Will the Holy Spirit Lead You into Suffering?

“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) (ESV).

“Immediately the Spirit impelled Him to go out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12) (NASB).

“At once, this same Spirit pushed Jesus out into the wild” (Mark 1:12) (The Message).

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What are the implications of Mark 1:12 for our understanding of the Holy Spirit? Let us begin by noting that Mark 1:12 is not a theological island. Other passages of Scripture support the general thesis that the Holy Spirit is an agent of transformative suffering. In the Old Testament, the prophets frequently speak a Spirit-inspired message of both encouragement and discomforting conviction that is aimed at the sanctification of God’s people. In John 16:8, Jesus promises that he will send the Counselor, who will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. We find this dynamic reflected in many sermons portrayed in Acts, most notably Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Peter’s listeners are “cut to the heart” and cry out in anguish, wondering how they can be saved. In Romans 8:13, Paul teaches that those who live by the Spirit put to death the deeds of the flesh. Putting to death the deeds of the flesh is neither trivial nor comfortable.

Next we note the theological precedent Mark is establishing. Jesus is baptized, anointed with the Holy Spirit, and then immediately driven into a situation of deprivation, opposition, and testing. This sequence would be familiar to Mark’s readers. . . .  like Jesus, they too would be baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and be tested by a world hostile to them, often to the point of persecution. . . . Mark’s readers would know the sensation of being armed with power but then hurled into the fray immediately after being baptized. Therefore, Mark and his readers would need little help recognizing the parallels between Jesus’ testing and their own.

In a similar way, we can draw parallels between Jesus’ testing in the wilderness and familiar experiences we recognize in spiritual formation. To begin with, Jesus’ divine sonship is defined in the midst of temptation and testing. Christians who also desire to live as sons and daughters of God should expect the same. [The] description of salvation in Christ as a “participative journey” is helpful. It means our paths will wind through places familiar from the life of Jesus. We will walk in his footsteps.

While it is unlikely that the Spirit will expel many Christians into the physical wilderness, the principle conveyed in this verse is meaningful. When considered in a metaphorical sense, the wilderness is a place of temptation . .  . .

First, it involves testing that arises as believers deal with deprivation and uncertainty. Metaphorically, the desert represents a state in which one is brought to the existential realization that all of one’s sources of comfort and livelihood either have been or could be stripped away, so that one’s faith in God’s love and care are brought to a state of crisis. Whereas many believers are familiar with this state of being, they do not commonly associate it with the agency of the Holy Spirit, especially when the Spirit is understood to be our comforter, advisor, and inspirer. Nevertheless, this is where Mark 1:12 leads.

Second, temptation can mean active conflict with evil itself. When God the Spirit expels a believer into a wilderness where she is uncertain of her very well-being, the temptation is great to turn to some other source into which she may put her trust. Because the metaphors that dominate the field of pneumatology tend to center around comfort, nurture, love and renewal, it could seem scandalous to think that the Holy Spirit is capable of expelling God’s beloved into the wilderness. Notably, there is no significant discussion within systematic theology of the implications of Mark 1:12 for pneumatology. Nevertheless,connecting the sanctifying work of the Spirit to human experiences of alienation, deprivation, and testing is well-trodden ground for the spiritual masters.

T. David Beck, “The Divine Dis-Comforter: The Holy Spirit’s Role in Transformative Suffering,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, 2:2 (2009): 199-218. 

Photo Courtesy of Arlene Ripley

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How Self-Aware Are You?

Whether we have an actual spiritual director or not, we need others as a check and balance in our spiritual journey. This is so for a number of reasons. We each have a capacity for self-deception, for rationalizing our behavior, even for self-destructive behavior. We need others who love and accept us but who are able to speak graciously and without flattery regarding the specifics of our lives.

We are so easily crushed by criticism, and we are so inclined to have inflated heads when we receive some measure of praise. The friend, or spiritual director, comes alongside to help us moderate what is happening to us emotionally, precisely so that we take criticism for what it is–a potential for growth and learning–and take affirmation for no more than it is–a helpful marker along the way. We don’t let either go to our head. Few things are so insidious to the spiritual life as pride. It is very nearly impossible to navigate the rough and tumble of the spiritual life without another, who comes alongside, to keep us humble. And one sign of this humility is that we are not crushed by criticism or flattered by praise. It is very nearly impossible, if not actually impossible, to get a good read on ourselves–to take a sober look at ourselves (Rom. 12:3)–without an external guide, be that a good friend or a spiritual director, who will keep us from overstating our weaknesses or being overly self-impressed with our capacities. The other helps us actually see our weaknesses and potential vulnerabilities that could come to haunt us in a time of stress or difficulty. Also, when we are trying to make sense of a significant experience, particularly one that leaves an emotional wake–whether it be a difficult experience that leaves us in anger or discouragement, or a more positive one where something went very well and we received affirmation and praise–we need another to help us make sense of what is happening to us. This can certainly come through good friends. But the ministry of spiritual direction formalizes this input and assures us that it will happen. Indeed, I would in the end suggest that we need both–both the very best of friendship and wise, informed spiritual direction.

We are deeply emotional creatures–all of us. And emotions are powerful sources, for good and ill. Deep sorrow, while surely appropriate in response to loss, can so easily discombobulate us. Anger, in the face of grave wrong, so easily leads to bitterness. Discouragement and disappointment, left unchecked, can so easily result in cynicism. And fear, so easily rationalized as a “concern” for another, can overcome our capacity to think and respond courageously to a challenge we are facing. The huge gift of the other who walks alongside us in our faith journey, is that of responding graciously to our circumstances with apt words and, as needed, gentle correction. Effective spiritual direction fosters emotional self-awareness, including the freedom to acknowledge and and name our anger, our fear and our discouragement. But then also, an effective director does not allow us to stay there, mired in our anger and sorrow. We can so easily feel overcome by guilt, fear, sorrow and darkness; we need the other to point out the light and signs of God’s goodness and presence in the midst of this darkness when we are so easily blinded by our own emotions.

In addition, we all need encouragement. In our lives and work and relationships we are so easily discouraged and disheartened. A wise spiritual director is able to see the subtle ways in which we need to be encouraged and renewed in hope. And their insight is to speak an apt word–not so much “let me encourage you,” but the appropriate word for this person at this time in the face of this disheartening situation.

The “other” in our life is essential to our capacity to know Christ and to respond to Christ with patience and courage. Part of the great genius of the Christian understanding of religious experience is found in this remarkable counterpoint: we are individuals before God, but we are not alone in this encounter with God. We need one another to live with vitality and strength and hope. The Christian life is not self-sustainable.

Gordon T. Smith, Spiritual Direction: A Guide to Giving and Receiving Direction, 32.

Photo Courtesy of Yuri Arcurs – Getty Images

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Do You Have “Peace” in Your Soul? – Part 1

Inner harmony, individual and communal, is a normal state of affairs. Disorder and conflict are illnesses. The virtuous person experiences “all joy” (Prov. 10:28; Ps. 64:11; 132:9), his light burns brightly (Prov. 13:9; Ps. 97:11), and he possesses a universal peace (Ps. 119:165). The man who looks to the Lord radiates a joy from his inner encounter (Ps. 34:5). When God is near, good people sing for joy; they exult and rejoice (Ps. 68:3-4, 32). One must conclude that the normal human condition–it is normal to be close to God–is to experience an abiding joy. In the days of the promised king, a universal peace will abide without end (Ps. 72:7), for he wills peace for his friends if only they will renounce foolishness (Ps. 85:8). They who learn to praise God enjoy his light and continually exult in him (Ps. 89:15-16; Ps. 105:3): prayerfulness begets perception and peace. The person who calls on God in his troubles finds an immediate response in a divinely given comfort and happiness and joy in the midst of all his troubles (2 Cor. 7:4). A man of peace enjoys an abiding peace somehow received through the Lord’s representatives (Luke 10:5-6).

Ecclesial communities enjoy peace/joy as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their midst (Acts 9:31; 13:52). The Philippians are to rejoice always (not only occasionally) and to experience a peace so marvelous that it surpasses understanding (Phil. 4:4, 7). The very kingdom of Christ consists in goodness, joy, and peace brought by the Spirit (Rom. 14:17). Jesus had already promised that the Paraclete he would send to indwell would bring a peace the world cannot give, a complete joy, a joy that no one can take away, a joy that is full (Jn. 14:27; 15:11; 16:22, 33; 17:13). Peter tells his Christians that they do enjoy this kind of delight in God, a delight so remarkable it cannot be described in words (1 Pet. 1:8). This harmony is to reign habitually in the hearts of the faithful (Col. 3:15), always and in every way (2 Th. 3:16).

This inner harmony is not psychologically produced by human techniques . . . . It is divinely given. Nor is it the mere cessation of conflict or the feeling of well-being at getting one’s own way. It is not a sporadic thing, here today, gone tomorrow. Nor is it necessarily accompanied by a felt awareness of God’s presence. A sensible awareness of the divine nearness is not a sure witness to his presence, just as dryness and desolation are not an indication of his absence.

It is an inner harmony, an integrity born of goodness. Whole things flourish. A machine lacking oil or with a part missing is hardly “at peace.” It squeaks or grinds or self-destructs or does not run at all. A human person who lacks love or honesty or purity or justice is necessarily a disordered human being. He cannot have inner peace because he is missing  “parts.” On the other hand, a person who is led by the Holy Spirit does possess the love and goodness poured out by him.

Our English concept of peace . . . refers chiefly in the popular mind to a cessation of hostility, a calm after battle. The ancient Hebrew concept included tranquility but much more besides. The root from which shalom comes signifies completion, finishing, perfection, fullness. Shalom, the usual greeting, referred to a gift from the Lord God. It was a state of full well-being, a completeness that included of course a vibrant relationship with God. Peace, therefore, included holiness of life and in this sense prosperity. In the New Testament Jesus is the prince of peace, for in him the fullness of divine blessings is present. This peace, this fullness, the world cannot give. It is his gift and his alone (Jn. 14:27). He is our peace and the announcer of the good news of it (Eph. 2:14, 17).

Thomas Dubay, Authenticity, 217-18.

Artwork Courtesy of Melani Pyke

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Why is Morning Prayer Important?

The entire day receives order and discipline when it acquires unity. This unity must be sought and found in morning prayer. It is confirmed in work. The morning prayer determines the day. Squandered time of which we are ashamed, temptations to which we succumb, weaknesses and lack of courage in work, disorganization and lack of discipline in our thoughts and in our conversation with other men, all have their origin most often in the neglect of morning prayer.

Order and distribution of our time become more firm where they originate in prayer. Temptations which accompany the working day will be conquered on the basis of the morning breakthrough to God. Decisions, demanded by work, become easier and simpler where they are made not in the fear of men but only in the sight of God. “Whatever your task, work heartily, as serving the Lord and not men” (Colossians 3:23). Even mechanical work is done in a more patient way if it arises from the recognition of God and his command. The powers to work take hold, therefore, at the place where we have prayed to God. He wants to give us today the power which we need for our work.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. 64-65.

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“Obedience” Versus “Spiritual Formation”?

With all the talk of spiritual disciplines, spiritual directors, silence retreats, Ignatian spirituality, and so on, it should come as no surprise that evangelicals would be drawn to simple obedience to the commands of Christ. Why all the curiosity and investigation into alternative models and means of spiritual maturation when we have at our disposal a simple, biblical, tried and true understanding of the Christian life? On this understanding the formula for Christian living is straightforward: trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, come under the teaching of His Word within the church, obey His commands, and seek to bring others into His Kingdom. We might think here of the old hymn chorus, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, than to trust and obey.” Given this clear and simple message, the attendant worry is that spiritual formation is an unnecessary complication and confusion of a long-standing and successful model of spiritual growth.

In response to this concern about spiritual formation, several things should be said. First off, the hymn is right—trusting Christ and obeying His commands should be at the heart of spiritual formation. As a case in point, Dallas Willard has written that the goal of Christian spiritual formation is “an obedience or conformity to Christ.”

Perhaps what appears to complicate matters when it comes to spiritual formation is the often-found critique of an externalized understanding of obedience. That is, “obedience to Christ” can be easily reduced to a behaviorism in which the believer merely attempts to get his or her outward actions in line with the explicit commandments of Christ. The problem here, of course, is that outward obedience to Christ appears to be something that we can do in our own power—a cleaning of the outside of the cup (Mt 23:25–26).24 Given this understanding of the Christian life, if the believer fails in his or her endeavor (as he or she no doubt will), the only help on offer is an exhortation to confess, repent, and try harder the next time. If nothing else, spiritual formation has attempted to express a firm corrective to this externalized conception of formation and in its place offer an analysis of the dynamics of inner heart change in and through relationship with God.

Hence, a central question that has been pushed in spiritual formation is: How do we become the kinds of persons who can consistently and joyfully obey Christ in all aspects of our lives? Here, as Eugene Peterson puts it, we do not simply want to do Jesus things, but we want to do Jesus things the Jesus way. Once we open the door to the way of becoming a person who naturally and regularly obeys Christ from the heart, we have opened the door to a deeper and more complex discussion involving the agency of the Holy Spirit, the role of the human will, the place of the Word, the nature of the heart, the necessity of relationships with others, etc.

So, on the one hand, there is no need to worry about the loss of good old-fashioned obedience for it remains at the forefront of anything rightly called Christian spiritual formation. On the other hand, it may turn out to be the case that obedience to Christ is a bit more complex than the Christian behaviorism that can masquerade as obedience to Christ. Complex realities are not necessarily complicated or confusing, but they do demand a certain kind of sustained attention. “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way . . .” becomes a much more profound lyric than most of us probably realized.

Steve L. Porter, Sanctification in a New Key: Relieving Evangelical Anxieties Over Spiritual Formation, Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care 1:2 (2008), 145.

Image Courtesy of hymnary.org

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Is the Holy Spirit is Your Companion?

I have many people who are already in my life: friends, colleagues, family. Some of these people I care for very deeply, and I want a fuller and stronger relationship with them. So I ask for them, I seek them, I knock at their door. I ask them for more of their time, their story, their memories, their thoughts, their feelings, their life.

So it is, I believe, with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is already present to us, but often as a stranger, or at most a distant friend. I think Jesus encourages us to ask for more than this. If you . . . are seeking to take a few tentative steps into experiencing the Spirit-empowered life, I would encourage you to begin in prayer, simply by asking the Spirit to come more fully into your life. Don’t come seeking the gifts, nor the vivid spiritual experiences. Don’t come hoping for an emotional rush, or a spectacular miracle. Seek instead just the companionship of God’s Spirit. Ask to be drawn more deeply into his life, his thought, his feelings, his love. Get to know the Holy Spirit.

Christopher S. Webb, “Becoming Like Jesus: Spirit-Empowered Life,” 11.

Artwork by Kip Decker ©2009

 

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Do You Pray Psalm 70:1 Very Often?

“Make haste, O God, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me!” (Ps. 70:1) (ESV).

“God! Please hurry to my rescue! God, come quickly to my side!” (Ps. 70:1) (The Message)

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Not without reason has this verse been selected from out of the whole body of Scripture. For it takes up all the emotions that can be applied to human nature and with great correctness and accuracy it adjusts itself to every condition and every attack. It contains an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of concern . . . a consciousness of one’s own frailty, the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present and at hand . . . it contains a burning love and charity, an awareness of traps, and a fear of enemies . . . this verse is an unassailable wall and an impenetrable breastplate . . . it warns those of us who are enjoying spiritual successes and are glad of heart that we must never be exalted or puffed up because of our good fortune, which it testifies cannot be maintained without the protection of God, for it begs him to come to our aid not only at all times but also quickly. This verse, I say, is necessary and useful for each one of us in whatever condition we may live.

You should, I say, meditate constantly on this verse in your heart. You should not stop repeating it when you are doing any kind of work or performing some service or are on a journey. Meditate upon it while sleeping and eating and attending to the least needs of nature . . . let sleep overtake you as you meditate upon this verse until you are formed by having used it ceaselessly and are in the habit of repeating it even while asleep . . . let this be the first thing that comes to you when you awake, let it send you to your knees as you arise from your bed . . . and let it accompany you at all times . . . thus straitened by the poverty of this verse, it will very easily attain to the gospel beatitude which holds the first place among the other beatitudes.

John Cassian, Conferences,10.10.2–10.10.5; 10.10.14, and 10.11.1

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Self-Pity as Pride

I know those moods when you sit there utterly alone, eaten up with unhappiness, in a pure state of grief. You don’t move towards me but desperately imagine that everything you have ever done has been utterly lost or forgotten. This near despair and self-pity are actually a form of pride. What you think was a state of absolute security from which you’ve fallen was really trusting too much in your own strength and ability. Profound depression and perplexity of mind often follow on a loss of hope, when what really ails you is that things simply haven’t happened as you expected or wanted.

In fact, I don’t want you to rely on your own strength and abilities and plans, but to distrust them and to distrust yourself and to trust me and no one and nothing else. As long as you rely on yourself you are bound to come to grief. You still have a most important lesson to learn; your own strength will no more help you to stand upright than propping yourself on a broken reed. You must not despair of me. You may hope and trust in me absolutely. My mercy is infinite.

John of Landsburg, A Letter from Jesus Christ, 58-59.

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How to Love a Difficult Person

I woke up in the middle of the night recently with this rather odd question on my mind: How would you love someone without prayer? I mean, what would it look like if you loved someone but couldn’t pray for that person? It was a puzzle to me. I couldn’t figure out what it would look like. Love without being able to pray feels depressing and frustrating, like trying to tie a bow with gloves on. I would be powerless to do the other person any real good. People are far too complicated: the world is far too evil; and my own heart is too off center to be able to love adequately without praying. I need Jesus.

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life, 260-61.

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What God Saw When He Saw Me

The following post was written by Emily Baily. In 2011 she graduated from Grace University with a M.A. in Biblical Studies. She describes herself as, “an introspective explorer whose heart is softened every time I have the honor to love, care for and play with my nieces and nephews . . . I hope they never find out that I’m already a grown up.”

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I was recently driving across the back roads of Western Nebraska. It is a desolate, unforgiving and lonely land. The road stretches beyond the horizon, cut off by a sky that seems unreal, as if it was born from the imagination of some strange Artist. And as I drove, I looked at the dried out fields, the lonely, abandoned windmills and the broken down barns and thought, this…this is beauty.

Why am I so drawn to broken things? To things that have been used, destroyed and left to rot. Every abandoned home, dead tree, or even a discarded and forgotten toy fills my heart with such a strange longing; as if I gaze upon these now worthless things and see myself. I look at what the world calls ugly and useless, and am overwhelmed by the beauty.

I have known the depths of a tortured brokenness. I have felt the sting of losing almost everything. My job, my home, my friends, my health, my sense of security and safety…even my hope. I have waded deep into the waters of sorrow and pain, and thought of letting myself be drowned in that ever darkening abyss. I understand what it means to have a crushed and broken spirit.

So why, after such pain and loneliness, do I still love and even long for the broken? When I see a dead tree, I know it is dead. It does not try to hide that fact by borrowing leaves from other trees or trying to brush away the discolored bark now covering its trunk. The tree has accepted its brokenness, and I find that remarkably beautiful.

As my own life fell apart, I tried to pretend everything was okay. I worked hard to pretend that I wasn’t bothered by the losses I was suffering. I hid the truth from those around me and tried to hide it from God. And then I was too tired to pretend. I stood before God; scarred, sad, ashamed and utterly crushed. There was nothing left to give or say; it was me…in pieces. And I know that as God gazed on me, in all of my unfiltered and exposed brokenness, He thought; now this … this is beauty.

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