Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Stick with Your Competencies

We have different gifts, according the grace given us. (Romans 12.6)
Graced with Gifts
Steve, my younger brother, is a gifted athlete. He shouldn’t be. He was born with a stomach defect that caused him to eliminate food before his system processed it. My parents spent the first weeks of his life trying to save him from starving to death. The doctors suggested surgery—saying if it worked, he’d live, but never develop into the strapping boy all parents want their sons to be. Mom and Dad took this to mean, “It’s time to trust God.” Much to the doctors' chagrin, the baby who was supposed to grow into a scrawny boy became a first-rate jock. A stockpile of trophies trailed him from Little League to college.

I turned out to be the skinny klutz nobody wanted on the team. While classmates teased me mercilessly, it never fazed my parents, Steve, or me. Although I ascribe most of this to my parents’ wisdom, I believe it also had to do with Steve’s proof we are graced with gifts. Rather than pressure us to be like anyone else, Mom and Dad urged us to discover our talents and master them. While they deserve high praise for this, they’d be the first to dismiss any pretense of innovation in it, because Paul says the same thing in 2 Timothy 1.6: “I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you,” And his well-known treatise on the Body of Christ in Romans 12 is founded on this philosophy.

Sacrificing Conformity

Paul begins with a bold statement too rich to be summarized or condensed:

I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (Romans 12.1-3)
This is a daring and radical concept by itself. To a “mixed” congregation of Jews and Gentiles openly practicing their faith in Roman society, it was revolutionary. Contrary to belief, first-century Rome was admirably tolerant of foreign ethnicities and religions. Yet, as often happens, Rome’s diversity was constructed of stereotypes each group felt compelled to embody. Thus, notions of what made Christians unique exerted great pressure to live up this “pattern.” Conformity within the Body became an issue. Specific talents God placed in the congregation went woefully underdeveloped, crippling its unity, health, and tolerance of one another. A new stereotype affixed itself to Christians, who became known as an obstreperous group of uncaring people. Indeed, insistence on total conformity sparked internal brawls that spilled into the streets and disturbed the peace. More than anything, the Christians’ reputation as troublemakers seeded the prejudice that escalated into persecution.

While the Romans persisted in pursuing a uniform identity, Paul saw this would be their undoing. Sadly, this phenomenon is no less common today. Each of us struggles to balance personal faith with what we’re told Christians believe and do. It’s essential we listen very closely as Paul debunks the cookie-cutter myth. There is not one kind of Christian, he says; there is one Body comprised of all kinds of Christians. “These members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others,” he writes. (v4-5) Conforming to Christ’s ideal demands sacrificing conformity to popular perceptions. “We have different gifts, according to the grace given us,” verse 6 says. Neglecting talents God gives us for a one-size-fits-all persona negates His purpose for endowing us with special gifts. It weakens us and deprives others. Adhering to stereotype serves no one.

In Proportion

After urging us to identify our gifts, Paul rolls out a litany of examples that startle us with the Body's diversity of talents. “If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” (v6-8) His picture hardly portrays a crowd of clones who reject individual passions and skills to do everything the same way. As Paul sees it, conformity destroys the Body’s effectiveness. Diversity celebrates and bolsters its primary objective: “Do not conform… but be transformed.” When we recognize and refine the gifts God has entrusted to us—when we stick with our competencies—they become something far more unique than passions and skills. They’re transformed into what verse 3 calls the ability “to test and approve what God’s will is.” Doing our best with what we know best proves God’s purpose in our lives. But more than that, it attests to His providence in providing for the entire body’s needs by placing us in it.

The key is found in Paul’s instruction to use our gifts in proportion to faith. Success in what we’re designed to do starts with believing we can, and allowing others to excel in areas where we lack faith. Appearance may indicate we’re better equipped than someone else. My uneventful medical history actually favored me becoming the jock instead of Steve. Had we followed this reasoning, his success would have been compromised and my real talents would have gone ignored. In the same way, having more at our disposal doesn’t necessarily mean we have a talent for giving, or possessing leadership aptitude doesn’t make us gifted leaders. Many notable attributes are secondary to actual gifts. Realizing this spares us guilt over not using certain assets in obvious ways—and frees us to use them as we fan the flame of God in us. When all is said and done, that’s what separates conforming to artificial patterns from being truly transformed.

To this day, society and religion endorse a cookie-cutter myth, which Paul directly opposes. Diversity--not conformity--is the Body of Christ's greatest strength.

(Next: Courage)


Edgington said...

"Diversity celebrates and bolsters its primary objective: “Do not conform… but be transformed.” When we recognize and refine the gifts God has entrusted to us—when we stick with our competencies—they become something far more unique than passions and skills." HOW TRUE this is Tim. Growing into our skills, then trusting the path enough to act with confidence and passion is key. Thanks for this blog.
p.s. great 'cookie' pix!

Tim said...

Mariah/Byron, I'm often struck by how often we meet people who knew us at earlier stages of our development and presumed we're still doing what we did then. They've missed a long stretch in the evolution of our gifts--the period where we discovered disciplines we learned in other areas were intended to inform what we're called to do now. And many times, it throws them for a loop!

Transformation is a refining process, a steadily cumulative arc we travel that places us where we need to be (to do what we need to do) at any given time. Trusting the path (well said!) is vital and, indeed, acting with confidence and passion is key.

I look at both of you and see this. How could you have possibly known the talents you honed in the past were preparing you as future champions of marital equality? And I imagine this has surprised many who "knew you when."

"If the LORD delights in a man's way, he makes his steps firm," Psalm 37.23. You are both beautiful witnesses to this truth. And you show why getting mired in conformity is certainly no way to go!

Blessings from a heart of much love and admiration,

PS: I thought the little doggy cookies caught it perfectly--so sweet and cute and so not what we should be!