Is Writing a Spiritual Gift?

by Joyce K. Ellis

Is writing a spiritual gift? This question often surfaces in Christian writing circles.

Scripture teaches that the Holy Spirit has given each believer at least one spiritual gift—an ability entrusted to us when we began our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:11). God gives us the particular gifts we can use. And he expects us to use these “presents” to bring him glory and expand his kingdom.

The lists of spiritual gifts that Paul and Peter give in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, Ephesians 4, and 1 Peter 4 may not be exhaustive, but they reveal types of gifts that come from the Holy Spirit. We find general categories—teaching, encouraging, and leading. Not specifics, such as spring-break beach witnessing, singing with a worship team, or even writing.

But we can use each spiritual gift in many ways. Paul wrote, “There are different kinds of gifts…different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (1 Cor. 12:4-6).

So, personally, I don’t believe that writing is one of “the spiritual gifts,” but it is an avenue through which we can express them.

Just as some pastor-teachers use their gift in large congregations, others at racetracks, and others in children’s work, some of us use ours in print.

Other writers use their gifts of encouragement, healing, or evangelism in their writing.

Sometimes a believer uses the same gift in multiple venues. Paul obviously put his pastor-teacher gift to work in preaching and in his writings—all of them originally letters, remember. With his spiritual gift of encouragement, he restored the once-AWOL John Mark to meaningful service—and also wrote to the Philippians, from a prison cell, about joy in difficult circumstances.

Direction

Understanding our spiritual gifts may provide direction for our writing, too. If one writer identifies his spiritual gifts as leadership, giving, and mercy, he may write about those topics, avoiding what Charles Swindoll calls “trafficking in unlived truths.” But the Lord may also lead him to write direct-appeal letters for relief organizations. Or perhaps he’ll be drawn to writing profiles about people in need, including sidebars about practical ways to help.

If another writer’s spiritual gifts include teaching and encouragement, she may find her best opportunities in expository articles or practical Christian living articles.

Avoiding frustration

Often, writing frustrations come from working outside our spiritual gifts. Some years ago, I helped a retired pastor with some writing projects. Each time we met he brought short devotionals, and he lamented his quick-turnaround rejections.

A brilliant theologian and preacher, he could have been writing expository articles and books—clarifying deep truths. So I encouraged him to use his spiritual gift of teaching to help his readers go deeper in God’s Word.

Peter reminds us, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10).

So unwrap your spiritual gift package and look for ways to use these presents in your writing—for God.

Beyond Nice Writing

Nice writing isn’t enough. It isn’t enough to have smooth and pretty language. You have to surprise the reader frequently, you can’t just be nice all the time. Provoke the reader. Astonish the reader. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Surprise the reader with the unexpected verb or adjective. Use one startling adjective per page.

Anne Bernays, novelist

contributed by Randy Petersen

The Best Way to Be Creative (it involves coffee)

by Anita K. Palmer

As writers we’re diligent not to plagiarize. It’s a clear no-no. But what about ideas? When is it okay to copy an idea and “adapt” it for our own purpose? Is it a compliment, stealing, or a smart move?

I regularly listen to the NPR show/podcast TED Radio Hour. Host Guy Raz, who is leaving after seven wonderful years, is airing his favorite shows as he says goodbye. In today’s broadcast, “What Is Original?” from 2014, Raz interviewed thinkers who have given TED talks on the subject of invention and creativity. Their answers were fascinating. (Listen for yourself at https://bit.ly/30WXNdR.)

Raz’s premise is that every invention, song, piece of art, or idea is built on something that came before. So that pretty much answers the initial question. “Nope. Nothing is original.” He didn’t bring up Ecclesiastes but he could have:

“Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sometimes people say, ‘Here is something new!’ But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new” (1:9-10 NLT).

Stealing from a Samurai

One guest, Kirby Ferguson, had given a TED Talk called “Everything Is a Remix.” In it he played songs that Bob Dylan, one of the most influential singer-songwriters of our time, knowingly appropriated for his own melodies. According to Ferguson, Dylan was doing what folk musicians had always done. What people had always done.

“I think human beings aren’t really capable of coming up with something from nowhere,” Ferguson said. “Like, I think we just do not do that. We build out of materials. We use tools to make things. That’s what we do.”

Ferguson went on to show how George Lucas stole from a filmmaker of samurai films in the 1950s and 60s he admired named Akira Kurosawa. Think of how the Jedi dress; consider the shape of Darth Vader’s helmet. There’s even dialogue in the Star Wars films lifted from the Japanese movies.

That led Raz to ask, where’s the line? What’s copying and what’s building on something that came before? Ferguson replied that the line is between how much you “borrow” and what you do with it.

“So if you take a large chunk of it, to me that is where you’re being derivative. You’re being unoriginal,” said Ferguson. “I think you need to be transforming the things that you copy. You need to be recontextualizing them. . . . You need to be, you know, transforming and combining those elements in exciting ways.”

No Solitary Geniuses

Ferguson next talked about Steve Jobs—ever heard of him?—who announced in 2007 a new technology called multi-touch. Then he ran a tape of a guy named Jeff Han—ever heard of him?—speaking in 2006 about the same technology and saying it wasn’t new: people had been playing with it since the 1980s.

But here’s the thing: The multi-touch patents that Apple filed were for the small parts they had arranged in their own way. And then they went on remixing elements—touchscreen technology, GPS, the internet. And while there were at it, they they changed the world.

This isn’t the story of one genius inventing one amazing thing all by himself, is it? The individualistic narrative is easier to understand and repeat than the incredibly complex process over time involving multiple dreamers and inventors and leaders, culminating in a brilliant new thing.

Where Innovation Happens

What’s this got to do with freelance writers?

Raz interviewed another thinker, Steven Johnson. His TED Talk was called “Where Good Ideas Come From,” which is also the title of a book he published.

Johnson told the story of an 18th century British fellow named Joseph Priestley. He was friends with American founders like Benjamin Franklin. Priestley made huge breakthroughs in science, especially chemistry (for example, he was the first person to realize that plants were creating oxygen). Then he would share them with his friends. They’d talk together for hours, mashing up ideas, challenging one another.

From this, Johnson moved into a final thought, and it’s going to lead to my point, I promise. It has to do with something we’re all familiar with: the coffeehouse.

Did you know that coffee had a big role in the birth of the Enlightenment? Up to this point, water wasn’t safe to drink. So all day long, people drank ale and wine. You basically had a civilization of drunks. Think about that for a moment.

That is, until the rise of the coffeehouse.

“And then you switched from a depressant to a stimulant,” said Johnson. “You would have better ideas. It’s not an accident that a great flowering of innovation happened as England switched to tea and coffee.”

But Johnson wants us to note where this was happening. The coffeehouse. A public gathering spot. “It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise. And an astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffeehouse somewhere in their story.”

As writers we tend to work in isolation. An original idea, though, most often does not come in a lightbulb moment. No “eureka!” Good ideas need a community.

“More often than not,” said Johnson, “[ideas are] cobbled together from whatever parts happened to be around nearby. We take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffeeshop. And we stitch them together into new forms, and we create something new. That’s really where innovation happens.”

So, there you have it. There is nothing truly original in this world, just like the writer of Ecclesiastes said. But we get to “borrow” and remix all the melodies and dialogues and discoveries and images of our culture and come up with our own creations.

But not alone. So turn off your laptop. Get out of your office. Grab a fellow writer or four and go have coffee. Set up a regular gathering with other creative folks. Together, let’s change the world.

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