There's a fundamental difference between gifts and talents, one that I think goes unnoticed in our language-nonspecific culture where one word means essentially the same as the other. We read the parable of the talents and talk about how we ought to handle the stuff God entrusts to us.
But not all the stuff God entrusts to us is the same. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether what we have is a gift or a talent.
The parable of the talents is very clear about the nature of talents: they are an investment that we are supposed to invest in, as well. Talents are things that require us to work at them, to pour ourselves into them, to pour them into the world. They are essentially like seeds - on their own, they don't amount to much, but properly cared for, they manifest into something beautiful.
A gift on the other hand is quite different. Nobody invests in a gift. Nobody invests a gift in return. A gift is simply given...and received. That's all you can do with it. That's all you're supposed to do with it. It is a flower in full bloom, ready to be displayed center-table.
The trouble comes when we confuse the two.
We all have both gifts and talents. We all have things we're good at, but that we have to work at a little bit, and things that just pour out of us beyond our control. People generally ask us to give more of our talents, and then we're pressed because we know a talent is not so easy just to give; it must be invested and invested in. Rarely, someone may ask us to give more of our gifts (or perhaps more frequently, depending on what your gift is; mine is kind of obscure), and we realize how demanding this request is, too.
We can't just give our talent because it requires something from us. It requires us to work at it. It requires us to put in the time to make it beautiful. Writing, for me, is a talent. It's something I have to invest it. It's something I have to work at. I do so because at this stage in my life, I believe that investment is worth it. But I feel the pressure when someone asks me to write something specific. (Even, by the way, when God asks me to write something specific.) I stare at the blank paper sometimes for hours, not knowing how to make this investment, not sure about the return rates on whatever piddly bit I have to give here. Sometimes, I get a great return, tenfold of what I put into it. Sometimes, I get just what the bank will give me for having an account at all. Sometimes, I dig a hole and get nothing. Just nothing at all.
Our gifts, on the other hand, confront us with a trouble all their own. Our gifts do not depend on how much we are able to invest in them, on how much we can pour into them in order to pour out of them. They aren't linked to interest rates or returns. But they are fully dependent on our having received them first.
I cannot give what I have not received.
So in order to operate out of my gifts, in order to give them to the world, I have to first receive them. Over and over and over again. The more I give away, the more I am in need of receipt. With hands open to the world, I must keep my hands open to God, as well. Some days, this is easier said than done.
Some days, I'm asked to operate out of my gifts. It's a humbling experience every time, when someone knows what it is that God has given me to give the world. When someone recognizes that in me. When someone knows, in a certain situation, that I'm the one to call because I'm the one who has something to give here. And something to give freely, because no good gift comes with strings attached.
But these requests bring me face-to-face with my own...prayerfulness? My own connectedness? They make me aware of how intentional I've been about receiving, of how faithful I've been in receiving. Some days, I don't feel like I have a lot to give. On these days, I am aware of my closed hands - hands that have not received because they have not asked. Because they have not been begging. Because they have not been needy. Some days, I feel like I have too much to give, like this world was asking for a token gift and here I come, bearing the full weight of who I am in God. Still, I am aware that I have only what I have, that I give only what I've been given, and nothing more and nothing less.
But that's what's cool about gifts. They're free. They're simply given. You don't have to till the soil, dig a hole, fill in around them, water them, fertilize them, tend them the way that you do a seed, a talent. You just have to fluff out the petals a little bit and reach out with open hands. In fact, you couldn't do anything to a gift if you wanted to. You couldn't make another single flower grow. You only have to give what you have received. It's out of your hands.
Because it's into your hands.
That's the fundamental difference between a gift and a talent. One is freely given; the other is an investment to be made. And there's a lot that can go wrong when we confuse the two.
There's another hidden danger here. More on that tomorrow.