In the many years before I was a Christian, I used to hear believers talk about their “spiritual gifts”. They would describe their ability to sing or teach or perform a certain task, and for the life of me, these abilities merely sounded like “natural talents”. I came to the conclusion those wacky Christians just had a language all their own and a strong desire to see everything as a gift from God (when it could more easily be described in natural terms). When I became Christian myself, I began to recognize a number of abilities emerging or blossoming in my own life. Were these just latent talents, or was there something to this “spiritual gifting” stuff? Maybe it was time to take a second look at the issue of “spiritual gifts” and compare them to what I used to think of as “natural talents”.
Even before I started to look at the differences between “gifts” and “talents”, I recognized they all came from the same source. If we accept the premise that an all-powerful God is the creator of all matter and life, it is reasonable to conclude our abilities (even if we are inclined to attribute them to genetics or environment), must ultimately come from the source of genetics and environment: the God who created everything in the first place. We can squabble over whether something is a talent or a gift, but we need to be careful, as thoughtful Christians, not to exchange the two words as if they had identical meaning. They don’t.
Everyone has some sort of innate talent. You may not think that you are particularly talented, but if you take a closer look at yourself, you’ll discover there is some ability you possess in more abundance than others. Sure, there may be someone out there who is even better at this particular ability, but that’s not the point; you also have an increased ability in this area relative to your other skills and aptitudes. Maybe you’re a better athlete than musician, or maybe you’re a better artist than mathematician. You know where you are talented and where you are not. But how do you know if this particular ability you’re considering is a “natural talent” or a “spiritual gift”? Well, maybe we should start by looking at what the Bible has to say about spiritual gifts. Paul describes spiritual gifts in three places:
1 Corinthians 12:7-11
But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.
For through the grace given to me I say to every man among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. And since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let each exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.
He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
Now some Christians look at these verses and wonder if the “gift list” described here is exhaustive. Are these the only abilities that are actually “spiritual gifts”? Are there any more? Well, considering the fact Paul wrote these three letters to three different groups of believers and did not routinely repeat the same list of gifts, it’s probably safe to assume there are additional spiritual gifts unlisted here. So the question is: “What are the differences between natural talents and spiritual gifts, and how might we recognize a spiritual gift when we see one?” Theologians might disagree with each other when talking about talents and gifts, but there are a number of seemingly obvious differences:
Talents Are Inherited / Gifts Are Received
This is perhaps the biggest and most important difference. Natural talents are those abilities inherited from one’s parents and nurtured in the context of one’s family. We all know people who are talented and come from a long line of family members who share the same talent (consider, for example, the Matthews family in the NFL). If one member of such a family does not possess this shared talent, they typically will say something like, “I didn’t get the (insert talent here) gene”. Natural talents are just that: “natural”! They can be attributed to the natural genetic material existing within all of us, passed down from generation to generation. Spiritual gifts, on the other hand, come directly from the Spirit of God; that’s why they are called “gifts” in the first place! The “Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.” Natural talents are imparted at our natural birth; spiritual gifts are given when we are born again.
Talents Are Possessed by the Saved and Unsaved / Gifts Are Possessed by the Saved
Everyone, whether they are a believer or a non-believer, has some sort of talent, but only believers have spiritual gifts. The Spirit of God resides in each and every believer, and “God has allotted to each a measure of faith,” and an ability transcending our natural talents. Because the Spirit of God is the source for spiritual gifts, we shouldn’t be surprised those who have God’s Spirit residing in them (those who are saved), would have more than natural talent; believers also have gifts of the Spirit:
The word of wisdom
The word of knowledge
Faith (extraordinary trust and surrender)
Gifts of healing
The effecting of miracles
The distinguishing of spirits
The interpretation of tongues
A number of spiritual gifts listed here sound a lot like natural talents. After all, don’t you know a non-Christian who is a talented leader or teacher? Non-believers can be very talented in some of these areas without having been given a gift of the Spirit. But in addition to the gifts that sound like talents possessed by non-believers, there are others on the list that seem specific to the lives of believers. Believers have many natural talents, but in addition to these talents, they are also gifted by God.
Talents Are Developed and Expected / Gifts Are Matured and Surprising
Let’s say you are a talented leader and you then become a Christian. If God decides to use you in some role of leadership, you just may find your talent is greatly multiplied when God also gives you the spiritual gift of leadership. You may now discover your leadership skills are above and beyond anything you were capable of doing prior to being saved. God has a tendency to surprise us in this way. We can all develop our natural talents with hard work and perseverance; we practice and train and along the way we can achieve the expected results. Spiritual gifts, on the other hand, are increased as we mature in our relationship with God:
As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.
When we have been gifted by God to accomplish something, we should expect the unexpected. As we mature in our relationship with God, he will surprise us by gifting us beyond our natural talent.
Talents Can Be Used Selfishly / Gifts Are Used to Serve God’s Purposes
The Bible clearly tells us that spiritual gifts are given to us for a specific reason. While we may find ourselves using our natural talent to serve our own selfish interests and desires, spiritual gifts have been given to us by God “for the common good” and to the glory of God; they are given to us so we can give them back to God as we serve His purpose of building the family of believers. Spiritual gifts are given to us so all of us can perform “the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ”. That’s why all of us are gifted in some way by God. We’re not supposed to sit and watch the pastor do the work, we are supposed to get out and use the gifts God has given us.
Natural talents are the result of our genetic inheritance and the training resulting from our family environment. They are possessed by both believers and non-believers, and they can be used to serve God or serve ourselves. Spiritual gifts are given to us by the Spirit of God once we have been saved. They blossom as we mature in our faith and they are used to glorify God as we serve others and build the family of God.
J. Warner Wallace is a Cold-Case Detective, Christian Case Maker, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and the author of Cold-Case Christianity, Cold-Case Christianity for Kids, God’s Crime Scene, God’s Crime Scene for Kids, and Forensic Faith.