Excerpt from Streams of Living Water

We do not live our lives “under our own steam”; we were never created to do so. We were created to live our lives in cooperation with another reality. The Charismatic Tradition gives special attention to this other reality, which is, quite simply, life in and through the Spirit of God. 

Frankly, there are no “noncharismatic Christians.” I understand what is meant by that term, and I see the historical and sociological reasons for it, but the Christian life is by definition a life in and through the Spirit. 

The Charismata 

Now, the charismata are identifiable expressions of that life in specific forms for specific purposes. Every follower of Jesus is endowed by the Spirit with one or more of these spiritual charisms. These are not the same as natural talents, though they sometimes fit together with them. 

The sign of the presence of the charismata is that the effect of one’s actions greatly exceeds the input of the human being. In other words, if we knew only what the human being put in, we could not imagine the outcome. The results are always incommensurate to our efforts. It is, you see, a work of the Spirit. 

We are fortunate that Paul addressed in considerable detail many practical matters relative to exercising the spiritual gifts. No biblical writer has given us more. The bulk of this teaching is concentrated in three crucial passages: Romans 12, Ephesians 4, and especially 1 Corinthians 12-14. We would do well to meditate at length upon these teachings. In all three we find lists of gifts—lists that, while they vary somewhat, all contain the same essential features: gifts of leadership, such as apostleship, evangelism, and preaching/teaching; ecstatic gifts, such as tongues, discernment of spirits, and prophecy; and gifts that build community life, such as wisdom, faith, and helps. 

A person with the charism of apostleship, for example, is endowed with spiritual abilities to pioneer in new areas, planting churches cross-culturally. A person with the charism of evangelism has special spiritual enablement to touch those outside of the community of faith with the evangel, the good news of the gospel. A person with the charism of faith has spiritual abilities to see creative, new possibilities and trust God for them. And so forth. 

We must always remember this threefold function of the charisms of the Spirit: leadership, ecstatic empowerment, and community-building. Any efforts to restrict the work of the Spirit to leadership gifts only, or ecstatic gifts only, or community-building gifts only, simply miss the point. This temptation toward restriction arises because of the vested interests and particular histories of differing groups. But it is a temptation that must be resisted if we are to be faithful to the biblical witness. 

The ecstatic gifts are most often given to show us that God is present where we assume that he is not. At Pentecost everyone assumed that those disciples huddled together were outlaws. But by supernatural visual aids and heavenly sound effects God demonstrated in no uncertain terms that he was with them (Acts 2:1-13). The same was true at the home of Cornelius. The Jewish Christians, you understand, had assumed that God could not be present and active among Gentiles, and God had to show them otherwise (Acts 10). And the contemporary story of William Seymour and the folks at Azusa Street is only another verse of the same song. To reiterate: the ecstatic gifts often help us see that God is present and active among peoples and situations we have written off as hopeless. 

Building in Love 

First Corinthians contains the most extensive teaching we have in the Bible on spiritual gifts. At its center is the famous “love chapter,” which should give us some inkling of how central divine love is to any effective functioning of spiritual gifts. The section that precedes 1 Corinthians 13 may be lesser known, but it is intimately tied to it and contains great practical wisdom. I would like to focus on this passage as a summation of the essential principles we need for the exercising of spiritual gifts in such a way that they build rather than destroy community life. 54

Taking responsibility is the first principle. “Indeed,” says Paul, “the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body” (1 Cor. 12:14-16). This is a passage for all who feel that they have nothing to offer the community. The charism of helps may have small effect when compared to the charism of prophecy, but it is absolutely essential for life together. Every charism is needed, no matter how insignificant it may seem to us. 

Accepting limitation is the second principle. “If the whole body were an eye,” writes Paul, “where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? … there are many members, yet one body” (1 Cor. 12:17-20). This is a passage for all who feel that they have everything to offer the community. No single individual contains all the charisms of the Spirit. We are limited in the good we can accomplish by ourselves. This is a divinely imposed limitation in order to defeat our egoism. 

Esteeming others is the third principle. “The eye cannot say to the hand,” says Paul, “’I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this” (1 Cor. 12:21-24a). This is a passage for all who feel that they can live independent of the community. Any proper exercise of the charisms of the Spirit is a joint effort. God has arranged the functioning of the gifts in this way so that we will always be dependent upon one another and always esteem each other. 

Maintaining unity within diversity is the fourth principle. “God has so arranged the body,” teaches Paul, “giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor. 12:24b-26). This is a passage for all who bring division to the community, either deliberately or inadvertently. While we are all different personalities and exercise differing gifts, we still function as a whole. We are inseparably linked together, suffering together and rejoicing together. 

What a wonderful description of our life together! Spiritual gifts are given to build us up as a community of faith. But of course this way of living and relating can be done only through an all-encompassing supernatural love, which is precisely why Paul sets agape at the center of his teaching on the charisms of the Spirit. Love, you see, “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:7-8a).

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Excerpted from Streams of Living Water by Richard J. Foster, published by HarperOne. Copyright Richard J. Foster. Used with permission.

Originally published October 1998.