Image for Suffering & the Good Life

Holy Agitator: The Spirit Initiates Suffering

Part 1

Theologian, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities
January 19, 2018

The Nicene Creed proclaims the Holy Spirit as the “Lord and Giver of Life.” Does the Spirit’s work as Life-giver involve instigating suffering in people’s lives? While it may seem counterintuitive, the answer, according to Christian scriptures and much theological wisdom, appears to be, “yes.” At times, the Holy Spirit’s presence and action brings conflict, discomfort, conviction, and other types of “perceived disorder” into our lives.

In the Old Testament, the Spirit (ruach) is an uncontrollable force of life. Saul becomes “a different person” when the Spirit comes upon him—pursuant, naked, frenzied (1 Sam. 10:6; 19:18-24). In addition, various Hebrew prophets, filled with the divine Spirit (ruach), speak harsh judgment on Israel. For example, when the Spirit of Yahweh takes hold of the prophet Zechariah, these chilling words are issued to God’s people: “‘Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you’” (2 Chron. 24:20).

In the New Testament, being being filled with God’s Spirit (pneuma) often means being led to face suffering in various forms. At the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus is drawn into the desert by the Spirit, where he suffers spiritually, psychically, and physically (Matt. 4:1). The gospel writers attest that Jesus is the one whom God’s Spirit of “wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord” rests upon (Isa. 11:2); and yet, he is a disrupter of authority, a friend of sinners, a bringer of an unsettling “upside-down kingdom” where the last are first and the first, last (Matt. 20:16). Jesus does not mince words; to follow him requires suffering (Luke 9:23-24). Andrew, James, Peter, and John are obliged to abandon their family, income, and everything familiar (Matt. 4:18-22; Luke 5:1-11), while the rich young ruler is asked to forfeit all he has (Luke 18:22). And, of course, Jesus himself, God’s Spirit-filled and anointed One, is ultimately led to suffer and die alone on a cross.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Jesus’ Spirit-filled followers are persecuted and murdered for righteousness’ sake (Mt. 10:16-18; Acts 6:8-8:1). The Spirit testifies to Paul that imprisonment and persecution await him (Acts 20:22-23), while the Spirit’s “glory” is said to rest on those who are “reviled” (1 Peter 4:14). In addition, the story of the Early Church appears to confirm as indisputable what the gospel writer John had said about the Holy Spirit: As Guide, the Spirit convicts people of sin (John 16:8,13). This involves disrupting, redirecting, and sometimes even ending peoples’ lives; the case of Ananias and Sapphira is one rather extreme and disturbing example (Acts 5:1-11).

Not just in the Bible but in the Christian liturgical and theological tradition as well, we find voices proclaiming that the Spirit initiates conviction, provocation, and redirection – things we usually experience as painful and disruptive, even if ultimately transformative. Lines from the beautiful hymn Veni, Spiritus Sanctus (Come, Holy Spirit)—composed by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1228 CE—afford one example:

Lava quod est sordidum (Cleanse that which is unclean)


Flecte quo test ridigidum (Bend that which is inflexible)

Fove quo test frigidum (Fire that which is chilled)

Rege quod est devium (Correct what goes astray)1

The Holy Spirit’s cleansing, bending, inflaming, and correcting transpire at both corporate and individual levels. When social structures require change due to injustice, the Spirit initiates suffering for the sake of broader communal transformation. “The liberating work of the Spirit,” writes theologian Mark Galli, “begins in chaos, creating a tension that so disturbs the status quo that it leads to a crisis, which in turn exposes the oppression and opens the possibility for liberation.”2 Leonardo Boff, a Latin American liberation theologian, echoes Galli’s thought that the renewal of the world, which is the work of God’s Spirit, is often precipitated by disruption and chaos. Boff attributes many modern events to the justice-bringing whirlwind that is the divine Spirit. Interestingly, he includes the 2008 financial crisis, which “shook the center of the world’s economic and financial power,” in this category.3

The Spirit also initiates suffering for the sake of personal correction and transformation. For the fourteenth century theologian and mystic Julian of Norwich, “the Holy Spirit is directly implicated in our ability to face our sinfulness, own up to our selfish ways, and express contrition. It is the Spirit who leads the believer to sorrow for sin, confession, and penance.”4 Lutheran theologian Regin Prenter argues that, for the great Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, the “point of departure” for the Spirit’s work in human life is the experience of “despair” and “inner conflict” that arises when we face our own sinfulness in the light of God’s righteousness.5 In the midst of our reality of sin and death, “the Spirit descends and makes God’s reality present,” opening a “new sphere of life in the midst of our death.” But the new life the Spirit brings takes on a “strange garb,” writes Prenter. It “appears as unutterable groanings in the midst of the fury of death and hell.” Indeed, “no one would surmise [this inner conviction, conflict, and anguish] to be God’s reality because it resembles the very opposite[.]” But, paradoxically, “God’s whole reality is found in the midst of our distress. It is a creation out of nothing[.]”6

This notion that the Spirit’s presence and action is tied closely to an individual’s inward crisis holds weight not only theologically, but psychologically. Christian psychologist Steven J. Sandage argues that transformations toward more salutary ways of being often involve times of stress, anxiety, and profound destabilization—what in the Christian tradition is often called the “dark night of the soul.”7

It is important to bear in mind that the suffering the Holy Spirit initiates in human life is always set in the context of God’s calling, and our mission in fulfilling that calling. Suffering is never the Spirit’s primary goal; rather, the mission of the Gospel is. That is, the Spirit initiates suffering insofar as that suffering is part and parcel of God’s overall purpose in calling and sending us to live forth the Good News of Jesus. As Jürgen Moltmann puts it, “[T]he Spirit is the power to suffer in participation in the mission and the love of Jesus Christ, and is in this suffering the passion for what is possible, for what is coming and promised in the future of life, of freedom and of resurrection.”8


  1. Quoted in Leonardo Boff, Come, Holy Spirit: Inner Fire, Giver of Life, and Comforter of the Poor (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Press, 2015), 184-85.
  2. Mark Galli, Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 92-3.
  3. Boff, 10.
  4. Elizabeth A. Dreyer, Holy Power, Holy Presence: Rediscovering Medieval Metaphors for the Holy Spirit (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007), 229. Cf. Julian of Norwich: Showings, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 39, 244.
  5. Regin Prenter, Spiritus Creator (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001), 207, 209.
  6. Prenter, 191.
  7. F. LeRon Shults and Steven J. Sandage, Transforming Spirituality: Integrating Theology and Psychology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).
  8. Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1967), 212, quoted in Kwang-Jin Jang, The Role of the Holy Spirit in Christian Suffering: With Reference to Paul’s Experience of Suffering and to Korean Church Suffering (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse Publishing, 2011), 262.

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