What does speaking in tongues have to do with Excel spreadsheets?
In my experience, quite a lot.
I come from the charismatic end of the Christian tradition, which means I believe that the Holy Spirit is still empowering believers to do things that might seem a bit “out there” to many contemporary Christians: miracles, works of healing, prophecy, and yes, speaking in tongues. But these things are no more “supernatural” than the other spiritual gifts mentioned in Scripture: encouragement, faith, service, teaching, and more. The Spirit of God empowers all of these gifts by dwelling in us, whether they seem unusual or mundane.
In fact, the unusual and the mundane often go together. For me, speaking in tongues provides a way for me to pray when I don’t have the English (or Spanish) words I need to express what’s going on in my soul. That moment often comes in the middle of a workday, when I’m straining to disentangle a particularly stubborn data problem. I don’t have the brain energy left to put words to my prayers while I’m typing spreadsheet formulas, but I can still pray. I open my heart to God while I’m immersed in the work by speaking in tongues. (If others are around, I tend to do this quietly, under my breath, for obvious reasons.) It may seem a little strange, but it helps me remember God’s presence with me.
Spiritual gifts are meant to work like that. They help us, and the people around us, right where we are. They aren’t reserved for special “spiritual” contexts like Sunday morning church or a prayer service. We’re also not limited to just one gift; we can each grow into the multiple gifts that God has given us, putting them into practice over time. When we learn to exercise our spiritual gifts with confidence in the workplace, it doesn’t just change our experience of life with God; it also changes our coworkers’ and clients’ experience of life with us.
[This post is part of our series Finding God at Work. Check out our other posts on faith and work for more resources.]
Spiritual Gifts and Holy Things: For Special Use Only?
The phrase “spiritual gifts” itself can throw us off. If we place special, spiritual things in one category, and normal, everyday things in another, then we’ll tend to think that spiritual gifts are only relevant to special, spiritual circumstances.
This intuition to think of spiritual things as special or separate is not all wrong. In the Bible, the word “spiritual” isn’t actually used that often, but the word “holy” is used hundreds of times. Before we take a practical look at how to use gifts in the workplace, let’s review the Bible’s teaching on holiness to understand just how significant the spiritual gifts are.
The Hebrew word for “holy” is sometimes translated as “set apart.” It gives an idea of division or separation: Common things in one place, holy things in another. But it specifically means being set apart for God. People and things that are close to God, near his presence, serving his purposes in the world, are holy.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the temple was the focus point for holiness. The temple was the place where God dwelled with his people. Its innermost sanctuary was called the “Holy of Holies,” separated from the rest of the temple by a thick curtain. The Holy of Holies was the opposite of an everyday place; the High Priest could only enter it once a year. In this context, the idea that spiritual things are limited to certain contexts—and even certain people—makes perfect sense.
The Surprise of the Spirit
For centuries, the people of God were familiar with this pattern of worship, with the temple at the center, and the High Priest alone entering the place of God’s presence. Then Jesus arrived. In his teaching and ministry, he often focused on the temple. Our only story from his childhood takes place in the temple. On multiple occasions, he taught in the temple. The event that finally led to his arrest and execution was his confrontation with the merchants in the temple courts. Then, climactically, at the moment of his death, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two” (Luke 23:45 NIV).
The significance of the torn curtain became clear after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. At the feast of Pentecost, when Jesus’ disciples were gathered together in prayer, the Holy Spirit came upon them. There were visible signs of this spiritual event: there was “a sound like the blowing of a violent wind” in the room; the disciples “saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them”; and they “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:2-4 NIV).
The apostle Peter, even while he is experiencing these things, realizes what’s happening: God is keeping a promise about his Spirit. Peter tells everyone there that these things are the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Joel: “God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people” (Acts 2:17 NIV; also see Joel 2:28). In this moment, the place of God’s presence shifts: It’s no longer the temple in Jerusalem; it’s the people of God everywhere. Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, all the people of God can not just draw close to God, but also be filled with God in their very bodies.
Mobile Temples: Spiritual Gifts in Everyday Life
Later theological reflection in the New Testament makes this point even clearer: Now, each person in the family of God is the temple. The Apostle Paul, when writing about holy sexuality, says, “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Corinthians 6:19 NIV). In context, Paul’s point is that we shouldn’t do profane or sinful things with our bodies, because they are the place where God dwells. But his metaphor is also applicable to the way we think about spiritual gifts. Because the Spirit dwells in each of us, each of our bodies is a mobile temple, bringing the presence of God with us wherever we go.
Significantly, the new outpouring of God’s Spirit at Pentecost could be clearly interpreted by Peter because the disciples immediately started using their gifts “as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4 NIV). The outward sign of the inward presence of the Spirit was, in this case, an unusual kind of speaking in tongues. But that dynamic continues throughout the rest of the New Testament, and on into our lives today: the Spirit’s presence is clear when disciples are using their gifts.
When we use spiritual gifts in the workplace, it’s not because the gifts aren’t special. It’s not because “everything is spiritual” in some vague but inspiring way. It’s because Jesus’ death and resurrection has made our bodies the special, set-apart, holy place of God’s presence. The special and spiritual now travels with us into our everyday lives and work. Spiritual gifts in the workplace are the intersection point of God’s presence and our work.
Spiritual Gifts in the Workplace: Encouragement and Faith
So now, let’s get practical. What does it look like for you, in your life, to practice the spiritual gifts in the workplace? It’s worth asking this question about each of the gifts named in Scripture, but for the sake of brevity we’ll look at encouragement and faith, as these two are particularly relevant spiritual gifts in the workplace.
Work is one of the places where we experience discouragement most often. There’s something beautiful about accomplishing something of worth. But often, we fail to accomplish things the way we want to—whether because of our own shortcomings or because of circumstances beyond our control. I think of an academic librarian I know who struggled to make things work with a budget that got slashed and then slashed again, and eventually resigned in frustration.
One of the most painful workplace discouragements is when other people misunderstand your character, believing the worst about you. A friend of mine who is a garage door installer shared with me about a coworker who just doesn’t trust him, despite his best efforts to build a strong relationship. It makes collaboration awkward and workdays tense.
Our coworkers and clients all experience discouragement. The gift of encouragement can do more than make someone’s day; it can help them keep going. Is there a brief word of what you appreciate about someone else’s efforts that you can share with them? Encouragement is even more important for the coworkers we find the most difficult. The standard of graciousness that Scripture calls us to is to “bless those who persecute” us (Romans 12:14 NIV). Encouraging coworkers who misunderstand us is a smaller challenge, and one God will help us take on.
If you supervise other team members, how can you name and affirm their strengths on a regular basis? A handwritten note from a former boss of mine is still with me, and I re-read it sometimes when I have trouble believing that I’ve got what it takes.
If you’re not sure what to say, you don’t have to muster up profound words solely from your own creativity. You can ask God to give you insight into what aspect of someone else’s character or work you can affirm. He will show you. The influence of our words is also more than our own. In the Spirit, the power of our words goes beyond our eloquence and can shift things in people’s hearts and minds.
Faith is one of the keystone ideas of Scripture. The Apostle Paul names it as one of the three enduring realities of life with God: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NIV). (Significantly, this poetic statement comes in the context of Paul’s larger teaching on spiritual gifts.) Paul also famously teaches that “by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Ephesians 2:8 NIV). In the many passages that teach on faith, we see different qualities being described: openness to God, confidence in his character, allegiance to his cause, and trust that he will come through for us. Faith is rich and layered, a multidimensional virtue.
But when we consider faith as a spiritual gift, the image that comes to mind is “a faith that can move mountains” (1 Corinthians 13:2 NIV). This is Paul’s phrase in his teaching on spiritual gifts, alluding to Jesus’ statement that, “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20 NIV). We need faith when we’re facing insurmountable obstacles, when the odds are stacked against us, when the likelihood of victory is slim.
Even if you work in a secular context, God cares about the outcomes of your venture. If you are walking in obedience as best you can discern, it is good and right to pray for outcomes that will bless your clients and community, and make it possible for your team to keep serving others the way that you do. When we have faith, we place our confidence not in a guarantee of workplace success, but in God’s faithfulness to work things out for his purposes. We can trust that he is working alongside us, and that our efforts will not be wasted. Whatever mountain you are facing at work, ask God for the faith to keep doing the work with him.
When you bring that confidence of God’s ultimate care to the ups and downs of work life, you’re able to serve and care for the people around you with greater freedom. They’ll notice that you stand firm in the storms. That in turn may give you a chance to share the story of God’s work in your life, and why you have the faith you do. In that way, faith is a spiritual gift in the workplace that reproduces itself!
The Power of the Spirit: What Makes Spiritual Gifts “Spiritual”?
The phrase that’s translated “spiritual gifts” can also be translated “gifts of the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:1 NIV). What makes the gifts “spiritual” is not that they are separate from the rest of life, but that they are empowered by the Spirit of God. We have our role to play in practicing them, but their effect will go far beyond our cleverness or creativity when the Holy Spirit is at work.
When you think about spiritual gifts, think about the difference between an old push-mower and a new power-assist mower. In both cases, you have to push the mower; nothing will happen without your effort. But with the new mower, the power that’s unleashed when you do your part goes far beyond the effort you’re putting in.
As you put your gifts to work at work, you can count on that kind of power.
Reflect and Practice
- Have you ever thought about your body as a “mobile temple”? What does it mean for your life that your body is the place where God dwells?
- Have you experienced others using their spiritual gifts in a way that blessed you at work?
- Who in your workplace needs encouragement?
- What work projects seem impossible for you right now? What are ways you can pray with faith during your work day this week?
- What spiritual gifts are most relevant to your work each day? How can you lean into one of those this week?