Spiritual Gifts (/Supernatural)

Something I’ve just written for the parish magazine.

‘Earnestly desire the higher gifts’ (1 Cor 12.31)

I have been asked by several people recently about the nature of spiritual or supernatural gifts: what are they and how should we understand them? Well, St Paul devotes a very long sequence in his first letter to the Corinthians to this topic (chapters 12-14) and I would heartily recommend studying those chapters to get some good sense about what these gifts are and how important – or unimportant – they are. What I would like to do briefly here is say something about the ‘supernatural’, which might help to clear things up.

When we talk about the ‘supernatural’ today, we tend to think either of poltergeists and vampires, or else of some sort of special power like Superman’s X-ray vision. We think that there is a natural world which we are familiar with, and then there is a supernatural world which goes beyond this. Supernatural gifts in particular are seen as forms of power, especially the ability to do or achieve something physical like lifting an amazingly heavy weight. This is not the way that the early church understood ‘the supernatural’.

In the early church, the division wasn’t between the natural and the supernatural, but between the natural and the graced – that is, between what was human and humanly comprehensible, and what was the subject of divine activity. This was not a matter of power so much as it was about morality. The early church took it for granted that we were sinful, we were corrupted by original sin, and so we are incapable of being virtuous or good by our own activity. However, the action of divine grace can work within us and enable us to become better people and thereby do good work. This is the understanding that lies behind much of the language of the Book of Common Prayer, especially in the 39 Articles.

The difference might be envisaged by comparing Superman – a character who can achieve all sorts of physically impossible feats, like flying and lifting trains with one hand – and St Francis of Assisi, who overcame the patterns of his upbringing in order to serve the poor. Superman is ‘supernatural’ in a modern sense, but it is St Francis who is supernatural in the earlier and more Scriptural sense. His ‘nature’ was surpassed, and his life of virtue was therefore supernatural.

This is what St Paul emphasises through the famous chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians, which we will be studying in the house groups throughout Lent. The most important gift is love, and this is a spiritual gift, this is a supernatural gift. Consider how hard it is to forgive someone who has deeply hurt us – it is not something that we can achieve through our own power. Yet it is possible – it is a gift from God when it can happen, and all the thanks belong to him when it does.

So when St Paul writes, introducing that chapter 13, ‘earnestly desire the higher gifts’ this is what he is talking about. There are all sorts of strange and exotic phenomena in our lives, some are spiritually important, some are not, but the most important gifts are those of love, most especially what he elsewhere calls the ‘fruits of the Spirit’: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the most important, the most worthy, and the most supernatural of the gifts that God can bestow on us. Let us pursue these gifts, and pray for these gifts, and share these gifts in our community.