If you’re like me, and were raised in the most previous generation of the American Church, the more painful parts of human existence didn’t really make an appearance in the course of religious conversations. There was talk about doctrine, and piety, and all “those people” that were sinners, but the only real insight that could be given to those that were hurting was that they needed to read their Bible more, trust Jesus more, sin less, so on and so forth.
Suffering was unconsciously assumed to be something outside of the everyday experience of the “victorious” and “justified and sanctified” Christian. People responded to the suffering of others with a cautious distance, thinking something had gone horribly wrong with their life, God’s providence, or their souls.
And then I had the privilege of sitting under amazing teaching in college that really brought suffering to the fore. I was encouraged that suffering was not “supposed” to be an aberration in life, but rather the expectation of how things are. We didn’t pursue it, but we certainly didn’t need to, because it would find us.
More recently, I came to the strong conviction that suffering is not only woven into the everyday reality of life in this world, but it was actually woven into the very nature of God Himself. He united us with His sufferings; this suffering world was created through this suffering Christ; the Gospel of a dying God was proclaimed, fashioned, and set in motion by God the Father from eternity past, before there were any sins to redeem.
Suffering is an integral part of who God is.
And yet, I only recently realized that I had divorced the Holy Spirit from this. I’ve always associated the Holy Spirit mainly with joy. And this isn’t without good reason. Throughout Scripture, the Spirit is seen as a symbol of deep, abiding joy. It’s compared to wine that makes the heart glad, rain and rivers that refresh, and a dove that brings peace (here’s some more).
I’ve always had this sense that communing with the Spirit brings “happy emotions”, be it joy, ecstasy, rest, sweetness, or even conviction leading to assurance. The Holy Spirit, in my mind, has been the “unsuffering” part of the Trinity, that really brought relief from the suffering in the world.
But, in light of this sort-of Pentecost season, I’ve been questioning this. And I’ve been really encouraged with how wrong I’ve been. There’s a whole dimension of the Holy Spirit I feel I’ve been missing.
God the Holy Spirit is, quite literally, the very thoughts of God. And it is the these thoughts that are woven into our souls. This is what gives us spiritual discernment and the ability to hear God’s voice in the words of Scripture. It is what gives us assurance as being God’s own, but with one little caveat:
it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.(Rom8.16-17)
These divine thoughts that are woven in our hearts are the thoughts of a suffering and dying Lord. And so, by the Holy Spirit, we have indwelling within us divine thoughts that have a weight, a bitterness, and sting. Perhaps this is why much of our discernment feels uneasy and takes pause in light of teaching, preaching, or worship that is too escapist, easy, and overly-sentimental?
A great tangible picture of this is our first mention of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. In the first chapter of Mark, the earliest gospel written, we have this sort-of humorous set of words:
And just as he was coming up out of the [baptism] water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (Mk1.10-12)
So the first action we hear the Holy Spirit doing in the New Testament is his descending like a dove on God’s Beloved. Then, he drives him into the wilderness. Does this not capture the paradox of the Holy Spirit so well? The descent of the Holy Spirit, even for the Son of God, does not deliver from wilderness and temptation, but drives us into it all the more.
We also see this in the emotional life of the Holy Spirit. As a personal God, the Spirit has a dynamic life and being that has personality and deep wells of emotion. Paul says that we “grieve the Holy Spirit” when our inner life, is filled with thoughts and feelings that are contrary to the rhythm of life with our God and his People.
And in the deepest inner life of the Christian, how does the Holy Spirit move within us? With sighs and groanings too deep for words. They are, in fact, the very groanings that move and lurch within a suffering creation itself, and our suffering hearts.
So what’s the big take-away from this?
When I’m tasting the weight and pain and suffering of the world, I have too often sought the Holy Spirit as a reprieve from this pain. I’ve for too long seen communion with the Spirit as an escape. In my mind, I’ve metaphorically seen myself being “lifted” and joined to the Spirit “above”.
But instead, I now see that the Holy Spirit is not above, waiting to pull me up to him, but rather he comes down and into us and our sufferings. He is well-acquainted with the weight and darkness of the world. And he suffers with us and for us.
And so, in the Spirit, we don’t find the kind of comfort that pulls away from pain. Instead, we see a Comforter who draws near to us in its midst. When we see and experience suffering and pain, we are not “out of sync” with the Spirit, but are in fact moving within its deepest rhythms. Take heart.
Again, we’re reminded that in everything our God is one who’s “direction” is always downward. He’s always far more interested in getting lower and lower and lower, pressing Himself, His Son, His Word, His People, and His Spirit, into the every last and lowest broken crevice of human life, experience, and creation.
[image credit: Anselm Kiefer, “Landscape with a Wing”]