I turn sixty years old this October. Talbot School of Theology has kindly given me the Fall semester off to mourn this milestone in my life.

But what’s to mourn? I’m just that much closer to seeing Jesus face-to-face! So, I decided, instead, to celebrate my chronological landmark.

How? By engaging with unbridled enthusiasm in two of my favorite pastimes: killing Nemo and kissing Joann. :)  I brought home about 50 lbs of sashimi-grade bluefin tuna from a long-range fishing trip out of San Diego in July, and I’m whisking my wife off to the Pacific Northwest for a romantic getaway in a couple weeks.

Add to the mix several hours each day writing a Philippians commentary, along with a series of Sunday sermons on 1 Thessalonians, and Voilà!—the recipe for a perfect sabbatical, Hellerman-style, at any rate.

So don’t feel too sorry for this old man. Actually, the years provide a bit of perspective on some things that I might otherwise have taken for granted—my understanding of spiritual gifts, for example.

Spiritual gifts became the rage back in the 1980s, when I was working in singles ministry. It was as if we had found some ancient manuscripts with passages in the Bible that we didn't even know were there!

Multitudes of sermons were preached from 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4, and Romans 12. High-profile pastors gave countless seminars on how to find your spiritual gifts. A think tank at Fuller Seminary even created a Spiritual Gifts Inventory, whereby, through a series of multiple choice questions, we could each discover our unique gifts.

And then there were those side-bar debates, quite acrimonious at times, between cessationists and non-cessationists, over the validity of the “sign-gifts” for the church today.

If I recall correctly, the two theological camps even had their own spiritual gifts profiles, with specific sets of questions designed to reflect their respective views on the issue. At any rate, the diagnostic inventory I took certainly didn’t have any questions on it about the so-called “miraculous gifts.” After all, we couldn’t have a Conservative Baptist singles pastor, like Joe Hellerman, discovering that he had the gift of tongues!

In retrospective, the whole enterprise appears to have been driven by a hopelessly anthropocentric preoccupation with personal fulfillment. The spiritual gifts craze of the 1980s was all about the individual Christian finding his or her perfect place in God’s ecclesiastical economy or, in the case of some of our more charismatic brothers and sisters, personally experiencing the “fullness” of God.

How could it have been otherwise? For as has been the case with so many trends in American evangelicalism, the church simply jumped on the bandwagon of popular culture, which was at least decade ahead of us in the business of personal fulfillment.

In 1970, a book came out called What Color Is Your Parachute? It became so popular that it has been updated and republished nearly every year since. The author, Richard Bolles, encourages the reader to pick a career that fits his or her temperament, gifts, aptitude, and abilities, so that work will be a personally satisfying experience, rather than boring 9-to-5 grind.

Find out what color your parachute is, pick a career accordingly, and you’ll be guaranteed a delightfully fulfilling descent through the vocational atmosphere of life and (by implication) a soft and satisfying landing when you hit the ground.  :)

In the years that followed, vocational psychologists developed a number of assessment tools to help us find our place in the workforce. Who among us hasn’t taken DISC or StrengthsQuest? Are you an Achiever, an Investigator, or a Promoter? A Blue, a Green, or a Red? Or are you a messy mix of categories, like me, who tends to find these tools rather frustrating?

Now I want us to notice a couple things here. First of all, the connection between (a) the spiritual gifts craze in the 1980s and (b) the focus on job satisfaction in the culture at large is hardly coincidental. Just add the appropriate adjective to the title of that 1970 best-seller, and it all becomes quite clear: What Color is Your Spiritual Parachute?

We have simply taken yet another trend from the dominant culture and “Christianized” it. Sometimes that works, when the trend happens to be a morally neutral one (I’m thinking certain styles of music or clothing here.). But can we really Christianize an anthropocentric view of reality, of any stripe?

Again, with age comes perspective. And, in this case, 20-20 hindsight proves rather revealing, to this 60-year-old, at any rate. After nearly three decades of hub-bub about spiritual gifts and ministerial satisfaction, I find it almost embarrassing to discover that there is not a single word about personal fulfillment in 1 Corinthians 12-14, Ephesians 4, or Romans 12.

The biblical teaching, in contrast, is all about using our gifts to serve one another, to edify the body of Christ in the context of local church ministry. Indeed, one member of our Talbot faculty does not even find the concept of spiritual “gifts,” as such, in the NT! And he just might be on to something. But I’ll let him blog about that one. :)

A second observation has to do with the utter cultural anomaly of the whole personal fulfillment rage, whether it has to do with our careers or with our roles in the church.

My father and mother were born in 1903 and 1915, respectively. They lived through two World Wars, and both went through the Great Depression. As I was growing up, my dad sold shoes. My mom was a clerk for a lumber company and, later, a drug store.

What color were my parents’ parachutes? The thought never even crossed their minds. Why not? Because people in my parents’ generation were thankful to have any parachute at all.

My dad did not choose to manage a shoe store because he had a special affinity for the smell of leather. And Mom certainly had no “meaningful relationship” with her adding machine.

As is the case with the great majority of the world’s population, even today, personal fulfillment was nowhere on my parents’ vocational radar screen. They were satisfied simply to have jobs to support our family.

Any color parachute will do just fine, thank you.

Only the post-World War 2 boom of the 1950s-60s in the West (especially, in the USA) generated the kind of socio-economic environment in which individuals have the luxury to choose a vocation that offers the promise of job satisfaction.  

In most places in the world today, a person does not get to choose a vocation to begin with. He or she engages in the same kind of subsistence labor that the family has always done. And this has been the case throughout human history. If your dad, Zebedee, is a fisherman, then you’d better pick up a net. That’s your parachute, James and John, whether it happens to fit your special “gift-mix” or not (Mark 1:19-20).

What all this means is that the great majority of people on this planet cannot hope to find fulfillment in what they do. They must seek fulfillment in the simple fact that they do, that is, that they are able to do somethinganything—to provide for their families.

And this applies to the spiritual arena, as well. How many of our brothers and sisters in rural India, for example, get to ponder their particular spiritual gift-mix, with the help, of course, of the appropriate diagnostic tools?

The next time someone asks you to take a spiritual gifts test, it might help to remember that Jesus did not say, “Whoever finds his life will save it.” If that were the case, a meaningful life on this planet would be available only to those of us who have the luxury to find ourselves, to discover “the color of our spiritual parachutes,” so to speak, so that we can serve Christ in those areas of ministry that promise to provide immediate personal satisfaction.

Thankfully, Jesus said just the opposite: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35, ESV). Now here is a pathway available to anyone willing to become a disciple of Jesus.

Finally, I arrive at the ultimate autobiographical irony where personal fulfillment is concerned. Much to my delight, this sixty-year-old has discovered that a life given away in 35+ years of service to Jesus and His people has turned out to be the most profoundly meaningful and personally satisfying life I could ever have imagined. Go figure.

Excuse me, now, while I take a moment to say Thank You to Jesus, and to kiss my wife, over a fresh plate of bluefin sashimi.  :)