Anyone who has personally experienced suffering borne of tragedy, or has walked alongside a friend or parishioner in the throes of this experience, knows that simple presence—attentive, compassionate, patient, and often wordless—is probably the most helpful and healing gift one can offer. Just the knowledge that “you are not alone,” even though answers and solutions may remain hidden, can provide enormous strength and comfort in the midst of affliction.
The Holy Spirit is the Giver Extraordinaire of such presence. Solace, sustenance, companionship, and an uncanny sense that, somehow, despite everything, “all will be well”1—these are just a few of the types of comfort the Spirit may bring into our lives when we are suffering.
The Hebrew Bible offers ample evidence of the Spirit’s consoling presence to and with God’s people. The Psalmist declares the Spirit’s persistent, attentive care in every place and situation imaginable: “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (139:7) Even in the bed of death, even at the farthest reaches of the world, even when deepest darkness surrounds, the Spirit of Yahweh is still there, leading and holding fast (139:7-12). So too, through the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, Yahweh speaks words of relief, hope, and blessing to Israel as they suffer in Babylonian exile: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring” (Isa. 44:3).
In the New Testament as well, we find numerous instances in which the Spirit is experienced as Comforter in situations involving suffering. The Gospel-writer John calls the Holy Spirit parakletos (John 14:16, 26; 15:26, 16:7), the proper meaning of which is, “one called to the side of another” or “one called to the aide of another.”2 Parakletos can be translated in different ways: Comforter, Advocate, Counselor, and Helper are common renderings. Many scholars believe John’s audience consisted of a group of heavily persecuted messianic Jews.3 It makes sense, then, to suppose that this community would have found great comfort in the message that, in the midst of such trials, the divine parakletos walks alongside you to support and console you.
Other New Testament attestations of the Spirit’s role as Comforter include Paul’s rather graphic descriptions of his own suffering, paired with his insistence that God’s power and presence is made manifest in the midst of human weakness and struggle (2 Cor. 11:25-28; 2 Cor. 12:7-10). As mentioned earlier, Paul also casts the Holy Spirit as the groaning intercessor who pervades and carries our prayers even though we are weak, ignorant, and/or exhausted (Romans 8:26). And finally, in 1 Thess. 1:6, we are assured of the Holy Spirit’s power to give joy even in the throes of severe suffering.
Numerous Christian thinkers have wrestled with important theological issues related to the Spirit’s role in walking alongside creatures experiencing affliction. First, some suggest that there are types of suffering in which the Spirit’s comforting presence is particularly keenly felt. For instance, New Testament scholar Martin W. Mittelstadt emphasizes Jesus’ promise that the Spirit will provide guidance and empowerment to those experiencing persecution. Building on Luke 12:1-12, Mittlestadt describes how the Holy Spirit will “be the source of strength and eloquence…when [the disciples] are called upon to defend themselves and their mission. Jesus forecasts human helplessness and inarticulateness as giving way to the strength and eloquence that come from the Spirit of God.”4 For other Christian scholars, situations of poverty and oppression are especially crucial contexts for the experience of the Spirit’s comforting presence. According to African American liberation theologian James H. Evans, a primary function of the Spirit is to provide “sustaining purpose” as it “works toward and for the survival of the downtrodden.”5 Similarly, for Latin American liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, the Holy Spirit gives the poor “courage and resistance, a will to struggle and overcome. It doesn’t let them give up. It has always sent light into the hearts of the poor to help them see viable options, keep struggling, and survive through the ages[.]”6
The Holy Spirit’s compassion is a second commonly addressed theme in the theological literature about Spirit and suffering. Compassion literally means, “to suffer with.” Thus, the issue here is the Spirit’s own participation in the travails of those who suffer. In her interdisciplinary work on the Holy Spirit, Holy Saturday, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD),7 theologian Shelly Rambo argues that the Spirit is the One who remains in the ambiguous space of Holy Saturday, where death is total and renewed life cannot (yet) be glimpsed. This liminal space is symbolic of the eerie “between life and death” quality of existence reported by many survivors of trauma. The Spirit, for Rambo, is the “‘weary love’ that forges a path through the pathless dark of hell,” the one who “search[es] out new forms of life amid the realities of death” and “moves amid the uncertainties.”8 Other theologians emphasize the Spirit’s compassion by extending the Christological doctrine of kenosis to the Spirit. Writes John V. Taylor: “To be the very power of God yet wait in frustration and hope until the whole be brought to fulfillment, might be called the kenosis, self-emptying, of the Holy Spirit.”9 Extending this notion of the Spirit’s self-emptying, Nigerian theologian Bonaventure Ikenna Ugwu declares that, because the Holy Spirit and creation “interpenetrate” one another, the price the indwelling Spirit pays for the world’s “life, creativity, direction, liberation and hope” is “self-humiliation and suffering.”10
A final theological consideration under the heading of Spirit as Comforter can be put as a question: What, ideally, does the Holy Spirit’s attentive presence in our suffering accomplish? Is it merely to “get us through,” or is there something more? Richard Hauser offers a compelling answer to this query. All of us encounter suffering, he says, and the reason for the suffering often remains mysterious. However, in our trials, the Holy Spirit is near, providing us with the resources we need to handle our affliction with Christian maturity and charity rather than inward-focused despondency:
We Christians are challenged to love and serve God and our neighbor during all the moments of our lives. This challenge is experienced most acutely in times of suffering. Suffering tends to self-center us. During suffering we are tempted to excuse ourselves from the Gospel mandate, withdraw from others and indulge in self-pity. Consequently at no time do we need the help of the Spirit more to remain faithful to our calling. And responding to the Spirit during suffering can become the key moment of transformation in our Christian lives.11
Suffering, in other words, can be an opportunity to deepen our faith. The ultimate outcome of the Holy Spirit’s attending during times of trial is the lasting transformation of the sufferer.
- Here I allude to Julian of Norwich’s famous phrase, “All will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” Julian of Norwich, Showings, trans. Edmund Colledge and James Walsh, Classics of Western Spirituality Series (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1978), 225.
- Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, fifth ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 192-95.
- Martin W. Mittelstadt, The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 6.
- James H. Evans, “The Holy Spirit in African American Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology, ed. Katie G. Cannon and Anthony B. Pinn (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 170.
- Boff, 186-7.
- Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
- Rambo, 72, 140.
- John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1972), 117.
- Bonaventure Ikenna Ugwu, The Holy Spirit as Present and Active in Cosmic Turmoil and Human Suffering: A Dialogue Between Pierre Tielhard de Chardin and Jurgen Moltmann (Rome: Pontificia Universitas Gregoriana, 2004), 278.
- Hauser, 38.