When a Christian finds out that he or she has a spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 12:7), it can be a perplexing pleasure. It is a pleasure because it’s nice to know that the Lord has given us a special gift to offer in service to the body of Christ. It’s perplexing because we may not know what that special gift is.

So how can we discover our spiritual gift(s)? Let me answer this question by contrasting two different strategies we can adopt.

We’ll refer to the first strategy as the “inside-out”* strategy. This plan of attack suggests that knowing my own giftedness—and knowing myself in general—logically precedes service. Those who adopt this strategy will invest a great deal of time and energy in introspection. They’ll focus a lot of attention on the specific spiritual gifts outlined in the Bible, and they may take one or more spiritual gifts inventories to try to gain clarity. When they feel that they have a good sense of their spiritual selves, they’ll begin to venture out into service, preferably serving others in ways consistent with their gifting.

The second strategy, which we’ll call the “outside-in” strategy, is essentially the opposite of the first. Those who adopt this strategy will focus immediately on serving others rather than being overly analytical about whether or not their particular service opportunities align with their gifting. Over time, clarity about their gift(s) will emerge as the Holy Spirit blesses certain aspects of their ministry, and as discerning brothers and sisters in Christ affirm their giftedness. More and more they’ll find that their service and their giftedness are converging.

Why is the second strategy superior to the first? First of all, this strategy directs our focus and our energies toward service and away from ourselves. Not only is this others-centeredness consistent with the command to love God and neighbor (Matthew 22:36–40), but it is also most effective in gift discovery. If “the manifestation of the Spirit” is given to each believer “for the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7), then it’s backward in the search process to spend most of my energy analyzing my own giftedness and devoting comparatively little energy to the common good. In other words, it’s hard to learn about an others-centered gift in a well-meaning but self-centered context.

Likewise, the outside-in strategy helps us avoid the subtle syndrome in which I focus more on my giftedness than on the use of my giftedness in cooperation with other parts of the body. Sadly, when the search for spiritual gifts becomes a highly introspective endeavor, we can quite easily make a sort of idol out of our gifts and even assume that the church exists to offer me a place to serve in exactly the way I believe I should serve. Those who fall into this trap lose sight of the corporate complementarity of the gifts of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:14–25) and elevate their own goals above the goals of the church.

Another consideration is that it is quite likely that the biblical authors who described spiritual gifts were not trying to offer exhaustive or discrete lists of gifts. Paul, who lists a number of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12:8–10, gives a very different list of gifts to the church at Rome (Romans 12:6–8), and he lists people serving in certain functions as gifts to the church as well (Ephesians 4:11–16). Peter seems to offer two broad summary categories of gifts (“speaking” and “serving” in 1 Peter 4:11). The point here is that our giftedness may not correspond precisely to any of the gifts listed in these passages, because apparently none of the writers intended to describe a fixed collection of gifts that could never blend or overlap. Thus, we can twist ourselves into a pretzel if we try to first fit our gifts perfectly into pre-set classifications and then serve. If that’s the plan, it may be a long time until we actually do something.

Maybe you’ve thought about this question. What has been helpful to you in discovering your spiritual gift(s)?

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Each Thursday we send out our Training Resources Newsletter, which shares a new ministry tool and an encouraging story about God’s Spirit preparing someone for service.

* For a comprehensive and eloquent discussion of the “inside-out” and “outside-in” mentalities, see Os Guinness’ The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life.