We all have gifts. We all have talents. When we use these words, we don’t necessarily mean in the celebrity sense of an awe-inspiring ability to do something others cannot; indeed I would argue that the cult of celebrity is both damaging to society and dangerously idolatrous, but that is another post for another time.
A gift in this sense may well mean a miraculous ability to do something in a particular context, but it can also mean to simply be a particular way personality-wise, whether this be one who is hospitable, or extremely kind-hearted, or generous, or patient. This is in no wise lesser than a more outwardly-projecting gift. It is arguably greater, for it touches the very core of who we are as human beings made in the image of God.
Our gift may also be the proverbial hand that God has dealt us: Our foundations, influences, experiences we have had, people who have accompanied us through life, educational institutions we have been blessed to attend. The Parable of the Talents does not only have to be interpreted as literal talents in the sense that we often use the word. A person born into a family of CEOs who inherits the family business may quite legitimately be expected to continue to generates millions in profits for the enterprise. A person born into a family working on the production line of that same company would not have that same automatic expectation. We are given responsibilities by God relative to where we have been placed. This is why our Lord says,
‘For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him‘ (Matthew 13:12 NKJV).
We are to steward what we have been given and use it effectively, whether it be money, education, possibilities in life, friends, family, to name but a few.
There are a multitude of gifts from God (Spiritual gifts) – we are equipped, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, to do whatever God wills for us ultimately for our salvation and that of all around us. What a humbling honour, but also what an awesome and terrifying responsibility! We must not only ensure that we are actively trying to walk with God in our lives and use what he has given us. but we must keep in check that is only with God and because of God that we are really able to do anything at all; it would be very easy for the CEO’s son, inheriting a family business worth millions, to revel in his new-found wealth and shall we say sordid pleasures. The Great Litany of the main Orthodox Church services includes pleas to God for, ‘helpful seasons and abundance of the fruits of the Earth’. It is very easy for us in our largely comfortable existences in the Western world to forget that even those basics of food to eat, water to drink and calm weather are sustained by the grace of our Heavenly Father. This is not to say that God is holding us to ransom over this, much as the Sun does not hold us to ransom in exchange for continuing to shine on us. It is only a realisation of our place in the cosmos.
Why is this humility important? Because it leads to repentance! Pride leads to arrogance and hard-heartedness.
The world does not understand this use of humility, nor of suffering. From an atheistic perspective, suffering is absolutely something to be utterly stopped and minimized; if a person is terminally close to death and suffering immensely, it is more ‘humane’ to give them no life than to force them to persist with a low quality of life.
For the Christian, we too are called to bring healing and comfort to the sick as Christ and the Apostles themselves did as recorded in many biblical events. During the Orthodox Funeral service, we sing a hymn commending the deceased to God in the hope that they be brought to Paradise, where there is no pain or suffering. Ultimately, into eternity living the blessedness of the new Heaven and the new Earth with God, there is no pain of suffering. However, in THIS life suffering verily has a use in many circumstances.
We suffer (typically) as Christians for one of four reasons:
1) As a consequence of our sin and for our own salvation
2) ‘Unjustly’ for the salvation of others (a form of martyrdom)
3) To keep us humble and aware of our need for reliance on God for all things
4) A type of spiritual warfare (which could relate to all 3 of the above points)
Care is taken here to avoid the use of the word ‘punishment’ – not because the word is incorrect, but because it now potentially carries incorrect connotations. There is no fated ‘need’ for our sin to be punished. A father does not ‘punish’ his child for every wrongdoing arbritrarily because he must be shown to be just in all things. A child is punished that they may learn the gravity of their act and to not do it again. A more accurate word for this might be ‘chastisement’:
‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord,
Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him;
For whom the Lord loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives.”
If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.’
(Hebrews 12: 6-12 NKJV)
St. Paul himself carried an unnamed affliction – when he asked God to remove this, as probably all of us would too, God’s response was simply, ‘my grace is sufficient’. The affliction was not something to be attacked and taken away; from a certain perspective, it was a GOOD thing for St. Paul, and kept him walking faithfully with God and seeing that spiritual gifts truly are spiritual, done working with God and his grace and not by one’s own strength alone.
Saint Peter applies the metaphor of gold being purified in the raging fire of a furnace. I am sure that if gold were sentient it would not much enjoy being thrust into and left in a furnace, but ultimately it comes out at the end pure and precious and valuable. So too, by God’s grace, will our souls and bodies at the Resurrection to lead us into eternal life. For this to happen, we must walk faithfully with God and discern his purpose for us, and the gifts he has given us to acheive this, each and every day as we desire to grow closer to him. It will be difficult, for some the most difficult and painful thing contemplatible in this existence, but boy is it worthwhile.