Comparisons are all too human.
As a high school student taking private violin lessons, I compared myself with my violin teacher's young prodigy. Each week, the teacher smiled with mild approval at my performance of an etude, and wrote out my assignment for the following week. Then, a 12-year-old boy entered the room for his lesson.
With admiration and a sense of torture, I lowered myself into an armchair to listen as the dark-haired boy performed. He was preparing for a debut recital of works written for virtuosi.
As the full chords of Bach's difficult Chaconne flowed rapturously from his violin, I thought, No matter how many years I study, I will never be able to play like him. My gift is too small. I don't deserve to be heard.
A willingness to try
Despising my gift for being comparatively small, I avoided playing my violin in worship services at my church for many years. Then I met Helen, a Christian and fellow violinist, who made me examine my attitude. Helen was one of two violinists in her church. I knew that the other violinist, Agnes, was excellent.
But Helen had no problem with that. "Agnes embodies what violin playing should be. She is faultless. But my gift has a place, too. I play in the evening service while I let Agnes's wonderful gift shine in the morning service."
Yes, I pondered. The important thing isn't who has the greater gift, but that each gift has its place. I began to seek opportunities to play during worship services in the summer, when the choir was on vacation and special music was needed. Several church members told me the Holy Spirit blessed them as I played. I grew more confident as I realized God was enabling me to use a gift he had given me.
Now that I was aware of the importance of "giving what you have to God," I began to notice other church members who shrank from serving because they, too, sensed that their gifts paled by comparison. When our church split, however, and about 50 members left, the tragedy had an unexpected upside.
The ones who fled our church vacated leadership positions on committees, teaching positions in the Sunday school program, and slots in the music ministry. Those remaining had a choice: they could continue to hide their gifts and let the church collapse. Or they could put their gifts to use.
As Jean, a young pianist said, "I never expected to play in the morning worship service, but when Renee left, someone had to do it." The need was so great Jean offered to be Sunday school superintendent as well, discovering she had teaching and administrative gifts.
When many of those who had left eventually returned, the church was enriched because so many members had begun using their gifts.
Musical and tone deaf
God doesn't want me to compare my gift with that of another Christian; he wants me to be faithful over what he's given me, no matter how small (Luke 16:10; Matt. 25:14-29; 1 Cor. 4:2). As the apostle Paul said of some of the Corinthians, "When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise" (2 Cor. 10:12).
The folly of comparisons becomes more apparent when we realize that no two Christians have the exact same combination of gifts. When I complimented Kathy for her excellence in playing bells in church and leading the children's bell choir, her reply surprised me. "You know, I'm tone deaf," she said with a grin. "I can't even hum a tune."
As I questioned her further, I realized she was serious. Although an exact sense of pitch is needed to play the violin, in playing bells, rhythm and dexterity are more important. Kathy and I would be fools to compare each other musically.
Given her weak sense of pitch, Kathy's gift in music might be judged as inferior by some. But Kathy astounds our congregation by performing solos on a whole line of bells, managing complicated tunes and harmonies by herself without losing rhythm once. And her gift is one among many?such as working well with children and leading groups.
God's grand design
My gifts sometimes strike me as small. Yet, in God's grand scheme?through the equipping of the Holy Spirit, and in the providence of God?smaller gifts may become highly significant. Only God knows the final effect of each of our contributions.
Through the prophet Zechariah, the Holy Spirit reminds us not to despise "small things." In spite of formidable opposition to the rebuilding of the temple, Zerubbabel's small beginning in laying its foundation had a great ending: "The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. Who despises the day of small things?" (Zech. 4:9-10a).
We can be thankful for all the gifts God generously distributes throughout the church. We can trust that, when his grand design is unveiled, we will be surprised at the impact of smaller gifts. Our only responsibility is to be faithful with what he has given us?however great or small.
1998 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian magazine (formerly Christian Reader).
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