The Major Oak at the heart of Sherwood Forest cocked a sinewy old branch in our direction as we stopped for a rest. Massively old, bulging grotesquely around the middle and unfathomably still standing, I was 40 now so these things should be expected.
My friend, half my age, was heading off to America to train with a Christian mission organisation and wanted some guidance.
‘How do I grow in my gifting?’ he asked me.
‘Do you like pork pies?’ I replied. This wasn’t an elaborate precursor to answering his question with esoteric wit – I had made a picnic and I genuinely wanted to know if he’d like one.
It would give me a chance to think. I stared back along the footpath which had brought us here as though it was a timeline of my own Christian journey. Boot marks in the memory-foam turf reminded me of the myriad missteps which had left their lasting imprint. Gaps in the foliage brought to mind moments of spiritual breakthrough, while youthful arrogance lay like a broken branch on the ground, embowered with regret. From above the sun’s rays hit the path with fierce light.
‘You don’t need to,’ I said. My friend looked understandably deflated. Like Dorothy when she finally meets the Wizard of Oz, this was a huge let-down. Before he was able to protest, and here I’d like to thank the pork pie for its help in having an almost impenetrably-baked crust, I continued.
‘All you need is humility.’
That may sound piously monastic, but hear me out for goodness sake.
Your gifting, whether that is singing, words of prophecy or archery, is more-or-less immutable. ‘The gifts and callings of God are without repentance’ (Romans 10). Obviously you can become creatively flabby – even Premier League footballers need intensive pre-season training after a month off – but giftings are tied to personality and are, as such, permanent residents in your core, not simply creepy lodgers who are found comatose in the loft after a few weeks.
What is neither permanent nor immovable is your character. Character is first on the scene when personality doesn’t get its own way. Character is the horse-whisperer which holds the skittish, unruly horse of personality in check, or which unbridles it and sends it galloping furiously into a crowd of innocents. My friend was starting to look confused, but it turned out there was just an unacceptable and ghastly jelly-to-meat ratio in his pork pie.
At this point maybe we have to define terms, because what I mean by humility might not be what you’d expect. Words change over time. In the 21st Century ‘ambidextrous’ signifies being equally adept at using both hands, whereas in the 16th Century an ‘ambidexter’ was someone who took bribes from both sides of a legal dispute. When I say ‘humility’ then, I don’t mean ‘modesty’. Humility is not a wretchedly self-effacing inability to accept praise or a self-blinding martyrdom. You don’t have to be tight-lipped about the gifts God has given you because they are gifts – not earned, not self-wrought. And after you have worked hard to hone those gifts into skills, to simply fend off compliments in a flustering act of self-denial is false.
Humility is being able to see someone else’s gift as clearly as you see your own, to elevate and encourage that person as much as you wish to be encouraged; to understand that your gifts and skills are still limited and are there to serve and work alongside others. (‘The eye cannot say to the hand “I do not need you.”’ 1 Corinthians 12:21).
Humility is about being able to receive negative feedback without either erupting in self-entitled rage or seeking to accuse the feedback-giver of simply transferring their insecurities onto us. It’s about widening the lens in a conflict situation and being willing to ask, ‘Where might I be the bad guy here?’
Stephen King, one of the greatest selling authors of all time, still labels himself, after a 40-year career, as ‘a gifted amateur’. He knows that a book is never finished, only abandoned. It’s the same with anything creative. The beauty of all creation and all creating lies in its fragility. Humility is being able to have peace in the transient, changeable nature of even our sharpest skills, without plummeting into hand-wringing despair.
‘How will that practically help me grow in my gifting?’ my young friend asked, now comfortably halfway through a home-made Coronation Chicken sandwich and making it look easy.
My answer: because humility is the on-site gardener for your character. It gives your gifts room to grow by uprooting the stifling weeds of hubris and scything down the looming stalks of unhelpful comparison. When we spend less time cultivating bitterness, fear and fantasy, that time and effort can be given over to watering what God planted in us from the beginning.
A stark truth about spiritual gifts (tethered as they are to human souls) is that they can’t be removed but they can be corrupted. The eloquent public speaker who uses their golden words to manipulate people. The gifted artist, paralysed from painting because the God of Perfectionism reigns in their heart. The fearless pioneer who refuses to let others catch up and leaves a scorched earth trail of broken promises.
It is character that needs to grow, not gifting. If you want to see the yield of your God-given gifts, sow deep with your character, and let the cooling water of humility keep your heart, mind and soul well-watered.
I pointed an accusing finger back at the Great Oak, still dominant among it’s brethren after a thousand years of implacable rootedness. ‘It’s those with the deepest roots that leave the biggest legacy.’
‘This is the best Coronation Chicken I’ve ever had,’ my young friend said, undermining any sense of drama.
‘I’m very good at making it, yes. But I think it needs more paprika.’
‘Did you bring anything for dessert?’
‘No. Planning ahead isn’t one of my gifts, sorry.’