How do we determine the monetary value of our personal skills and gifts? And what are they worth to other Christians? This is a really practical question for a lot of you, applicable to anyone in a local church who has a skill set or gifting that benefits others.
Today’s question comes particularly from a listener in Los Angeles who writes this: “Pastor John, hello, and thank you for the APJ podcast. My question is a reoccurring heart issue for my life. I’m a graphic designer. I’m trying to live out my gift according to 1 Peter 4:10: ‘As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.’ How can I obey this verse without feeling resentful and bitter toward people — Christians and non-Christians — who mainly contact me because I have a skill that can fulfill their need, but who use my skills and never pay me for them?
“I often feel ‘used’ and deemed worthy for ‘friendship’ by what I can do, not who I am. My assumption is that if I did not possess this graphic-design gift, these people would never contact me. How do we think about the value of skills that are God-given, about the right of making a little bit of money from these God-given gifts to make a living?”
That’s a really good question that many Christians need to think about, because I have seen professionals in the church misused. This happens when people unthinkingly — I think it’s usually unthinkingly — take advantage of their professional connections in the church family to get free services, services that most people are paying for. Like services from a doctor, or a lawyer, or a plumber, or a carpenter, or a designer.
People just ask them to do little jobs or little consultations, say, in the evening or after church — it’s their gift, after all — without even thinking how this may be unbiblical by mooching or exploiting. And I’ll come back to those words, mooching and exploiting, in just a minute.
Gifts and Skills
The first thing that I would say about the text our friend quotes, 1 Peter 4:10–11, is that these verses are not speaking directly about professional services, but about spiritual gifts in the church. The text says,
As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks [like preaching or teaching], as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies — in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
But even though I think these verses are referring directly to spiritual gifts in the church, some of them are remunerated in the church — for example, when Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:17–18 that some elders who have the gift of teaching should be paid.
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
That’s elevating some of these to the point of professional skills.
Get and Give
So I think some of those spiritual gifts rise to the level of vocational callings, which Paul says should be paid. And that means, I think, that it is fair to draw some principles out of these texts that do in fact relate to the question of natural gifts or natural skills that a person has and uses to make a living. One principle is this: God intends for us to work in order to make a living and not to be dependent on others whenever it’s unnecessary.
Here’s where I get that. First Thessalonians 4:11–12 says, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.” One of the functions of work is to make enough money so that you don’t have to depend on others inappropriately, so it’s right to be paid for your work. As we heard earlier, “The laborer deserves his wages. Don’t muzzle the ox while he’s treading out the grain.”
“One of the functions of work is to make enough money so that you don’t have to depend on others inappropriately.”
Now, I don’t want to overstate the case. This does not mean there’s no room for merciful generosity to help those in need with your professional skill. I mean, Christians all over the world do this. A dentist will take his Fridays off, go to the inner city, set up a little clinic, and give free dental care. That’s beautiful. I’m not at all discouraging that.
In fact, Paul says that one of the reasons for working to make a living is so that we might have something to give. It’s what he says in Ephesians 4:28: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.”
So I’m not saying that those with special skills and gifts should never use them freely and generously to help others. All the commands Jesus says to be generous, to give to the needy, even to be willing to be taken advantage of — they’re all still in the Bible. And what our friend is drawing our attention to in asking this question is that there is more than one kind of teaching in the Bible, and neither should cancel out the other.
There’s the command to give freely to the needy, and there’s the command to earn your living so that you and your family can eat and be clothed. So, “work to get to use” and “work to get to give” are both in the Bible. Go to work so that you can get, so that you can use it to put a roof over your head, and work and get so that you have lots to be generous with and help others. They’re both in the Bible, and that’s the tension of love and wisdom that our graphic designer is challenged with.
Willing to Pay
But I think those in his or her network (friends, the church) need to hear another message from the Bible — namely, the message found in 2 Thessalonians 3. Remember, some Christians in the church in Thessalonica had become seized by a kind of hysteria about the nearness of the second coming of Christ. So they had stopped working and started to live in idleness, expecting the momentary return of Jesus while mooching off of those who kept on working for a living. So here’s how Paul responds to that in 2 Thessalonians 3:6–8:
Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.
That’s amazing. Paul was so jealous not to give the impression that he could exploit the work of others while he lived in idleness, that he didn’t eat anybody’s bread without paying for it. Amazing. Now, that’s the message some of the believers need to hear who are taking advantage of people’s services without paying for them. Here’s how Paul continues:
It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. (2 Thessalonians 3:9–11)
So the point that I’m drawing out of that text for our question is this: the network of Christians who are taking advantage of the work of others to get something that most people are paying for — they need to be taught, “Don’t do that. That is, don’t presume upon that. Be willing to pay. If the skilled person wants to make a special gift to you, that’s the skilled person’s decision to make, not yours to expect.”
And to the graphic designer himself or herself I would say this: pray that God would direct people’s hearts in the right way. In other words, pray that people would wake up to what they’re doing, and then perhaps talk to your pastor or teachers in the church to see if they can begin to apply the Scriptures to this issue for a while in the church.
“We must not exploit those who are hard at work making a living, but rather take responsibility for our own needs.”
Hopefully, this will create a culture in the church that includes both generosity and even willingness to be taken advantage of for Christ’s sake, but also a sense that we must not mooch off of, we must not exploit, those who are hard at work making a living, but rather take responsibility for our own needs instead of depending on others to give us freebies.
Behind both those aspects of church culture — generosity and responsibility, those are the two poles I’m talking about — is the grace of the Lord Jesus. He gives the grace to work, and he gives the grace to give, and he gets the glory both ways.