Grace—it is central to the gospel. As Christians, we understand that. Yet many of us operate with an inadequate theology of gift, and gift presupposes grace.
Imagine asking two successful people how they managed to accomplish what they have. The first says, “I’m just very gifted.” The second says, “I’ve just worked very hard.” Who sounds more smug?
Our meritocracy—in which people are valued based on ability alone—has conditioned us to consider it arrogant to attribute our accomplishments to God’s gracious gift. For some reason, gift talk sounds elitist. Conversely, we think we’re being humble when we say we worked hard for our success. The gospel polarity of grace versus works, though correctly understood in theory, is capsized in practice: “You succeeded? You must have worked harder than others,” we think. “You didn’t succeed? Try again.”
For it is by works you have succeeded, not by gifts, so that no one can boast. Logical as it may seem, it’s far from the gospel.
For good reason, Paul referred to spiritual gifts as charismata: gifts of charis, or grace. We all have different gifts, according to the grace given to us (Rom. 12:3–6). Paul also knew that using those gifts was essential for everyone’s flourishing. So he urged people to use what God had given them—but always as stewards, not earners. Sailors work hard to harness the wind, but they’re never so foolish as to take credit for moving the boat.
Yet the meritocratic meme pops up everywhere. Instead of talking about their distinctive gifts, wealthy entrepreneurs often explain their prosperity as the result of diligence, focus, and commitment. While these characteristics are supported in Scripture and crucial to business, they can be equally found in sweatshops and refugee camps. And high achievers in health care, education, and politics talk far more about long hours and intense effort than unusual brainpower or charisma. Such talk makes sense in a culture like ours that prizes individual striving, but in Christian circles, it’s indefensible.
A few months ago, a well-known Christian speaker tweeted (and I paraphrase), “I’m not especially gifted. I’ve just worked very hard. If you keep pursuing your dreams, God will accomplish dramatic things through you!” She was well-intentioned, no doubt, and sincerely aiming to encourage others. But her gifts of intelligence, communication, and creativity are far greater than average. She has no way of knowing whether her work rate is unusually high or whether her readers will accomplish “dramatic” things. If the apostle Paul were on Twitter, I imagine he’d respond, “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not?” (1 Cor. 4:7).
It’s not that we fail to celebrate work. Rather, we so emphasize our work that God’s gifts to us are often minimized. By doing so, we convince ourselves that our success is the result of work rather than grace. Meritocracy has replaced charismata.
When we elevate our work above God’s gifts, it shifts glory from him to us. “Gift” language points to an abundantly generous gift giver. “Work” language credits the worker and points toward the self. It also generates a sense of entitlement: If I have something because of my efforts, then I deserve it. “To the one who works,” Paul says, “wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation” (Rom. 4:4, my italics). But if God gave it to me, then I will hold it loosely, knowing I have no rights to it, that it could have been given to someone else just as easily. If you’re work-minded, you own things; if you’re gift-minded, you steward them and give them away as soon as you’re asked. Easy come, easy go.
Charismatic, or grace-centered, theology sees the church as a body, where different gifts are given to different people and so foster interdependence. Meritocratic, or work-centered, theology tells us that if we study more, pray harder, or evangelize more regularly, we too can be as effective as so-and-so. If everything is within our own reach, then why need one another? Why be the church?
I’m preaching to myself here. For years I’ve struggled with envying a friend who is more gifted than I am. He’s a better leader, a more prolific writer, a superior linguist, and a more effective preacher. When I think like a meritocrat, I feel dispirited: He’s a better Christian. He deserves success. When I think like a charismatic, I experience freedom: He’s been given a different gift and doesn’t deserve it any more than I do. Grace—gloriously—brings liberty. What do you have that you did not receive?
Andrew Wilson, CT's newest columnist, is an elder at Kings Church in Eastbourne, England, and author most recently of If God, Then What?
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