading Christian biographies. We can grow greatly through such study. Yet in all honesty, I think that many of us can identify with the unsettledness Wagner expresses. When confronted with the life of a renowned Christian--whether through a biography or public example--we’re seized with a strange mixture of exhilaration and self-contempt.

On the positive side, we’re moved by the person’s example, and inspired to spend our life in more noble pursuits. On the negative side, we contrast our life with the great individual’s in unfair ways. We conclude that our own achievements are meager by comparison. We berate ourselves for not living at this person’s level of energy and faith, and for having far less talent and achievement to show for our years on earth.

Yet such comparisons are never meaningful. God has given us each a unique mix of gifts, and a distinctive energy level and motivational pattern. I’m accountable to God to live according with how he has designed my life and not anyone else’s.

Gift Projection

A major reason these unfair comparisons arise, Wagner explains, is because of “gift projection”--a practice that he finds far too common in the body of Christ. Gift projection occurs when someone with an unusual talent claims that anyone else can develop the same skill, and can realize the same success, if they simply yield themselves fully to Christ.

Nineteenth century George Muller is a classic example of someone of who projected his gift. Muller raised millions of dollars for building orphanages in Great Britain. It was his policy never to mention a financial need to anyone, but only to share it with God in prayer. He wouldn’t accept any salary for his work. His journals document a lifetime of cliff-hanging episodes, where he committed major financial needs to God, who constantly provided for them miraculously--sometimes at the last possible moment. As a typical example, someone would walk in unexpectedly with the food needed for dinner at an orphanage just as everyone was sitting down for the meal.

I believe that Muller had the spiritual gift of faith, which Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 12:8. This gift is a special capacity to understand the mind of God, and to move ahead in perfect confidence that God will work in certain ways that others do not yet perceive. Yet like all spiritual gifts, it isn’t given to everyone, but only to a small percentage of Christians.

It’s to Muller’s credit that he lived with such integrity in light of his gift, and realized its potential so fully. In this sense, he is a great inspiration to us all. Yet Muller insisted throughout his life that he didn’t possess any unusual gift of faith. He believed he was demonstrating a lifestyle that all Christians should follow. Anyone can have his experiences of faith, he insisted. The implication is that anyone who accepts a regular paycheck is living less than a fully committed Christian life.

Gifts and Responsibilities

In our own day this sort of gift projection occurs in many different ways. Someone with an exceptional talent for winning others to Christ claims that anyone who takes our Lord’s command to witness seriously can be just as successful. Someone who entertains hoards of people in her home insists that such hospitality is a calling laid on all believers. A successful missionary teaches that anyone who makes a reasonable effort at cross-cultural ministry can be just as effective. (Thank goodness we don’t hear many great singers or brain surgeons making such claims!)

Gift projection usually occurs with the very best intentions. Muller’s claim not to have a special gift of faith sprang from considerable humility and compassion. He wanted others to be all that Christ would enable them to be.

Yet, as Wagner points out in his book, such a claim confuses responsibility with gifts. God often expects us as Christians to exercise responsibility at points where we don’t have special talent. He may wish us to respond to someone’s need, for instance, simply because we’re the most logical person to help that person, even though we are not particularly skilled to do so. In this case God uses our availability more than our ability. And by extending ourselves we grow in important ways and deepen our dependence upon Christ.

Bearing responsibility means that we each should strive to live by faith as much as possible, to share Christ with others whenever we can, to show hospitality often, and to have an ongoing concern for missionary work throughout the world.

Yet we may or may not have a special gift in any of these areas. Over time we should give the burden of our efforts to those areas where we are gifted, and not deride ourselves for giving less attention to areas where we are not specially skilled.

Wagner also notes that St. Paul could scarcely have used a more graphic analogy for emphasizing the importance of respecting our individual gifts than the human body. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul compares our personal gifts to parts of the body, stressing that while each part is radically different from the rest, each is essential to all the others in its function. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’ On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor 12:21-22 NIV).

The corollary is just as true, Wagner points out--an eye cannot become a mouth, no matter how hard it tries, nor can a hand become a foot. The point is not that we have no responsibility for meeting needs outside of our areas of giftedness, but that we shouldn’t expect our maximum effectiveness for Christ to occur at these points.

For each of us, the critical matter is to come to grips with the special mix of gifts God has given us personally. Once we understand and appreciate God’s unique design of our own life, we then can profit greatly from the examples of other Christians who have lived impressive lives. We will be inspired by the sincerity of their commitment to Christ, but not feel compelled to imitate what they did. We will best fulfill our own commitment to him by respecting our individuality, and by living our life distinctively in light of whom Christ has made us to be.

“Each man should examine his own conduct for himself; then he can measure his achievement by comparing himself with himself and not with anyone else. For everyone has his own proper burden to bear” (Gal 6:4-5, NEB).

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