Update, May 2018: Since this post was first written many other superhero movies have been created, and they remain a hit. Though the particular movie(s) mentioned in this post may now be dated, you'll get the gist of things.
Superhero movies are big. (Avengers 2: Age of Ultron came out last weekend, and I think I read somewhere that it's the 2nd largest box-office-opening in history. For a couple reviews of the movie from a Christian perspective, check out what Plugged In and Christianity Today have to say.) On a personal note, I'm generally a fan of these movies. I grew up with some of these comic books, and had some of these superheroes as action figures. I applaud many of the themes prevalent in the superhero movies I've seen - themes like sacrifice, service, teamwork, and "with great power comes great responsibility."
Alongside all the recent build-up to the new Avengers movie (and while my wife and I have been watching Season 2 of Marvel: Agents of Shield), I've been teaching a class at Grace University on Trinitarianism, where we spend some time as a class considering the Person and work of the Holy Spirit - including the spiritual gifts (e.g. Romans 12:3-8 and 1 Corinthians 12).
Thinking about the spiritual gifts described in the New Testament amidst the buzz about superpowers has led me to reflect on this question: "Are spiritual gifts pretty much like Christian superpowers?"
Getting on the Same Page about Spiritual Gifts
Before I directly respond to the question, it's probably good to make sure we're on the same page about what spiritual gifts are. 1 Corinthians 12 is a key passage on this topic. A sampling of the gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12 include the following: a message of wisdom, a message of knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues, the interpretation of tongues, teaching, helping, and guidance (see also Romans 12:3-8 and Ephesians 4:11-13 for two other commonly-cited gift lists).
As we study 1 Corinthians 12 more closely - beyond the simple listing of spiritual gifts - we learn that the Holy Spirit "distributes gifts as HE determines" (v. 11, emphasis added). These gifts are "manifestations of the Spirit" that are given "for the common good" (v. 7), and the many different gifts enumerated are "all the work of one and the same Spirit."
When we put all this together, then, I wonder if we can briefly summarize spiritual gifts this way: "Spiritual gifts are abilities or tasks that are prompted and/or energized by the Spirit - at His good, sovereign discretion - for the building up of the church." (I'd love some feedback on this summary, by the way.)
Getting to our Specific Question
So...back to our question: "Are spiritual gifts pretty much like Christian superpowers?" Here are a couple of thoughts I've got by way of response. First, we need to keep in mind that we're not ultimately in control of our spiritual gifts - this distinguishes spiritual gifts from superpowers we see on the screen, where the user can learn to control his or her power. While I'm confident that there are things we can do to discourage the Spirit working in us and through us (e.g. self-reliance, willful sin, etc) and that there are things we can do to invite His activity (dependence, humility, desire, and love, for e.g.), we need to appreciate the fact that spiritual gifts - and their intended result in building up the church - are not something we control at our whim or perfect through simple technique. We are ALWAYS dependent on the Spirit prompting us and energizing our efforts. Let's not forget that!
Second, we need to keep in mind that spiritual gifts aren't really about the person with the gift. Spiritual gifts have a very specific focus: building up the church. In many of the superhero movies, the protagonist(s) is/are tempted to capitalize on their gift for selfish or other evil goals. The people with the powers have a choice - use their gift for noble purposes, or for selfish and evil ends. In the same way, we need choose to rely on the Spirit explicitly and often, and not rely on ourselves and simple natural ability. The goal we aim for and pray for? The building up of God's church.
Let me expand on this a bit. While true spiritual gifts will be exercised for the building up of God's people, I also believe "pseudo gifts" can masquerade as manifestations of the Spirit (and look externally similar), and can have bad results - such as the elevation of personalities, disunity in churches as "tribes" are formed around certain leaders or gifting, etc. You see, I'm of the opinion that spiritual gifts CAN be abilities and interests we've already had (such as teaching, leadership, or wisdom, for e.g.); these natural abilities become spiritual gifts when "prompted or energized by the Spirit for the building up of the church." We must be careful that we don't simply rely on any of these abilities or interests (such as teaching, leadership, or worldly wisdom) in and of themselves, apart from explicit and often dependence on the Spirit. For the building up of God's people.
God provides graciously, Jesus is still building His church, and the Spirit continues to gift this church for her health and God's glory. With a God like this who can use people like us, no superpowers are needed.
How would you answer the question, "Are spiritual gifts pretty much like Christian superpowers?" Have you thought of important points I didn't bring up? What would you reinforce?
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