Measuring excellence is a tricky business. It assumes that the one doing the measuring is especially skilled at recognizing the difference between what is normal and what is extraordinary. In a sense, it takes talent to identify talent, but when it comes to the things of God, that is not the same thing as being gifted.
The words are often used interchangeably, but here we will make a distinction between the two in order to highlight an important detail about what is out-of-this-world extraordinary versus what is on-top-of-this-world extraordinary. For our purposes, a talented person is someone who exhibits uncommon ability over and above most other people. A gifted person is someone infused by the Spirit of God in order to accomplish some intended purpose of God.
Christians accept that all good gifts come from God, and that a savant, or maestro, or master craftsman can certainly be called gifted, but in terms of how Scripture uses the term, recognizing a person gifted by God will require a completely different method of measurement than can be used to identify someone with great talent.
A talented person is someone who demonstrates great ability in something. They are recognized by comparing them to the majority around them using natural methods of observation. On the scale of talent, some will show slight achievements, while others astound with their over-the-top performance. In every case the ability, which likely reflects a combination of innate inclination coupled with developed training, is entirely measured by our natural senses and human comparisons one to another.
A talented dancer will often show early signs of skill, ability, insight, and balance even before any training, but then when more formally taught, and refined with long hours of practice, will leap over most others with a naturally-developed grace that rightly astounds those who marvel at her performance. She has been graced by God with specialized talent in a common way, but not likely divinely gifted.
Gifts are very different. To be gifted by God, means that a person has been identified by God for a special purpose in carrying out his divine will in some particular way. So as not to confuse who should receive the credit, a gifted person–one filled by the Spirit for some task–is rarely the same person who is talented. God has little interest in sharing his glory with another, except by those who submit all honor to him for who they are and what they do.
In order to identify a spiritually gifted person from a talented person, both that person as well as any measuring observer, must test for the evidence of the Holy Spirit. Though this Spirit of God endows all Christians to some degree, a Christian who has been specially gifted in prophecy, speaking, showing mercy, or in serving (as examples), will show evidence of a specialty in their calling. That gift cannot be measured with natural means.
This is the reason that many churches fail at teaching believers how to identify their spiritual gifts, because they use godless personality tests, observations of historic ability, and questions about personal interest and aptitude to identify in what ways an individual might stand out from others. That is about talent, but not about giftedness. Such methods are limited to natural observations that compare people to other people, but do little to distinguish the work of the Spirit.
Churches who hire ministers and staff based on their track record, numbers, degrees, resumes, and reputations, do so mostly upon assessments of talent with little if any regard for measuring of the Spirit’s specific giftedness. Few seem willing to test the spirit, and prefer to make judgments based on natural observations of ministerial success. They tend to look for Sauls, who stand head-and-shoulders over all others, to stand as their king, rather than Davids, who smell of sheep, are undersized, and play harps instead of manly drums.
To recognize the specialized work of God in ourselves and in others, we must learn to test the spirit.
“Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 Jn 4:1)
“Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?” (2 Cor 13:5)
Testing ministers who try to teach us about God (the context of the first command quoted above), and testing of our own selves in our claim of being Christian (as commanded upon believers in the second quote above), is about recognizing God in a person by measuring for the confirming evidence of spirit activity rather than by natural talent. It demands that we look for and learn to test for the supernatural evidence that fits within the guidelines of Scripture, and cannot be naturally recognized.
Do not be deceived. This testing is not about dramatic displays, astounding activity, shocking pronouncements, or penticostal shaking, for it is a wicked generation that seeks after miraculous signs. What it really is about is the will of God.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Mt 7:21-23)
A Christian gifted by God will show evidence of the Spirit’s activity in ways that are well beyond that person’s natural abilities, that completely submit to all the boundaries noted in the Bible, that bring honor to the Lord, that accomplish the kingdom-purpose for which they have been gifted, that depend far more upon faith than skill to follow through, that weigh heavily on their own spirit out of devotion to following the inclinations of the Spirit rather than the preferences of the natural flesh. What they do will depend heavily upon divine intervention because they have little natural talent in that specific area to otherwise fill in the gaps.
This is much like the Apostle Paul who had very little ability in public speaking compared to those who were formally educated: He was gifted to preach, whereas many others stood out well beyond him in their talent at speaking. Or like the leader Moses, who was talented and trained in all the excellence of Egyptian royalty, but whose giftedness in leadership came through meekness by the Spirit after wandering with sheep in rejection for 40 years.
Being gifted is seldom left to private assumptions or unverifiable claims. Very often God will confirm his choice through others, like when providing interpreters for those speaking in tongues, or by announcing his plans to his prophets before he enacts those plans, in keeping with his own law of confirming matters with two or more witnesses.
Ultimately, the measuring for the Spirit’s activity will require that the one doing the assessment be gifted with the Spirit for that purpose of identifying what cannot be physically tested. It might be a granted gift for a moment, to fulfill the will of God when and where needed, or it might be an ongoing gift of the Spirit for accomplishing that divine will over time. Either way, such gifts are a matter of spirit and not of natural ability.
Both talents and gifts are blessings of God and ought to be pursued, encouraged, and used in the service of the Lord. A wise Christian will invest their life in developing themselves to serve. They will pursue advanced education. They will discipline their bodies to precise expressions of talent. They will challenge their minds and train their bodies. In doing so they will have more to offer to God in gratitude for the gift of life.
Talents are something we can participate in developing, but history demonstrates that most often they make us prideful, self-impressed, and deceived into thinking that we are amazing all on our own with little need for God. In the Garden of Eden, Eve wanted to be wise on her own, without submitting to God–she sought to be talented but not gifted. This is how talents and gifts differ, the former brings attention to us, whereas the latter gives all credit to the activity of God.
Gifts are something we can submit to and prioritize over our natural abilities, and ahead of relying upon our talents. Emphasizing and seeking spiritual gifts is to be highly encouraged, without rejecting personal development towards becoming more talented. Within the extraordinary freedoms granted by God, we should devote ourselves to developing, maturing, producing, expressing, and advancing out of honor to God. We may gravitate toward focusing on improving our natural talents and interests in some areas, and pass by other pursuits that we might have otherwise been able to stand out in doing. Talent development is something we get to invest into within our God-granted freedoms.
Gifts, however, ought to take precedence. As the specialized activity of God is recognized, it ought to capture our attention and shift our priorities, even to the point of setting aside reliance upon our talents, or even putting our own natural pursuits to death. Gifts can be enhanced by “fanning into flame the gift of God”, or it can be denied by “quenching the Spirit”. We are allowed to seek special gifts from God, or strive to identify what may be planted within already, but however they come to us, God expects that believers put a significant priority on expressing those gifts, through all obstacles, against our own natural preferences, as a reflection of bearing the Cross.
In God’s economy, gifts are much greater than talents, though they rarely stand out in our world with such amazing distinction as talented super-stars. Talents are like free-will offerings we can offer to the honor of the Lord. Gifts are like God’s own provided sacrifice offerings placed within a willing person. Gifts are direct infusions of the Holy Spirit that focus on expressing the work and will of God for some specialized purpose. God uses talented people, but true power will be reserved for those gifted by God.
If you desire to mature in Christ, spend increasing time sitting at the feet of those gifted by God, even if they don’t stand out as impressively as those talented at teaching, writing, and speaking. If you want to please the Lord, strive to identify and express what can only be credited as a gift of the Spirit, to the subordinating of talent. Don’t look for the majority, the popular, the big, or the successful–look for the faithful in obscure packages, along the sidelines of life, in the discarded churches left to wander in desert places. The gifted are typically found among the weak of this earth.
This is not to say that the gifted are talent-less. Those who are granted such special gifts of the Spirit are those who also actively invest their talents. The gifted are often talented as well, just not in the same way or in the same abilities, so their gifts are easily missed by those who don’t know what to look for. God uses talents in people, but he leads with gifts, so that all will see that this surpassing power is from God and not from human ability. It is a matter of how he chooses to display himself through jars of clay.
Put a priority on what God confirms when you test the spirits and your own discernment will deepen and strengthen. If you long to hear the “well done my good and faithful servant”, then encourage talents, but elevate gifts of the Spirit.