“Where gifts be given freely—east, west, north or south—
No man ought to look a given horse in the mouth.”
(Attributed to John Heywood, 1497-1580}
We don’t have horses given to us very often, so the meaning of the phrase is probably quite obsolete. Its central idea was not to spend time inspecting a gift, but to be grateful for it.
However, if you can take the time to look a “gift horse in the mouth”, you may notice that some teeth are missing. Or the teeth may be there, but the gums are bleeding. So, in truth, perhaps you should look into the mouth of a gift horse.
In the same vein, if you inspect a gift—say a shirt or pair of pants—too carefully, you may notice that it was made in some far-off country and that the seams are not tightly woven. Or, the legs or arms don’t line up, or that one sleeve or pant leg is longer than the other.
If that is so, you may disregard the good intentions of the person who gave you the gift and ridicule the gift. It may follow that you then examine the gift giver—why did they order it from that country and not L.L. Bean? Don’t they really care for me? You may end up ridiculing the giver as well.
You may also have heard, “It’s the thought that counts,” referring to a gift that wasn’t expensive, but the feeling and thoughtfulness were expansive. Think about how you would feel if you were a horse lover and your special friend gave you a lame donkey. Your friend was extremely thoughtful and may have searched far and wide for such an animal. But are you grateful? Are you thinking about the thought of your friend or the dumb animal you suddenly have to care for?
There is a gift and a giver, but also the intentions that go along with the gift. Only the giver knows what they are, although we may speculate. Usually, we want to be grateful, so we would give considerable slack to the giver.
How do we give a gift to someone who “has everything”? Of course, no one has “everything”, perhaps just everything we can think of. In such cases, send the person a nice card with the inscription of “beware of Greeks bearing gifts”, although that might imply you are an enemy. The phrase refers to a type of gift to Troy, resembling a horse, from which the Greeks emerged to conquer the Trojans.
Some people have the “gift of gab,” meaning they can either talk endlessly or be very persuasive in their speaking. They may think they are “God’s gift” to mankind, so special that they must have come directly from heaven. Others have “a gift” for doing something, perhaps speculating in gold or helping wounded warriors.
Christians, if they are familiar with the Scriptures, may talk about the “gifts of the Spirit,” meaning such things as discernment, healing, prophecy, faith, speaking in tongues and miracles (see, for example, 1 Corinthians chapter 12). The Catholic Church Catechism identifies the gifts as wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude , knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord (https://www.referrence.com).
How do we know if we (or someone else) has a “gift of the Spirit”? Would a Catholic and a Protestant agree? And if they do, has the Spirit prompted them? On the other hand, if they disagree, has the Spirit misled one (or both) of them?
Is it the case that every believer has at least one gift of the Spirit? And that the gifts, however they are identified, are to benefit the church? Benefit it in what way? Perhaps through some teaching, some encouragement, but always to exalt Christ and not the person. If this is the case, then we can answer the question by determining how we help the church—the people of God.
We see someone who has a particular “spirit gift” need—they could benefit from encouragement, wisdom, healing, or even a miracle. Are we able to assist them? If we can, we give evidence that we have been provided that particular gift by the Holy Spirit.
Is the gift irrevocable? Another difficult question. Some people lose or reject their faith and therefore would have no use for their “gift”, even if they still had it. Others may be timid and not use their gift(s). Still others may try to use a gift—such as healing—and fail.
We return to “looking a gift horse in the mouth” as a clue to spiritual gifts. If we spend a lot of time inspecting the gift and not being grateful for it or not using it, we are foolish. But we are just as foolish if we try to use a gift that has not been given to us.
We have to ask God if he has given us a gift. We may think He has told us to try out a particular gift, or we may have the strong impression that we do indeed have a particular gift. In the body of Christ, it may be verified by other witnesses and we in turn may be surprised that we even have the gift.
If we do, we should not spend a lot of time looking in its mouth.