Spiritual Gifts, Humility, and Happiness

Imagine a saw.  Now imagine trying to hammer a nail with the blade of the saw. It’s not going to work.  It’s more likely to break the saw, or damage the surface which is being nailed, or cut the person using the saw. It’s better to hammer with a nail and saw with a saw. Obviously.

But the same principle is less obvious when it comes to the way we live out the spiritual gifts God’s given each of us.  When we try to do something we aren’t called and equipped to do, we often hurt ourselves and others. For an example from my own life, I’m an introvert. Days of work like yesterday where I have to pretend I’m an extrovert for 15 hours straight leave me cranky and irritable. Sometimes my life feels like hammering with a saw. And I don’t think I’m the only person who ends up in these situations.

This is why I’m grateful for the wisdom Symeon the New Theologian shared about spiritual gifts in “Hymn 54” of his Hymns of Divine Eros. For Symeon, we are like “inanimate tools”, each fashioned by God for different purposes. “The artisan of each tool, for whatever desired purpose, / equips the tool to operate according to its art” (lines 9-10). Just as a saw is meant to be used as a saw and not as a hammer, so also we’ve each been given different spiritual gifts and not given others (Romans 12:4).  Because we each have different gifts and not others, pretending we have gifts that we don’t have is downright dangerous. Symeon writes, “if you were to use them for purposes other than for what they were made / then your life and all your works would destroy themselves” (lines 17-18).

How can we avoid such destruction?  What other choice do we have? Symeon suggests a pretty simple answer: to be what we’re made to be.  We have little choice over what our gifts are, but once we live into our gifts, we discover that they pave the road to joy. Symeon writes, “each person is suited not to whatever / art one wants, but to whatever art one was created for, / and to this art one is disposed suitably and affectionately” (lines 35-37).  Notice that we’re not necessarily given the gifts we want.  I may want to be a talented musician, or a gregarious community organizer, or a charismatic evangelist, but God hasn’t made me to be those things.  But once one begins to live into the “art one was created for” one finds that “to this art one is disposed suitably and affectionately.” When we start using our true gifts, we discover how powerful they are, and how much joy they can produce.

Symeon says this transition toward our true gifts requires repentance and humility (line 127). From what must we repent? Perhaps the lies we tell others and ourselves regarding our gifts. Pretending to have gifts we don’t have is simple deception and dishonesty. Let’s be honest about what our gifts are and aren’t. And if we’re being honest, we should remember that humility does not mean hiding our true spiritual gifts. Michael Casey writes, “To deny our gifts is to deny others the profit of sharing in their fruits. Such a refusal can have no part in genuine humility” (A Guide to Living in the Truth: St. Benedict’s Teaching on Humility: Ligouri/Triumph 2001 p. 24).  Humility requires not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). That means repenting of the pride that creates the false-selves and facades we use to impress others.  But humility also means acknowledging that, in the Church, we belong to one another (Romans 12:5). Our gifts are not merely our own, but they are given for the sake of the Church.  To hide gifts God has given for the building up of his Body is like putting a lamp under a basket.  When we repent of hiding our true gifts and humbly bring them into the Light, we become happier and the whole Church benefits.

But this sort of humility requires openness and trust. When Symeon calls us to “Hasten and be glued” to “the hands of God and of his saints”, and live “like inanimate tools doing, or moving, or operating nothing at all without them” (lines 147-148, 152-153), he’s not calling us to be mindless robots. He’s instead calling us to the humble submission to the creative intentions of God and the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us. That sort of humility is characterized by openness to receiving and using the gifts that God does want to give us. It also requires trust.  As an introverted church-planter, I’ve sometimes accused God of using wrong tool for the job. But that accusation both comes from a posture of pride and is rooted in a lie about God’s character.  To humbly pursue the true gifts God has given me, I’ve needed to repent of the mistrust and pride which make the clay question and accuse the Potter (Isaiah 29:16, 45:9)

And where does this road of humility and repentance lead? Symeon says, “as soon as you walk on the straight road / you will become numbered with all the saints, / and it will eventually make you all happy” (lines 161-163).  In context, what Symeon means by “the straight road” is the path of fulfilling the tasks which one was uniquely gifted to do. And this produces happinessHappy was not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Symeon the New Theologian. Throughout the Hymns of Divine Eros, I’ve seen Symeon extol the virtues of repentance, humility, and mourning one’s sins.  But there is a deep joy that lies beneath the surface of these hymns. It’s the joy that comes from intimacy with Christ, the intimacy of a tool in the hand of its Creator, fulfilling the purposes for which it was created.  It’s the happiness of freedom to be what one was meant to be, the happiness of hitting the nail on the head.


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