School of The Rock

 

What the Bible DOESN’T Say About Gifts and Talents                


Written by Paul D. Race for SchoolOfTheRock.com?

 

If you’re a young Christian to whom music is important, you’ve probably heard a lot about “talents” and “gifts.”  I know I did when I was a young musician who became a Christian back in 1972 and wanted to use my music for Jesus.  Frankly, kids and young adults who wondered if their musical talent was God’s way of showing them their life’s calling got a lot of mixed signals.  And the worst of those came from consistent misinterpretation of certain Bible passages.

The Biblical Meaning of “Talent” in Matthew 24:14-30

When such topics came up, the most quoted (and mis-applied) scripture was the one about “talents” (Matthew 24:14-30)  Never mind that a “talent” was a measure of money - actually a lot of money.  The fact that the word in most translations was the same word we use for skills and abilities today led to the obvious interpretation that you were supposed to use your skills and abilities for God.  That’s a fine interpretation as far as it goes, but the Biblical talent represents resources of any kind, including time, ability to work, literal money, and even our life-span.  The overall idea is that we are stewards - not owners - of everything that comes our way, including even our own lives.  So you are distorting the meaning of that passage when you focus on one thing that you like to do or want to do or that people tell you you’re good at, while wasting all of the other resources He has given or spending them on your own self-gratification.

Yes, I may be a better songwriter or guitarist than the average Christian. (Feel free to disagree; I have a thick skin.)  But God also gave me the abilities to speak, to listen, to work, to study, to teach, to write, and so on.  Just because the word “talent” appears in Matthew 24 doesn’t mean that whatever talent(s) - in the modern sense - I believe I possess or could develop should override every other aspect of my life.

Note that I’m not saying that you should not use any unique skills and abilities for the Kingdom - only that this passage is not telling you to put those ahead of everything else.  “Can you help in the nursery this Sunday?”  “Sorry, my talent is singing, not baby-sitting.”  “Can you teach Sunday School for a quarter?”  “Sorry, God called me to be a Cajon-player and anything else I do for the church will show that I have no respect for God’s calling on my life.”  “Can you go into all the world and preach the Gospel?”  “Only if I can take my PA system and backing tracks.” 

Does correct interpretation of Matthew 24: 14-30 mean that God hasn’t called you to use your unique skills and abilities for Him?  No, it only means that you are responsible for discerning God’s leading for your entire life, and that being able to paint or juggle or play the banjo or any other “talent” in the modern sense is just one aspect of that life.

The Biblical Meaning of “Gift” in Proverbs 18:16

At the same time that some Christian leaders were using Matthew 24:14-30 out of context, they were also telling young people with talent in the modern sense to beware of self-promotion.  After all, Proverbs 18:16 says, “A man’s gift maketh room for him and bringeth him before great men.”

In this interpretation, the word “gift” is taken to mean a special skill or ability, a “talent” in the modern sense.  So, if you really are “gifted” in music or art or whatever it is, you won’t need to tell anybody about it - God will see to it that your “gift” brings you to the attention of important people.  Folks who interpret Proverbs 18:16 this way are fond of using the example of Joseph, who was languishing in prison until word got to Pharaoh that a certain Jewish dreamer could help him sort out a perplexing vision.  Did Joseph need a press kit?  No, and neither do you.  Did Joseph contact venues about showcasing his abilities?  No, and neither should you.

The principle is, essentially, that you should get really good on your own, without ever looking for opportunities to showcase your talents or promote your art in any way, and word will eventually get to somebody who will recognize what you have to offer and change your life for you. 

Yes, word-of-mouth is important; to indie artists today, it’s crucial. But it’s also silly to imagine that word-of-mouth is going to get you anywhere if you’re practicing your “gifts” more-or-less behind closed doors, in the hopes that important folks will somehow find you out.  Of course, the people espousing this theology promote their own agendas and programs tirelessly.  But they’re doing it “for God” and you’re not (according to them) so it’s not the same thing.

Here’s the crowning irony to this theology: the Bible doesn’t support it.  As far as I can tell, the word “gift” in the Old Testament never means special ability or skill or what we would call “talent” or “giftedness” or anything of the sort.  In the context of Proverbs 18:16, it is closer to the meaning of “bribe.”  You might paraphrase this to say, “If you are approaching a person of influence to ask for a favor, don’t go empty-handed.”  That’s an excellent principle, by the way. 

But, to paraphrase Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that verse. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

In my background, as a member of two successive churches in which we were told to be “subject” to our leaders in virtually all areas of life, this was even used as a control mechanism.  If the “great men” around you haven’t “noticed” your “giftedness” yet, it’s because it doesn’t rate their attention (never mention that you’re, say, a hip-hop artist in a country church or vice versa).  So you need to stay here supporting their programs, conforming to their expectations and culture, until you’ve proved your value to them.  If you find an audience for your “giftedness” outside the local church, you’re stepping outside the channel of God’s blessing, and nothing good will come of it. 

As extreme as that sounds, some hyperconservative movements today still use such means to stifle artistic expression or any kind of personal growth that doesn’t directly benefit the leaders in some way.  (If this part sounds improbable to you, be thankful.  If it is painful to read because it hits too close to home, I’m sorry, but I’m on your side. If it’s offensive because “the shoe fits,” repent immediately and pray for forgiveness from God and from the people you’ve bullied.)

The Downside of Self-Promotion

Unfortunately, self-promotion by artists who want or claim to be “all about Jesus” is fraught with dangers.  About twenty years ago, a Christian record producer told me that the “dirty little secret” of the “Contemporary Christian Music” industry was what constant self-promotion did to the most successful, and in some cases, to the most spiritual of its “stars.”  There is a constant conflict between the professional need to seem confident and professional and “leading edge” and talented, and the spiritual need to give God all the glory.  And more than one person who started out with the best of intentions has wound up “drinking his own cool-aid.”

If you write your own promotional materials, you’ve found that writing about music is difficult for anyone.  As Martin Mull once said, “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”  It is hard to set expectations for your sound and focus in writing, period.  But for a Christian artist who wants to give God the glory and say nice things about himself or herself at the same time, it can be especially difficult.

Christian artists who’ve been signed by a label just let other folks write the press kits and liner notes, so they’re not personally responsible for exaggerations or claims of spirituality.  But independent Christian artists, who are by far in the majority, don’t have that “out.”

Given that it’s not a sin to have a press kit or web page, you will still want to be thoughtful and prayerful in what you put in and what you leave out.  Feel free to describe your musical style, the instruments you play, your songwriting approach, anything that presents your music as unique and compelling. 

I would tend to be careful, though, about claims of spirituality, even disguised as humility.  “God has given me these songs.”  You may feel that way, but what if your songs aren’t very good?    (After all “every good . . . gift cometh down from the Father . . . .”)  

You might feel it’s important to somehow warn non-believers that some of your songs have spiritual content.  But that’s up to you (unless you go for the standing-in-front-of-a-country-church-with-a-holy-expression pose, in which case I will deny I know you). 

In today’s direct-to-consumer market, it’s even more important that folks see you as genuine and feel that they have - or could have - a relationship with you as a person.  If you come across as someone who would be fun to have around, you’ve won half the battle. 

I never got the marketing part of all this down, myself, so this is hardly the final word on that aspect of it.  But I do know that such choices are up to your prayerful consideration and not to anyone else’s. 

Conclusion

Like every other life choice you face as a Christian, it’s your responsibility to make Biblical, prayerful choices about the importance of music or art or any other skill, ability, or interest in your life.  And that only comes with knowing your Bible, with effective, fervent prayer, and with an attitude of submission to the will of God.  Spiritual counsel is also critical, but the advice of others does not override what the Bible says, or - more accurately in this case - doesn’t say.

Why bring this up now?  After all, in many Evangelical subcultures, this sort of thing is considered long settled.  But I know there are still well-meaning young musicians who are facing these issues in their home churches today, and I want to be certain that somebody tells them what I wish someone had told me “back in the day.”

As always, please contact me with corrections, complaints, clarifications, etc.  If your response is responsible, I'll try to include it in the "reader response" section below.

God bless,

Paul

SchoolOfTheRock.com

 


Paul Race playing a banjo. Click to go to Paul's music home page.A Note from Paul: Whatever else you get out of our pages, I hope you enjoy your music and figure out how to make enjoyable music for those around you as well.

And please stay in touch!

    - Paul Race Click to see Paul's music home page Click to contact Paul through this page. Click to see Paul's music blog page Click to see Paul's music page on Facebook Click to connect with Paul on Twitter Click to learn about our Momma Don't Low Newsletter. Click to jump to the SchoolOfTheRock.com Discussion Forum Page Click to see Paul's YouTube Channel.

Visit related pages and affiliated sites:
Heartland-inspired music, history, and acoustic instrument tips.
Best-loved railroad songs and the stories behind them.
Visit musings about music on our sister site, School of the Rock With a few tools and an hour or two of work, you can make your guitar, banjo, or mandolin much more responsive.  Instruments with movable bridges can have better-than-new intonation as well. Acoustic-based, traditional, singer-songwriter, and folk music with a Western focus. Check out our article on finding good used guitars.
Carols of many countries, including music, lyrics, and the story behind the songs. X and Y-generation Christians take Contemporary Christian music, including worship, for granted, but the first generation of Contemporary Christian musicians faced strong, and often bitter resistance. Different kinds of music call for different kinds of banjos.  Just trying to steer you in the right direction. New, used, or vintage - tips for whatever your needs and preferences. Wax recordings from the early 1900s, mostly collected by George Nelson.  Download them all for a 'period' album. Explains the various kinds of acoustic guitar and what to look for in each.
Look to Riverboat Music buyers' guide for descriptions of musical instruments by people who play musical instruments. Learn 5-string banjo at your own speed, with many examples and user-friendly explanations. Explains the various kinds of banjos and what each is good for. Learn more about our newsletter for roots-based and acoustic music. Folks with Bb or Eb instruments can contribute to worship services, but the WAY they do depends on the way the worship leader approaches the music. A page devoted to some of Paul's own music endeavors.