How can the Holy Spirit’s presence and role be detected when people are experiencing the pain caused by perceived disorder and upset in their lives? This question is pressing for anyone personally experiencing suffering and seeking to understand it in view of their Christian faith. It is a significant concern, as well, for Christian ministers who wonder how best to counsel suffering congregants. But often, this is not an easy question to answer. As we have observed, the Spirit of God plays quite different roles in relation to human suffering—at times generating it, at times providing solace in the midst of it, and at times actively opposing it. These are all equally valid and equally real manners in which the Spirit may be present to suffering persons. But opportunities for misinterpretation abound. One can only imagine the further pain brought upon the grieving parent who is told that her child perished in a car accident because the Holy Spirit wanted to teach her a lesson, or, conversely, the disservice done to the suffering substance addict who is assured only of the Holy Spirit’s consolation, never its conviction or redirection. The interpretive terrain is tricky indeed. What, then, is the way forward?
In the Old and New Testaments and Christian theological literature, the Holy Spirit is regularly associated with the gift of discernment. In Isaiah, for example, we read that the one on whom the Spirit of the Lord rests is given wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge, among other gifts (Isa. 11:1-5). When it comes, then, to figuring out where and how God’s Spirit is present to human pain—a task which might be called a kind of “discernment of spirits” (1 Cor. 12:10)—we must lean on exactly these gifts of the Spirit. In other words, we must rely on the Spirit’s provision in order to discern the Spirit’s presence.
What might this look like, practically speaking? The commitments to listen carefully to the sufferer’s whole story before making judgments, and to attune oneself prayerfully to the divine presence before, during, and after the conversation with the sufferer, are crucial factors in detecting and affirming the Holy Spirit’s unique role in each unique event of suffering. In addition, it is important to attend closely to contextual details, such as the sufferer’s history, family make-up, mental and physical health status, and socioeconomic situation. Such clues can aid greatly in the discernment process. When the suffering seems to be brought on, for example, by memories of past wrongdoing or awareness of present sin, there may be cause to affirm the presence of the Holy Agitator. When the suffering is connected to illness, grief, or loss, there may be cause to affirm the presence of the Holy Comforter. And when the suffering is linked with the painful effects of social sin and injustice, there may be cause to affirm the presence of the Holy Liberator.
It is important to keep in mind that because situations that give rise to human suffering are complex (and because God’s ways are mysterious), the Spirit may be working in more than one way in any given circumstance. Take, for example, the suffering of a child belonging to a minority race and culture who is being bullied and ostracized at school. In this case, it may be appropriate to affirm (and invoke, through prayer) the Spirit’s comforting/consoling presence to and with the bullied child, the Spirit’s agitating/convicting presence to and with the child’s bullies, and the Spirit’s liberating/restorative presence in the midst of the children’s social systems that have been stained by sins of prejudice and hate.
It may also be the case that we cannot know how the Spirit is present in an event of suffering until some time has gone by and the story can be put into a broader temporal narrative. Hindsight is often the hidden key to discerning divine presence and activity in creation, and sometimes, there is just no substitute for patient, faithful, quiet waiting for God to be revealed. Here again, in contexts where suffering is near, close reliance on the promised Guide, who leads us into all truth (John 16:13), is crucial—even if understanding is delayed for a while or kept at bay indefinitely.
In closing, let us recall again the Nicene Creed’s proclamation that the Holy Spirit is the “Lord and Giver of Life” (cf. Gal 5:25; 2 Cor. 3:6). From simple observation of the natural world, we know that the nurturance of life often involves suffering (for example, childbirth) and that destruction is bound up with creation (for example, food chains). Like Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ beloved Chronicles of Narnia, the life-giving Spirit has never been safe, but it has always been good, always trustworthy. Sometimes it comes as a burning fire in the mouths of prophets, and other times it comes as a comforting balm of hope and unity when people are suffering trials and persecutions. In all cases, just as in the beginning, the Spirit hovers over the darkness and chaos, calling it and coaxing it into transformed existence (Gen. 1:1).