Discerning the Spirit
Recently someone shared with weeping about the sudden unexpected loss of a spouse. In the midst of their grief I could sense that this was a dark episode in which the Holy Spirit was moving powerfully. Often however believers struggle to find the Lord in tragedy. When serious Christians ask me about how to discern the work of the Spirit in their personal or Church situations I can point them in only one direction. Jesus defined the Spirit is as “another Helper” like himself sent by the Father (John 14:26). As Jesus is the express “shape” of the Father the Spirit will always appear in the form of Christ-likeness (John 18:37:: 15:26; 17:4:: 16:14 etc.). The invisible Spirit has a very concrete embodiment; his work can readily be discerned in creating the new life of Christ-likeness in the place of perishing human flesh (Gal 5:16- cf. Rom 1:3-4; 1 Tim 3:16). Where the fallen world naturally descends from one degree of disorder to another the Holy Spirit always brings godly character out of chaos. Living out this foundational truth in the midst of daily disturbances is a great struggle for many Christians. To help us we need to return to the Bible’s big picture thinking of creation which starts not with perfection but formlessness.
The Old Covenant
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:1-2). Since the Hebrew word for “spirit” (ruah) is the same as that for “wind” this verse can be translated, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (NRSV). The surprising connection between chaos and the Spirit/wind bringing forth order and new life undergirds all God’s subsequent dealings with humanity. After the Flood reached its peak, “God remembered Noah and…made a wind blow over the earth, and the waters subsided.” (Gen 8:1). It was a windy blast from God’s “nostrils” that drove back the Red Sea opening up deliverance for Israel (Ex 14:21; 15:8, 10). The Spirit/wind continues to bring order from chaos in Israel’s desert experience. In the midst of the “howling wilderness” the Spirit “hovered” as a mother eagle guiding God’s people and sharing in their afflictions (Deut 32:10-11, 15; Isa 63:9-11 cf. Ex 19:4). Yet Israel continually rebelled and turned their hearts back to Egypt as if God was not present in their trials (Num 14:3-4). Suffering shut their hearts to discerning the ever-present Spirit. Old Testament apocalyptic sees such struggles continuing to the End. The tribulation of the last days is pictured as a return to the “darkness and gloom” of creation’s original chaos; a time so grievous that “the power of the holy people” of the Lord will be shattered (Dan 8:24; 12:7; Amos 5:18-20). It will seem like the Spirit of God has abandoned the faithful! We however are not under the old covenant. Knowing that the final purpose of our trials is to make us like Jesus gives us an ability to discern the work of the Spirit when he seems least present.
The Covenant of Christ
Discerning the presence of supernatural power is not the same as discerning the holy presence of the Spirit. Wicked king Herod recognised “powers” were at work in Christ (Mark 6:14). Likewise the Pharisees, who were constrained to attribute Jesus’ signs to the devil (Matt 12:22-28)! Scripture speaks of those who will work miracles in Jesus’ name but lack all discernment of the Holy Spirit’s final purpose in uniting us to Christ (Matt 7:21-23). The one crucial ingredient giving insight into identifying the Spirit’s most personal work is meditation on the sufferings of Christ.
In the midst of the overwhelming sorrow of Gethsemane it was a unique experience of intimacy with the Spirit of God that moved Jesus to pray (only here) ““Abba, Father”” (Mark 14:34-36; Rom 8:14-16). Likewise the one place in scripture where the Third Person of the Trinity is called “eternal” concerns the death of Christ; “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb 9:14). The most powerful act of the Spirit of God in the history of creation is found in his enabling Christ to shed his sacrificial blood. Where the Spirit was least discerned in the life of the Son of God he was most powerfully at work (Mark 15:34). Anyone who receives this witness into their conscience will recognise the Spirit’s presence in their own agonies. As the Spirit gently hovered above the crucified Jesus just as he did at the first creation and for Israel so he hovers over us in our trials. The fruit of this all powerful presence of the Spirit is resurrection life. Through the chaos and darkness of the cross he put to death the old fallen creation and created a new world in Christ (Mark 15:33, Rom 1:4). Those who have received the seal of the Spirit from the crucified and risen Lord are enabled to discern the mysteries of the workings of the Spirit (Eph 4:30). Yet such insight is fiercely opposed.
Fix It Up
The therapeutic values of a culture that hates pain have penetrated deeply into the mindset of the Western Church. In our rush to “fix people up” we fail to appreciate the difference between a changed life and an exchanged life. Freedom from pains and problems is a good thing, but it may not issue in the eternal life of the new creation. It is not a better life which the gospel offers, it is another life (Gal 6:15). Sharing in the new creation involves a transformation of being that comes only as the Spirit unites the darkness and chaos of our lives with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul expounds the nature of an exchanged life; “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20). The Spirit released by the cross always works in the chaos of our lives uniting us to the very nature of God in Christ (2 Pet 1:4). It is hard for comfortable middle class Christians to grasp the necessity of darkness and disorder for entering new life through the Spirit’s power, perhaps however such struggles are coming to an end.
Coming to the End
Today we are witnessing the death of Western Christianity and the descent of a moral and spiritual darkness upon our nation. Some are prophesying a looming financial crisis. All of this seems to be the truth shock we so desperately need. Scripture has forewarned us of wars, famines, plagues, natural disasters and ongoing “times of distress” before the End (Matt 24:3ff; 1 Cor 7:26). “In the Spirit” John sees the rise of a beastly power “allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation” (Rev 1:10; 13:7). We may not be too far away from a time when the state refuses to pay pensions to biblically faithful Christians (Rev 13:17). None of the above is cause for alarm for where the Spirit seems most absent he is most present in uniting the Church to the death and resurrection of Christ (Matt 24:6; 2 Thess 2:2). The deepest spiritual darkness must precede the greatest advent of light at Christ’s Return for the greater glory of God (Matt 24:27; cf. Isa 9:2). Those schooled in scripture discern the chaos-new creation order that embraces the symmetry of beginning and End. Within this grand framework all our little darkness’s are taken up into the great act of the death and resurrection of Christ the hope of the world. This discerning of the Spirit is the power of the gospel we need today (Rom 1:16). May the Spirit inspire insight into such marvellous things so that all our sorrows may be turned to joy.