the Ordering of Spiritual Gifts

One of the subsets of recognizing God as the Creator of all things, is recognizing that God is a God of order.  He acts according to a purpose and plan.  The beautiful orchestration of the human body or the ecosystems of the world, or the arrangement of the galaxies and stars, all attest to a wonderfully detail-oriented artistic God who loves to throw paint around, but never carelessly nor aimlessly.

Applying this truth of God to our own lives, however, is a step that we sometimes forget to take.  When it comes to talking about ourselves, it can be very easy to switch from being God-centered to Self-centered.  But if we remember that God created us as parts of his ordered creation, and made us who we are not just for our own sakes but for the sake of the world in which we were created to live, then even the personal questions like “what are your spiritual gifts?” can and should be considered in light of God’s orderliness and intentionality.

I came across some quotes from a couple Early Church Fathers about spiritual gifts which struck me as very helpful for re-discovering this often Pentecostal-dominated topic in a biblical and traditional framework that has been available to the Church all along.

Let’s start with a quick reminder of the traditional “seven gifts of the spirit,” also called virtues, that formed the overall paradigm for the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of God’s people.  Where these seven virtues or gifts come from is a discussion too long to repeat here, so I’ll skip to listing what they are:

  1. wisdom
  2. understanding
  3. counsel
  4. might/fortitude
  5. knowledge
  6. piety
  7. fear (of the Lord)

St. Gregory the Great, in one of his sermons, wrote about how these virtues work together in an orderly fashion, starting with the acknowledgement that none of them can stand on their own.

Each particular virtue is to the last degree destitute, unless one virtue lends its support to another.  For wisdom is less worth if it lacks understanding, and understanding is wholly useless if it be not based upon wisdom, in that while it penetrates the higher mysteries without the counterpoise of wisdom, its own lightness is only lifting it up to meet with the heavier fall.

The pairing of wisdom & understanding is perhaps the trickiest to understand.  What St Gregory argues here is that if you have understanding about how things work, but don’t have the wisdom to apply that understanding, then the virtue of understanding gets lifted up into an idol, doomed to fall.  Wisdom, meanwhile, doesn’t have much to do if it doesn’t have anything understood to work with.

Counsel is worthless when the strength of fortitude is lacking thereto, since what it finds out by turning the thing over, from want of strength it never carries on so far as to the perfecting in deed; and fortitude is very much broken down if it be not supported by counsel, since the greater the power which it perceives itself to have, so much the more miserably does this virtue rush headlong into ruin, without the governance of reason.

Counsel and fortitude are easier to understand.  The virtue of counsel is pretty close to what we might today call “common sense.”  It’s all well and good to have common sense, but if you don’t have the fortitude (or strength) to act accordingly, then that good counsel is useless.  Similarly, if someone is strong in fortitude but lacking in counsel, then they’re doomed to be constantly blundering into situations without thinking things through first.

Knowledge is nought if it hath not its use for piety, for whereas it neglects to put in practice the good that it knows, it binds itself the more closely to the judgment; and piety is very useless if it lacks the discernment of knowledge, in that while there is no knowledge to enlighten it, it knows not the way to show mercy.

The pairing of knowledge and piety strikes me as a classic literary device.  Knowledge separated from piety (a worshipful attention to God) becomes an idolatrous pursuit that gets us in trouble.  You end up like a mad scientist.  Piety without knowledge, however, is just as bad, where you end up with an outwardly “religious” person who has little grounding for his religious practices – in short, this is superstition.

And assuredly  unless it has these virtues with it, fear itself rises up to the doing of no good action, forasmuch as while it is agitated about everything, its own alarms render it inactive and void of all good works.

The seventh virtue is the fear of the Lord, and St. Gregory here points out that fear on its own is a paralyzing force, “agitated about everything” and rendered “inactive and void of all good works” when separated from the other virtues.  And let us not forget the frequent anthem of the Proverbs, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Thus, the first six virtues also need to be built upon this seventh virtue of fear.

So the point here is that when we look for the spiritual gifts that God gives us, we shouldn’t get too fixated on ourselves, and what abilities God gives us individually, but how God is making us well-balanced Christians in the image of his Son Jesus Christ.

St. Maximus the Confessor brings up another point about spiritual gifts: love is absolutely essential.

If you have received from God the gift of knowledge, however limited, beware of neglecting love and temperance.  They are virtues which radically purify the soul from passions, and so open the way of knowledge continually.
… ‘Knowledge puffs up, whereas love builds up [1 Cor. 1:8].’ Therefore unite knowledge with love and by being cleansed from pride you will become a true spiritual builder.  You will build up yourself and all those who are your neighbors.  Love takes its power to build up from the fact that it never envious nor unkind.  It is natural for knowledge to bring with it (at the beginning anyway) some measure of presumption and envy.  But love overcomes these defects: presumption because ‘it is not puffed up’ and envy because ‘it is patient and kind’ [1 Cor. 13:4].

Drawing from the New Testament writings of St. Paul, we’re pointed back to the root of all spiritual gifts: love.  It’s also worth remembering that 1 Corinthians 13, a whole chapter devoted to love, falls between chapters 12 and 14 – devoted to other spiritual gifts.  Love is in the center of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  Any gift we receive without increasing in love is no gift at all.

So next time you hear a conversation or sermon or small group study about spiritual gifts, try to keep this in mind.  God gives as he pleases for a reason, and that reason, though mysterious, includes the purpose of building us up as a Church so that we can be the spotless bride whom his Son loves so much.  Thus the gift of love must be at the heart of this blessed work of the Holy Spirit.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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