This is the second negative statement Paul makes to Timothy. The first was do not let anyone despise you for your youth. Now, the apostle cautions Timothy against despising his own gifts through neglect. By revelation (prophecy) Timothy was made aware of his gift (what an advantage and heightening of responsibility for his specific stewardship!) and by collective agreement his giftedness was confirmed by the elders. He was prepared and called for the exercise of his gift, and he was not to neglect that gift.
Calvin: "To neglect a gift is carelessly to keep it unemployed through slothfulness, so that, having contracted rust, it is worn away without yielding any profit. Let each of us, therefore, consider what gift he possesses, that he may diligently apply it to use."
A good pastor will not bury his talents. He will not pour the grace of God into a hole in his backyard and bury it away from his people. A good pastor will look to maximize and optimally employ all that the Lord has given him for the glory of the Lord and the blessing of his people.
There may be several causes for neglect. Charles Bridges' work The Christian Ministry, subtitled with an Inquiry into the Causes of Its Inefficiency, is a wonderful resource for thinking about neglect of our gifts in the ministry. Here are a few things that Bridges regards as contributing to ministerial ineffectiveness that may also indicate a neglect of the gifts God gives His servants:
1. Failing to seek divine influence. Any active and effective use of our gifts comes only when God owns our ministry, when He blesses our labors with omnipotent aid. We can do nothing apart from Him. We neglect our gifts when we neglect God, when we fail to beseech Him for strength in the task, when we neglect asking for His favor in the gift's use.
"Can a well-composed oration setting out all the advantages of life and health, raise a dead man, or cure a diseased body? You may well exhort a blind man to behold the sun, and prevail as much. No man ever yet imagined, that the strewing a dead body with flowers would raise it to life; no more can the urging of a man spiritually dead with eloquent motivs ever make him to open his eyes, and to stand upon his feet. 'The working of mighty power' is a title too high for the capacity of mere moral exhortations. A mer suasion does not confer a strength, but supposes it in a man; for he is only persuaded to use the power which he hath already" (Bridges, quoting Charnock, p. 80).
We neglect the gift, and the Giver of the gift, if we enter into our labors under our own strength and depending on the disastrously weak implements of our own mind and strength. Charnock again: "We may as well attempt to batter strong walls with the breath of our mouths, as to do good upon men's souls wihtout the Spirit of God." Amen!
2. Enmity of the natural heart. "Enmity is the concentrated essence of man's depravity" (pp. 83-84). That enmity wars against the things of God, including the use of the minister's giftedness. And that enmity is in both the minister and the congregation such that when they combine they most naturally tend toward an abandonment of the gift and its use.
3. Resistance in the congregation or local area. How often is the minister tempted to "throw in the towel" or resign himself to something beneath his calling and gifting because of resistance encountered in the ministry? Resistance will come from those outside the church. But most discouraging of all is resistance from within the camp! Perhaps there is a clique or faction that follows Apollos while another follows Peter, and no one seems to follow the pastor, who is all the while hiding the things of God in his inside coat pocket for fear or discouragement at the resistance. In such cases, don't neglect the gift, Paul says. Evidently there were some who opposed Timothy because of his youth. So, that pastor that feels this way is in good company, and Paul's instruction is precisely for him. Display, improve upon, refine, wield the gift of God given to you. You can only be the man God has made you to be. You can only use the gifts and tools He has in His sovereign wisdom chosen to give you. And He has made no mistake in thus gifting you. It may be that use of the gift in the face of opposition is used of God to win people you think are hardest in their hearts against you. Or, it may be that the gift God gives you hardens them further in the face of God's judgment. It's a terrible prospect. But we may be sure of this: if we fail to stir up the gifts the Lord has given us, resistance and ungodliness will carry the day. And we would be hirelings and unloving to stand idly, with gifts in hand, as the enemy runs through the camp.
4. "Missed" Calling. It may be that gifts go neglected because we have entered into the wrong field of labor. Our gifts do not match the assignment we have received. "If we run unsent, our labours must prove unblest." Nothing twists a man into a pretzel like the nagging question, "Am I in God's will, or did I misunderstand the call?" Mind-numbing second-guessing will paralyze a man who is engrossed with this question. Believing in the sovereign designs and purposes of God, which He accomplishes according to His own will, perhaps it's better to refine the question. Rather than centering on the "will of God," perhaps we are better off asking, "Is there a proper fit between my giftedness and the demands of this or that calling? Am I fit for the office? Do you trust that you are inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost to take up this office? Do the godly elders and leaders around me confirm or question my fitness and giftedness for the office?" Involve godly peers and mentors in evaluating this question. "That which no man ought to do, almost every man does, in making himself the sovereign judge of his own calling" (Bridges, p. 93). Don't trust your feelings in the moment or the apparent lack of success or fruit. Think critically, carefully, and prayerfully about your gifts and calling. We may neglect them through pursuing the wrong field.
5. Deficiencies in our personal character. Our gifts may be neglected because our personal character is wanting. We may lack the kind of devotedness and diligence that Paul exhorts in verses 8, 10, and 13. Slothfulness will dull the mind and the heart and weaken the gift's use. We may be worldly. We may have too little of heaven in our hearts and our view, and too much of this life's vain and decaying pleasures, safety, and pursuits. We will neglect our gifts if we do. We may fear man more than God. Rather than roar boldly from the pulpit, we may cower before what we think are unapproving eyes and tight faces. We may desire our people's approval more than God's approval and thus neglect the gift God places in us. We may gratify our flesh too much. Exercising the gifts of God requires sacrifice and self-denial. We may wish to lay our cross down beside a pleasant brook rather than carrying it up a rocky hill. And so we neglect our gifts in favor of comfort, ease, security and the like. We may neglect our gifts because we are not resting properly. I forgot who said it, but "fatigue makes cowards of us all." My high school basketball coach drilled that into our heads... usually after the 100th sprint! The point: if you're tired, you will be tempted to quit and run. Suck it up! And one way for us to suck it up is to make sure we rest. Rest before you get tired. That rest will sharpen the use of our gifts. We may lack faith. Why don't we preach the gospel? It may be because we don't believe it's the power of God unto salvation. Why don't we lead our people to exercising church discipline? It may be we don't believe that loving corrective discipline is the best cure for sin-sick soul? If we lack faith, we will not exercise our gifts.
I suppose there are a thousand ways to neglect our gifts. But if we would be good ministers of the gospel, we must exercise our gifts and give ourselves to improving their use.