Holy Spirit as Go-Between by Philip Yancey
The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Reaching for the Invisible God” published in 2000.
THE ITALIAN WRITER UMBERTO Eco (The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum) wrote a fascinating account of a trip across America titled Travels in Hyper Reality in which he remarked on our thoroughly material outlook on life. Even American mythology takes on tangible form, he observed: the Santa Clauses enthroned in every shopping mall at Christmastime and the huge animated characters strolling through Disneyland anytime. Ancient Greeks celebrated their heroes in epic poetry recited around a campfire; modern Americans shake hands with them in fuzzy suits.
Religious television intrigued Eco. “If you follow the Sunday morning religious programs on TV you come to understand that God can
be experienced only as nature, flesh, energy, tangible image. And since no preacher dares show us God in the form of a bearded dummy, or as a Disneyland robot, God can only be found in the form of natural force, joy, healing, youth, health, economic increment.” Eco concluded that Americans perceive their God in an almost tactile way. Where is the mysterium tremendum, Eco asked—–the holy, luminous, ineffable God?
I wonder what Eco might have thought of a scene I saw in the Philippines, in a church that houses an ebony statue of Jesus. Pilgrims some of whom crawl on their knees for miles to approach the statue, line up to touch its toes. They used to kiss the toes, but wear and tear on the statue prompted the church to cover it in Plexiglas, with only a cutout for the toes. Unfortunately for the undersized Filipino pilgrims, authorities also elevated the statue, so the faithful must jump high to touch the sacred toes. Now long lines of short people shuffle up to a certain point, then leap like basketball dunkers to reach the statue’s toes, which are again showing signs of wear. Once a year the church allows the Black Nazarene to come outside in a public procession, and most years people get trampled to death in the frenzy.
According to Eco, we humans search for clear-cut signs of God’s presence, as if still yearning for the burning bush or audible voice. As material beings, we devalue spirit as less real and want God to appear in the realm of matter, where we live. Jesus answered that wish for a time, an event we celebrate in sacred art, but the plain fact is that Jesus returned to the realm of the unseen.
“God is spirit,” insisted Jesus—–something every faithful Jew believed. But how to imagine a Spirit or visualize God apart from some visible form? Furthermore, how can a spirit relate to our world of matter? Can a spirit “see” without retinal cells to receive and focus light waves or “hear” without an eardrum to record molecular vibrations? And can we ever determine whether a spirit-God is interacting with life on this planet? In short, how can we believe in a God we cannot see? The Old Testament Israelites miserably failed such a challenge; despite many evidences of God, they repeatedly turned toward idols they could touch and see.
Some Christians, like those Umberto Eco encountered in America, want to reproduce those times when God made himself more obvious. They regard the Spirit as a pet version of the Israelites’ God in the wildness: He speaks to them directly, provides food and clothing, guarantees health, offers crystal-clear guidance. In other words, the Spirit changes the rules of life so that we need never experience cause for disappointment. I know too many sick and needy Christians to believe that.
I envision the Spirit not so much as touching our mundane lives with supernatural wand as bringing the Recognition (Dorothy Sayers’ word) of God’s presence into places we may have overlooked. The Spirit may bring that jolt of Recognition to the most ordinary things: a baby’s grin, snow falling on a frozen lake, a field of lavender in morning dew, a worship ritual that unexpectedly becomes more than ritual. Suddenly we see these momentary pleasures as gifts from a God who is worthy of praise.
To search for the Spirit is like hunting for your eyeglasses while wearing them. In John V. Taylor’s words, “We can never be directly aware of the Spirit, since in any experience of meeting and recognition he is always the go-between who creates awareness.” The Spirit is what we perceive with rather than what we perceive, the one who opens our eyes to underlying spirit-ual realities.
The Spirit’s Recognition of other people may well defy convention, for it has little to do with body shape, annual income, and the trappings of power. Rather, the Spirit may lead us to the same groups Jesus ministered to—aliens, widows, prisoners, the homeless, the hungry, the sick–—so that we gradually come to view “the least of these” as God views them.
A COLLEGE STUDENT TOLD me his way of picturing the Holy Spirit. “I first learned about the Spirit from childhood flannel graph lessons. They portrayed him as a miniature human being, a kind of homunculus, living deep inside our bodies. I still carry that image with me. The Spirit lives somewhere inside me, in my brain perhaps, or my heart. Like a janitor trapped inside a building, he gets my attention by banging on the pipes of my conscience or my subconscious. If I ignore him, he shrinks. If I attend to him, he grows larger until he fills me.”
Mention of the Holy Spirit summons up much confusion. If a person or group claims, “The Bible says,” you can look for yourself. If they claim, “The Spirit told me,” where can you look? There lies the problem: by definition the Spirit is invisible. Jesus drew a parallel for Nicodemus: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” How can we detect a presence that has no shape, no identifiable form?
Nevertheless, no one who wants to know God can ignore the Spirit, who made a dramatic appearance on earth at a hinge moment. As Jesus said goodbye to his followers, he asked them first to do something very important: Wait, Jesus said. Return to Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit.
What has happened since Jesus’ departure challenges faith and, in all honesty, drives many people away from God. In Jesus, God had deliberately joined a world infected with evil and fallen victim to it. With the Spirit, a holy God risked his reputation on the evil-infected persons themselves, by expanding the Incarnation to encompass all of Jesus’ followers. The God who took on human flesh so that we could experience him in our material world still takes on human flesh—–our flesh.
Yet read the sad, speckled history of the church. To put it mildly, mortal human beings do not embody God’s Expression as well as Jesus did. Indeed, we are as likely to turn people away from God as toward him. “It is for your good that I am going away,” Jesus told his dubious disciples as he promised them the Comforter. How so? What “advantages” are there to this final revelation of God?
Certainly, if a person desires a “personal relationship with God,” the Spirit takes the word personal to a new level. No other religion makes such an extravagant claim: that the God of the universe exists not just as an external power whom we must obey, but as One who lives inside us, transforming from the inside out and opening a channel of direct correspondence to God. As Thomas Merton put it, “since our souls are spiritual substances and since God is pure Spirit, there is nothing to prevent a union between ourselves and Him that is ecstatic in the literal sense of the word.”
Our relations with other people, as I have said, always involve a degree of uncertainty and doubt. Neighbors of a mass murderer often express surprise when the criminal is led away in handcuffs: “He was such a nice man.” All of us keep a part of ourselves, the inner self, hidden, and show the world only an outer self. In the Spirit, God overcomes that barrier. God now lives inside, in the inner self, and seeks ways to bring harmony to those two selves so that we are not split but have a unified identity.
We receive “gifts of the Spirit” from One who, by living inside us, knows precisely how each person’s unique combination of personality, upbringing, and natural skills can be used in God’s service. As Jurgen Moltmann points out, “the Spirit of life” is only encountered as the Spirit of this and that particular life—as specific and as varied as the people indwelled. The Spirit enhances and shapes but never overwhelms our individual personalities and talents.
According to one account, Queen Victoria had very different impressions of her two most famous prime ministers. When she was with William Gladstone, she said, “I feel I am with one of the most important leaders of the world.” Benjamin Disraeli, on the other hand, “makes me feel as if I am one of the most important people in the world.” Reading that description, I thought of the difference between reactions to Jehovah of the Old Testament and the indwelling Spirit: one provokes awe, while one provides nurture.
My friend Ken, a committed Christian who struggles with his faith, told me, “Frankly, I see more evidence for the Spirit than for the other two members of the Trinity. The hunger for God that I feel—that is a sign of the Spirit’s presence in me. My fitful battles with lust, my conviction of pride, the strong sense of when I need to apologize, and when to forgive—–these signs of God are to me every bit as impressive as a burning bush. They let me know God is still at work inside me.”
I have a hunch that small victories like the ones Ken describes give God as much, and maybe more, pleasure than any miracle from biblical times. I also know many “ordinary” people who visit prisons, care for the dying, build houses with Habitat for Humanity, adopt unwanted babies, welcome refugee families. They do these things under the prompting of God’s Spirit.
“Are you filled with the Spirit?” If you asked the apostle Paul such a question, he would likely respond by listing qualities that the Spirit produces: love, joy, peace, goodness, etc. Do you have those qualities? And do you express God’s love for others? Each of Paul’s letters ends with a call to practical acts of love and service: prayer, sharing with the needy, comforting the sick, hospitality, humility. We dare not devalue the “ordinary”—–actually, most extraordinary—–work of God making himself at home in our lives. These are the marks of the Spirit-filled life, signs of the invisible made manifest in our visible world.
The Spirit cannot be kept like a personal pet, living in a small compartment somewhere inside us to be brought out at will. The living presence of God inside us should permeate everything we see and do. To adapt the college student’s analogy, the Spirit is not a homunculus banging on pipes for our attention but rather an indwelling part of the entire building. The Spirit does not act on us so much as with us, as a part of us—–a God of the process, not a God of the gaps.
JESUS JOINED THE HUMAN race for a time so that he can now serve as our sympathetic advocate. In a tender passage, Paul shows that the Spirit adds a further contribution to our struggles here.
Romans 8 sums up the entire human condition—–more, the entire planet: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” And we humans “groan inwardly” as well, he adds. The planet and all its inhabitants are emitting a constant stream of low-frequency distress signals. Paul loved a good play on words, and the first two appearances of groan serve as stage props to set up his climactic conclusion: “ . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
I know well the helpless feeling of not knowing what I ought to pray: how to pray for a person in a dead-end marriage that seems to represent only stuntedness, not growth; for a victim of child abuse who as an adult finds it impossible to enjoy sex; for a parent of a child diagnosed with terminal cancer; for a Christian in Pakistan imprisoned for her faith; for a city council or court that does not share my core beliefs. What can I ask for? How can I pray?
The Spirit announces the good news that we need not figure out exactly how to pray. We need only groan. As I read Paul’s words, an image comes to mind of a mother tuning in to her child’s wordless cry. I know mothers who can distinguish a cry for food from a cry for attention, an earache cry from a stomachache cry. To me, the sounds are identical, but the mother instinctively perceives the meaning of the child’s nonverbal groan. It is the inarticulateness, the very helplessness, of the child that gives her compassion such intensity.
God’s Spirit has resources of sensitivity beyond even the wisest mother, and evidently it is our helplessness that God too delights in, our weakness allowing opportunity for his strength. Linking the groans of Romans 8, Paul tells of a Spirit who lives inside us, who detects needs we cannot articulate and expresses them in a language we cannot comprehend. When we don’t know what to pray, the Spirit fills in the blanks.
The Greek word applied to the Holy Spirit, Paraclete or paracletos, meant “one who stands by the side,” such as an advocate or defense attorney, an image that must have provided strong comfort to the persecuted early Christians. Those of us who face different trials—–cancer in the family, a besetting addiction, a teenager adrift, a job failure—also need the inner presence of a Spirit who intercedes for us “with groans that words cannot express,” or as one translation has it “with sighs too deep for words.” The same Greek word described a kind of cheerleader called upon when an army prepared for a decisive battle. For fearful and intimidated troops, the paracletos made audible a voice of confidence and morale building. We have access to that kind of inner voice, the Voice of God himself
The Bible presents, if you will, a “trinity of groans,” a progression of intimacy in God’s involvement with his creation. The Old Testament tells us of a God above, a Father who attends to our dwarfish human needs. The Gospels tell of a further step, the God alongside, who became one of us, taking on ears, vocal cords, and pain cells. And the Epistles tell of the God within, an invisible Spirit who gives expression to our wordless needs. The “groaning” chapter of Romans 8 concludes with the bold promise that one day there will be no need for groans at all.
ONE OF MY WRITING colleagues very nearly abandoned his faith after a horrific series of health and emotional problems. During his darkest hour, he said, God stayed silent. Prayer did nothing for him. At the end, when finally he emerged from the valley of shadow, he told me, “You know what kept me from chucking the whole thing, from apostatizing? Just this. It would mean having to go to three or four people I respect more than anyone else in the world and tell them, ‘You’re deceived.’ I could not bring myself to deny the reality of God’s Spirit in their lives.”
A mutual friend, listening in, had another opinion. “That’s exactly why I’m tempted to apostatize! Frankly, I don’t see the reality of God’s Spirit in people’s lives. I want some direct evidence of God.”
The “disadvantage” of knowing God through the Holy Spirit is that, when God turned over the mission to his church, he truly turned it over. As a result, many people who reject God are rejecting not God but a caricature of him presented by the church. Yes, the church has led the way in issues of justice, literacy, medicine, education, and civil rights. But to our everlasting shame, the watching world judges God by a church whose history also includes the Crusades, the Inquisition, anti-Semitism, suppression of women, and support of the slave trade.
I often wish we could set aside church history, scrub away the many layers of sediment, and encounter the words of the Gospels for the first time. Not everyone would accept Jesus—–they did not in his own day—–but at least people would not reject him for the wrong reasons. What I long for, however, is not only impossible but unbiblical. I must remind myself of Jesus’ words that it is for our good that he went away. The subsequent failures of the church are at once a sign of God’s readiness to con-descend, and also a backhanded compliment to human beings: God entrusts us with his mission.
I find it much easier to accept the fact of God dwelling in Jesus of Nazareth than in the people who attend my local church and in me. Yet the New Testament insists this pattern fulfills God’s plan from the beginning: not a continuing series of spectacular interventions but a gradual delegation of his mission to flawed human beings. All along, Jesus planned to die so that we, his church, could take his place. What Jesus brought to a few—–healing, grace, hope. the good-news message of God’s love—his followers could now bring to all. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” he explained, “it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
Eugene Peterson has written of his labors as a pastor, trying to shepherd a congregation who seemed to him gossipy and immature, who reduced the Bible to trivia and grew frustrated when God didn’t solve all their problems. The contrast between the actual congregation and the ideals of the church set forth in the New Testament bothered him greatly until he noticed an important detail in the book of Revelation. The early chapters describe immature churches like his as “lampstands.” “They are places, locations, where the light of Christ is shown,” notes Peterson. “They are not themselves the light. There is nothing particularly glamorous about churches, nor, on the other hand, is there anything particularly shameful about them. They simply are.”
In an elegant analogy, John V. Taylor likens the Incarnation to a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry V. On the eve of battle against an overwhelming enemy, King Henry dons a disguise and moves incognito among the common soldiers in the field. He overhears one swear that the king will have to pay on judgment day when the hacked and broken bodies rise up and accuse him of having bought victory with their lives. Henry knows all too well the burden that lies on his shoulders, a burden that he now transfers to his army.
Yet he still believes it will prove worthwhile and, as morning breaks, he rallies his small force to believe in it with him. So he instills into them his own hope, his faith in the value of the enterprise.
God does know more intimately than any the price his creatures have been paying for his huge adventure of making this universe of accident and freedom and pain as the only environment in which love could one day emerge to receive and delight in and respond to his joyous love. He still believes the outcome will outweigh the immense waste and agony, not least the agony of his seeming indifference and inaction. So, knowing we cannot understand, cannot forgive what he is doing, God has come among us as a fellow-being and fellow-sufferer to make amends and to win back trust.
King Henry could not fight the battle on his own. He could join his soldiers, move among them, inspire them, and lead the charge. But the outcome at Agincourt, one of the greatest military victories of all time, depended on the efforts of common foot soldiers.
God’s withdrawal behind human skin, his condescension to live inside common foot soldiers, guarantees that all will sometimes doubt and many will reject God altogether. The plan also guarantees that the kingdom will advance at a slow, tedious pace, which God, showing remarkable restraint, does not overrule. It took eighteen centuries for the church to rally against slavery, and even then many resisted. Poverty still abounds, as does war and discrimination, and in some places the church does little to help.
Etty Hillesum wrote this in a journal discovered after her death in a Nazi concentration camp:
One thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, so we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. . . . You cannot help us but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.
It will sometimes appear that God cannot help us, or at least does not. It will appear that he has set us loose down here, alone amid the evil powers. In truth, we all want a divine problem-solver. Christians may feel the same impatience over the slow, unspectacular work of the Holy Spirit as Jews felt over Jesus the Messiah, who did not provide the kind of triumphant rescue they wanted.
The questions we ask of God, he often turns back on us. We plead for God to “come down” and only reluctantly acknowledge that God is already here, within us, and that what God does on earth closely resembles what the church does. In short, the chief “disadvantage” to knowing God as Spirit is the history of the church—–and the spiritual biography of you and me. (147-157)
Christ was Himself but one and lived and died but once; but the Holy Ghost makes of every Christian another Christ, an AfterChrist; lives a million lives in every age. . .
GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS