Issue Winter 2018

Groans Too Deep: The Holy Spirit and Suffering

In This Issue

"Groans Too Deep: The Holy Spirit and Suffering" by Andrea Hollingsworth, United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities

Editor: Evan Rosa

This special issue of The Table was produced in connection with "Suffering & the Good Life," the 2017-2018 research theme of Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, which was funded by the Templeton Religion Trust.

The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in this book do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University, the Biola University Center for Christian Thought, or the Templeton Religion Trust.

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The Groaning and Weeping Holy Spirit

Introduction

Suffering, it seems, is an inevitable part of human life. Failure, loss of a loved one, social ostracism, trauma, mental or physical illness, relational alienation, addiction, a sense of God’s absence—at some point in our lives, all of us are touched by such experiences. For Christians, an important and difficult moment in our faith journey comes when we try to make sense of suffering—another’s or our own—in light of our belief that God is immanently and lovingly present in the world. Theologians have written reams on the vexed issue of how a good and all-powerful Creator could make a world in which innocent creatures suffer and die. They have also reflected frequently and deeply upon Jesus’s suffering on the cross, asking what it implies for Jesus’s followers. But what about the relationship between the Holy Spirit and suffering? It is this oft-neglected yet pressing theological question that I wish to probe in this essay.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul speaks of the “groans” that issue from creation as it travails in wait for the fullness of its redemption (8:22). A few lines later, he speaks similarly of the Holy Spirit’s “groans,” which are “too deep for words.” With such groans, God’s Spirit intercedes for us when our knowledge fails, our strength wanes, and our prayers flag (8:26). Some Christians—including the fourteenth-century mystic St. Catherine of Siena and the twentieth-century theologian Jürgen Moltmann—have taken Paul’s words to mean that the Spirit suffers, even sheds tears, with creatures in our anguish.1

Does the Holy Spirit suffer? Weep? What, after all, is the connection between God’s Spirit and our experiences of pain, grief, disorder?

Drawing on the Bible and diverse aspects of the Christian theological tradition, in the pages that follow, I present three ways in which the Holy Spirit relates to human suffering. I argue, in turn, that the Spirit initiates suffering (Spirit as Agitator), attends suffering (Spirit as Comforter), and contests suffering (Spirit as Liberator). I conclude by underscoring the importance of careful discernment to determine the Spirit’s role in each particular event and moment of suffering.

A final introductory word about definitions. Richard J. Hauser, S.J. is one of the only contemporary theologians to address the question of the Spirit’s relation to suffering. In his insightful book, Finding God in Troubled Times: The Holy Spirit and Suffering,2 he defines suffering as “any perceived disorder, be the disorder major or minor … to the degree that it is perceived as a disorder, it qualifies as a suffering.”3 I appreciate this definition because it is appropriately narrow—it delineates suffering as the perception of disorder, along with the distress that accompanies it. At the same time, Hauser’s definition is suitably broad—it encompasses the untold variety of ways that humans experience and interpret suffering. This, then, is the definition of suffering I employ in what follows.

Notes

  1. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, trans. Suzanne Noffke, O.P. (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 168-69; Jürgen Moltmann, The Source of Life, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1997), 11.
  2. Richard J. Hauser, Finding God in Troubled Times: The Holy Spirit and Suffering (New York and Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994).
  3. Hauser, 3.
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Holy Agitator: The Spirit Initiates Suffering

Part 1

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

Notes

  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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Holy Comforter: The Spirit Attends Suffering

Part 2

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.

Notes

  1. 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.
  2. http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/parakletos.html.
  3. 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.
  4. Martin W. Mittelstadt, The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts (London: T&T Clark International, 2004), 6.
  5. 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.
  6. Boff, 186-7.
  7. Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
  8. Rambo, 72, 140.
  9. John V. Taylor, The Go-Between God (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1972), 117.
  10. 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.
  11. Hauser, 38.
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Holy Liberator: The Spirit Contests Suffering

Part 3

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.

Notes

  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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Conclusion: Discerning the Spirit’s Role in Suffering


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).

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Bibliographies

Bibliography: Holy Spirit and Suffering


You might find the following resources helpful for further reading and study.

  1. Baker-Fletcher, Garth. “Black Theology and the Holy Spirit.” In The Cambridge Companion to Black Theology, ed. Dwight N. Hopkins and Edward P. Antonio, 111-125. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
  2. Boff, Leonardo. Come, Holy Spirit: Inner Fire, Giver of Life, and Comforter of the Poor. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis, 2015.
  3. Dreyer, Elizabeth. Holy Power, Holy Presence: Rediscovering Medieval Metaphors for the Holy Spirit. New York: Paulist Press, 2007.
  4. Evans, James H. “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.
  5. Galli, Mark. Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit. Baker Books, 2011.
  6. Hauser, Richard J. Finding God in Troubled Times: The Holy Spirit and Suffering. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994.
  7. Jang, Kwang-Jin. The Role of the Holy Spirit in Christian Suffering: With Reference to Paul’s Experience of Suffering and to Korean Church Suffering. iUniverse Publishing, 2011.
  8. Kienzler, Jonathan. The Fiery Holy Spirit: The Spirit’s Relationship with Judgment in Luke-Acts (Journal of Pentecostal Theology Supplement Series). Bladform Forum, Dorset: Deo Publishing, 2015.
  9. Kim, Kirsteen. The Holy Spirit in the World: A Global Conversation. London: SPCK; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007.
  10. Longnecker, Bruce W. “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.
  11. McFague, Sallie. A New Climate for Theology: God, the World, and Global Warming. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
  12. Miller, John B.F. “Not Knowing What Will Happen to Me There: Experiences of the Holy Spirit in Luke-Acts.” In The Unrelenting God: Essays on God’s Action in Scripture: Essays in Honor of Beverly Roberts Gaventa. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2013.
  13. Mittelstadt, Martin W. The Spirit and Suffering in Luke-Acts. London: T&T Clark International, 2004.
  14. Moltmann, Jürgen. The Crucified God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993. Moltmann, Jürgen. The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.
  15. Prenter, Regin. Spiritus Creator. Translated by John M. Jensen. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock. 2001. Originally published by Augsburg Fortress Press (Minneapolis), 1953.
  16. Rambo, Shelly. Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
  17. Shore-Gos, Robert E. “The Holy Spirit as Mischief-Maker.” In Queering Christianity: Finding a Place at the Table for LGBTQI Christians. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013.
  18. Shults, F. LeRon and Andrea Hollingsworth. The Holy Spirit. Guides to Theology Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008.
  19. Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Vol. III: Life and the Spirit, History and the Kingdom of God. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1953.
  20. Ugwu, Bonaventure Ikenna. 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.
  21. Wright, Christopher J.H. Knowing the Holy Spirit Through the Old Testament. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006.