Image for Suffering & the Good Life

Holy Liberator: The Spirit Contests Suffering

Part 3

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

Christianity has long proclaimed the biblical principle that, wherever we see creation and renewed life, there we recognize and celebrate the work of the Holy Spirit of God (Psalm 104:30). But ushering in new life often involves opposing powers that obstruct renewal. Theologian Elizabeth Johnson reminds us that, “in the biblical prophetic tradition the Spirit’s presence is consistently linked with the power to denounce social wrongdoing… and bring about justice for the poor[.]”1 Indeed, a key aspect of the Spirit’s life-giving presence is to contest injustice and liberate those languishing under the pain of oppression. In this final section, we will explore ways in which the Holy Spirit fights to free those threatened and bound by suffering, especially that caused by forces of injustice.

In the Hebrew prophetic literature, Yahweh’s Spirit contests suffering by condemning the selfishness, pride, and idolatry that causes the oppression of the defenseless, and by bringing judgment when those words of conviction and warning go unheeded. In Hosea’s vivid imagery, the divine ruach is a desert sandstorm, a righteous “blast from the Lord” that destroys everything in its path (Hos. 13:15). Zechariah attributes the grievous fall of Israel’s Northern and Southern kingdoms to the people’s refusal to “hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his spirit through the former prophets” (Zech. 7:12) And what were those Spirit-given prophetic admonitions? To judge rightly; to show kindness and mercy to others; to refuse to oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, and the poor; and to refuse to conjure up evil in one’s heart against another person—in short, to “do no harm” to others, especially those most vulnerable (Zech. 7:8-10).

Another role of the Spirit in the Old Testament is to upset the strategies of those involved in the unjust persecution of others. When King Saul conspires to hunt, detain, and kill David—Yahweh’s anointed and Israel’s future king—the Spirit interrupts these plans by causing Saul’s thugs (and eventually, Saul himself) to fall into a naked frenzy. This Spirit-caused fit prevents David’s capture and demise (1 Sam. 19:18-24).

In the New Testament, God’s Spirit continues to contest the suffering wrought of injustice, and to free those bound under painful yolks. Jesus, in his Spirit-anointed proclamation in the temple at the start of his ministry, inaugurates what Leonardo Boff calls a “torrent of freedom and liberation”2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18; Cf. Isa. 61:1-3).3 The Holy Spirit empowers Jesus to oppose not only the suffering brought on by spiritual bondage and physical impairment, but also that caused by material impoverishment and political disadvantage.

Other types of suffering that the Spirit counters in the New Testament include, first, the petrified reticence undergone by those being persecuted for the sake of the gospel. Jesus promises that the Spirit will be with those unjustly persecuted and tried, filling their mouths with the words required at the time of defense (Mk. 13:11; Lk. 12:8-12). Second, as Paul emphasizes in his writings, the Holy Spirit brings freedom to those bound under the unnecessary and unjust weight of the Law. In his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul underscores the contrast between letter and spirit: “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). More pointedly: “Now the Lord is Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (1 Cor. 3:17).

The biblical insight that freedom and Spirit belong together has moved some contemporary theologians to read the history of human struggle against oppression as the history of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work on earth. For James Evans, wherever the “spatial reach and the temporal span of historical suffering” has been limited, there we see the “healing and redemptive power” of the Spirit.4 So too, Kirsteen Kim, in conversation with the liberation theology of Samuel Rayan (an Indian theologian and Jesuit priest), asserts that wherever the societally downtrodden have been raised into renewed life, and wherever the politically oppressed have been awakened to bring about change through revolution, there we witness the “history of the Spirit” who works continuously to destroy evil and bring redemption.5 Similarly, black liberation theologian Garth Baker-Fletcher, expositing the pneumatology of Dwight D. Hopkins, argues that wherever resources are distributed in a more just manner so that there is a creation of a new Common Wealth on earth (cf. Acts 2:42-45), there we observe the Spirit’s freeing action within the history of human society.6

However, it is not just at the macro-level of societal history that the Holy Spirit works to contest suffering. The Spirit’s liberating presence is also experienced individually, in the hearts and minds of the downcast. Bondage to sin, for example, is one particularly painful form of individual oppression. Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich attributes release from the agonizing prison house of sin to “the grace of the Holy Spirit and the power of Christ’s passion.”7 In a different vein, Garth Baker-Fletcher speaks of the freedom from the pain of internalized racism that the Holy Spirit brings to black persons. The Spirit creates release from “the chains of self-hatred, misinformation, and subservience to whiteness as normative.”8 Another example of the ways in which the Spirit fights suffering at the individual level can be seen in the work of theologian Sallie McFague. Climate change, she points out, brings gross suffering to the people, plants, and animals of our planet, and may eventually lead to something like the civilizational breakdown scenarios that popular dystopian novels and movies envisage. And yet, the Holy Spirit resists despair and conjures courage by causing an “odd kind of hope” to upwell in the human heart— a hope that “however [things] turn out, the world and all its creatures are held, kept, within God.”9 Far from instilling complacency, such “odd hope” motivates Christians to join in the Spirit’s redemptive work by fighting for climate justice in our time.

It is perhaps a theological truism that the Spirit often contests suffering and injustice by simultaneously “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”10There is, in other words, a close entwinement of the different roles of the Spirit in relation to suffering, and a great need for discernment as we attempt to ascertain how the Spirit is relating to human suffering in different times, places, and contexts.


  1. Elizabeth A. Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, 10th anniversary edition (New York: Crossroad Publishing Co., 2005), 136.
  2. Boff, 168.
  3. As New Testament scholar Bruce Longnecker explains, the term “poor” here includes “those who are lacking in material security, those who are insecurely placed within the severe socioeconomic systems that operated throughout much of the agrarian Mediterranean basin in Jesus’ day (and throughout much of human history).” Bruce W. Longnecker, “Rome’s Victory and God’s Honour: The Jerusalem Temple and the Spirit of God in Lukan Theodicy,” in The Holy Spirit and Christian Origins: Essays in Honor of James D.G. Dunn, ed. Stephen C. Barton, Bruce W. Longenecker, and Graham N. Stanton (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 100-101.
  4. Evans, 169.
  5. Kirsteen Kim, The Holy Spirit in the World: A Global Conversation (London: SPCK; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007), 90, 119.
  6. Garth Baker-Fletcher, “Black Theology and the Holy Spirit,” in The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, ed. Dwight N. Hopkins and Edward P. Antonio (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 111-125; at 120.
  7. Dreyer, 229-230. Cf. Julian of Norwich, Showings, 40, 246.
  8. Baker-Fletcher, 120. Cf. Dwight N. Hopkins, Down, Up, and Over: Slave Religion and Black Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), 262.
  9. McFague, Sallie. A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008), 170-171.
  10. This well-known phrase originates in the work of American writer Finley Peter Dunne.

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