Thursday, February 01, 2018

The Fundamental Irrelevance of Our Natural Talents

Cancun sunrise
Natural talents are irrelevant when it comes to bearing the kind of fruit Jesus wants to produce in us. What is relevant is super-natural power, which is available to all, whether they are naturally talented or not. This is "good news!" As Dallas Willard has told us, the good new of Jesus is that the kingdom of God is available to all.

Some people are more naturally talented than others. Some are smarter, more athletic, more dynamic in their personalities, and more beautiful by certain earthbound standards. But when it comes to God and his kingdom, natural talents are not what are needed. Someone with all the above might produce nothing of heavenly value; someone with none of the above might produce goods that last forever.

This is about the purpose of our lives, which is: to bear fruit that will last. Only God can grow this. It is the result of a life spent abiding in Christ. We get no credit when it happens. Our own talent counts for little. Talent fades and is forgotten; character influences and endures.

Note the lack of emphasis in the New Testament on natural abilities. The apostle Paul views himself as a poor speaker. In looking for followers Jesus is not on a talent search.

Whatever abilities, circumstances, and capital a person possesses in this life diminishes in comparison to lasting, eternal produce. What is important is the fruit, not our relative amazingness. Any intrinsic awesomeness we might have counts for nothing in the eyes of God.

Most Christians fail to understand this. We are all so caught up in the values of the Entertainment Church that mere, godly fruit-bearers are relegated to the lowest echelons of the honor-shame hierarchy.

Listen closely to Dallas Willard, who writes: 

"Natural gifts, external circumstances, and special opportunities are of little significance. The good tree, Jesus said, “bears good fruit” (Matthew 7:17). If we tend to the tree, the fruit will take care of itself."
(Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus's Essential Teachings on Discipleship, Kindle Locations 1815-1819)

Does this mean our natural talents are unimportant? Aren't we supposed to use whatever talents and circumstances we have for the glory of God?

Those are good questions, miss the point of what I, and Willard, are saying.

Jesus talks about being a branch, attached to himself. When you are attached, your life will bear much fruit. Fruit-bearing is what is important to Jesus.

When it comes to bearing much fruit, the attractiveness or talents of the branch are "of little significance." The untalented branch produces much fruit, just as the talented branch does. Both talent and untalent are irrelevant to fruit-bearing in the kingdom of God.

How radical and counter-cultural is this! The American Church views people in their unconnectedness. People in the church are viewed hierarchically. Some have more talent than others; hence, they are more valuable in church work.

This leads to the great illusion; viz., to value human ability more than connectedness to Christ and His abilities (church as a Hollywood cult). As this happens, church becomes a stage, upon which the beautiful branches perform, whether connected or not. (This undergirds the "warm body" approach to ministry, and viewing people as functions, rather than as persons who need the Lord.)

Jesus' metaphor of the Vine and the branches subverts this way of thinking. Any branch can connect with him and bear much fruit.

Much fruit, as Jesus said. This is why talent means relatively nothing in comparison with connectedness.

But what do you say to someone who says, "Aren't our talents given by God? Can't he use them for his glory?"  Doesn't God give us talents we are good at for a reason?"

Jesus talks to his disciples about living a fruitful life. He says that anyone who abides in him will bear much fruit. (John 14-15) "If you remain in me," says Jesus, "you will bear much fruit." So, "remaining in him" is not only for talented people. Whether greatly gifted or unendowed, all are promised a fruit-bearing life as they abide in Christ.

In the context of John chapters 14 and 15 we see that by "fruit" Jesus means: doing the kind of things he did, and then doing even greater things. What kind of things did Jesus do? He healed sick people, delivered demonically oppressed people, his words had authority, and he raised dead people back to life. Plus, he loved his enemies from his heart, which included all of us, since "while we were his enemies, Christ died for us."

In terms of producing the kind of "fruit" Jesus bore, and which he now says his disciples can manifest - healing, delivering, authority, dead-raising, and agape love - natural abilities are of little significance. Indeed, they may be fully irrelevant, except in the sense that God will work through what we have.

Because the fruit Jesus is talking about is supernatural (produced by God), mere natural abilities are incapable of doing the job. The truly good news is that God's kingdom is accessible to all.