The Spirit Is Not Optional: Embracing the Danger and the Comfort of the Third Person of God

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In my denomination the Spirit is the weird part of God. Anytime someone does something awkward, manipulative, overly emotional or theologically questionable it seems to be the Spirit’s doing. So we’ll opt out of that, thank you very much.

But a year ago I felt something rattling my ribcage, longing for a hearing and for the first time, I stopped to listen. The voice was small but it wasn’t still. And the more I listened, the more I wondered if it only seemed small because I’d tuned it out.

Dabbling with the Spirit

I’m not yet good at listening but as I try, here’s what I’m learning:

The Spirit sounds surprisingly like my childlike self. It begins sentences with “I hope” and “I wonder.” And if I follow its curiosity, it will lead to joy which will lead to God.

But there is a dangerous adventuresomeness to this hoping and wondering that goes beyond chasing butterflies. Just as children are oblivious to social expectations, the promptings of this Spirit may call us to do counter-cultural things, even things which fly in the face of self-preservation. It may lead us into hoping and wondering for the sake of others. It may drive us towards something for which we are willing to sacrifice physical, emotional, social and material comfort. So what began as small, safe curiosity leads us into real longing, real revolution, real cost, real pain.

This Spirit-listening is not for the faint of heart. And yet I can’t stop. Click To Tweet

Because for the first time in my faith, there’s something real, happening right now, right here, in real time and space. Up until now a relationship with God has been about distant past or distant future, recorded in closed stories of an old book—a creator God who made the earth eons ago, a savior God who visited the middle east 2000 years ago, an eternal God who will call us to heaven someday in the future.

But that’s a distant Gospel—distant past, distant future. So it rarely feels like good news. But I’m seeing how often that Middle Eastern Savior God promised a third piece to the story which isn’t distant past or future—a Spirit to be with us now, deep communion with God, now. Truly good, recent news. We envy the experience of the followers of Jesus who literally walked with Him. But that same Spirit that was in Him, we are promised now, not to walk beside us but to fill us. And we look forward to some future time with God in heaven. But that same spirit we’ll enjoy then, He has given us, not to sit beside on a cloud but to fill us. We are one with Him already. And while the brokenness of the world continues around us and longs to be made new, we see it in new ways when we choose to believe that it no longer separates us from our Father. When we see the world through the eyes of His Spirit within us, we learn His hungers, His hope.

That same Spirit that was in Him, we are promised now, not to walk beside us but to fill us. Click To Tweet

The Spirit’s Tangible Impact

So I’m choosing to ask, “If I really believed the Spirit of the Living God had his home in me, how would I live, right here, right now?” Each day it makes a difference. Here’s what difference it made today:

Tomorrow I have to say good-bye to my aging parents. I’ve spent just ten days with them in the past three years and now I’m saying good-bye again. I have no idea when I’ll next see them but whenever it is, I know they’ll be older and I’ll feel even more inadequate to care for them from the other side of the world and even more grieved that I haven’t been there to watch each wrinkle grow.

Tonight, as I brushed my teeth, anticipating the farewell in the morning, I reminded the Father, “I wouldn’t be in this painful situation if I hadn’t followed your Spirit’s prompting twenty-seven years ago, to pursue education and ministry far from home.” As I remembered those long ago prompts to leave, twenty-seven years of the pain of distance surged through my body. Twenty-seven years of Christmases without family, births and birthdays without family, weddings and funerals without family. Twenty-seven years of too-brief visits and tearful goodbyes. As the pain filled me, a strange mix of toothpaste and tears splashed the bathroom sink. It seemed there was no place in my body that was not in anguish. My skin threatened to burst open. So I talked to the Son on a distant cross and the Father in a distant heaven. Then that Spirit, which had been the source of twenty-seven years of promptings, reminded me where it lived. So I chose to believe that the same body which seemed a sponge, entirely soaked with pain was also soaked with that Spirit. I told him, “If the pain is filling me and you are also filing me, you can absorb this pain.” If the pain and I were one and the Spirit and I were one, then we were pain together. The suffering was not removed but borne by something other than myself, something which knew and was stronger than pain. In that moment, I had solidarity with the suffering Son and comfort from the Creator Father. And it didn’t feel like memories of distant past crucifixion or a hope for a heavenly future but it was union between my spirit and His, right now, in my body. Somehow that meeting of selves helped me spit and rinse and go to bed. And to rise in the morning with both my spirit’s shakiness and His Spirit’s courage.

The Spirit isn’t optional. Thank God! Click To Tweet
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17 responses to “Pluralism and the Witness of an Open Community: Take 2

  1. David, sounds like Don Posterski’s “Principled Pluralism,” a solid and critically reflective position in the anabaptist tradition. Great post, important issue, and would make a good foundation for a book!

  2. David,

    This crystallizes the thoughts I’ve been having on this topic. I was thinking that the kenosis ethic must impact our approach to pluralism, but I wasn’t able to articulate it. I agree, I like Yoder’s approach.

    Winning arguments seems so opposite of the spirit of the gospel. We don’t need to defend our position because we really believe in Christ’s lordship, enough to live it out in a community of mutual liability.

    I like how Richard Hays says in The Moral Vision of the New Testament that our communities “prefigure and embody the reconciliation and healing of the world.” Our mission to the world is to be the people of God, living out servanthood and hospitality.

  3. Dear David,
    Thanks for the fun article. The first cut was too much trade school style jargon but the second was much better for those of us who are non-professional Christians. After all the argument should stand on its merits and side issues such as your affiliation with Northern Seminary should not be an issue. We should for instance be able to consider Heurwas’ pertinent points which out getting into his fall into a heterodox communion and all the other sad thoughts that his name bings to mind. Now if in light of how Jesus taught with authority in the synagogue would your premise hold up if you removed the authority of your citations and instead based it on the Word of God. I think it would.
    Best wishes,
    Barry O’Connell

  4. I know this isn’t hte place for “pop-Christianity”, but this sure sounds like the Alpha Course to me where beligerence and wild spirituality are tolerated with the mantra “that’s interesting”. Those behind it believe that the Word of God and the Holy Spirit are powerful enough to answer questions in God’s time and don’t rely on “expert” teachers and apologists.

    Isnt that what the Yoder thing is all about?

  5. I wonder if you do not automatically offend people of other religions when we talk of salvation in christ alone, hell, last judgement etc or we we avoid/water down these doctrines in order to appear tolerant, reasonable etc

    A random thought


  6. Thanks …Len, Adam … in reponse to the comments concerning how we offend people..or create a fales tolerance … The task here is a true humble vulnerable openess because we actually eblieve we can learn and further what God is doing in us and His truth … through the other religions. No, this is not to say God uses other religions automatically to bring other people, nations to Himself in Christ. But according to Yoder, he does use other religions to clarify and validate the truth that we have in Christ. I could give countless examples … but Yoder already does it in For the Nations, and Bruce Marshall has a good discussion in Trinity and Truth ch. 5,6
    blessings … DF

  7. I very much like it, David. Both of Jesus’ statements about the love of the community of God (to the disciples and in prayer) make it clear enough that it is through community of the faithful/believers that God would impact the world. Jesus among us makes the only difference, period. And what a difference it can make.

    Just my little thought here. Thanks for sharing that. Excellent food for thought. What books of Yoder would your recommend on this? Thanks.

  8. Just thought I’d chime in and say I really appreciated this too. It’s funny, but I find that as a Christian in a VERY pluralistic culture (Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians) I feel much more freedom to share out my faith experience than I did when I lived in the secular Scandinavia. I’m going to re-read this one and ponder it some more because I am always pondering how I can best be faithful to Christ and true in my relationships here without being pushy or a push-over. Thanks.

  9. Hi David,

    Are you talking about living in Christian Communities in the USA or in Turkey. I have lived in both and now I live in England.

    I do appreciate the nuanced insights of Yoder, 2 Corinthians 5:11 says something maybe a bit different. We do try and persuade and not just inform all men. That we want to persuade is not to be hidden. We must be very open and secure in this aspect of our life.

    I find Yoders comment “The invitation to join such a life is made not on the assumption that there is something wrong with the others’ beliefs, “

    Of course it is, if it wasn’t on what premise would we ever try to persuade that what they believe is not true. I have never met somone trying to convince me of something that they first didn’t believe.

    His approach seems disingenuous or he is trying to hold two totally contradictory positions as equally true.

    I believe that living in faith communities with the confidence of Jesus and the trustworthiness of the Bible to be enough of a foundation to engage anyone in any context without capitulating to the tolerance that all beliefs are equal. They are not.

    Communicating to a Hindu or Buddhist is very different than with a Moslem.

    Hinduism, Buddhism, are not cultures that seek to convert at their core as it is with Islam, or Christianity.


  10. I find Yoders comment “The invitation to join such a life is made not on the assumption that there is something wrong with the others’ beliefs, “

    Of course it is, if it wasn’t on what premise would we ever try to persuade that what they believe is not true. I have never met somone trying to convince me of something that they first didn’t believe.

    I think the point is not that I don’t have a point of view that contradicts someone else’s, but that I should approach everyone from a position of humility and friendship, not arrogance and judgement.

    “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.”

    – T. Pacey

  11. Tim,

    2 Cor 5.11 … isn’t that about Paul commending his own authority as an apostle to Corinth? All I can really say to you onthis one is this … You said “His approach seems disingenuous, or he is tryiongto hold two totally contradictory positions together as equally true.” Give me an example? For surely Yoder would agree that sometimes that does in fact turn out to be true … but not until you’ve listened and understood what he or she means. We all know that for the 12th century Crusader who cuts off the infidels’ head shouting “Jesus is Lord,” that means something totally different than St Francis among the animals saying the same words. How would we know they are in contradiction or mean the same thing before listening? How much more when we engage totally different languages and cultures. It could be that there frankly is no overlap …
    In the end yes .. there are times when there are two totally contradictory statments which both cannot be held to be true .. but there are many other relationships between religious faiths as well. None of this denies the supremacy of Jesus Lordship over the world.
    Peace ..

  12. David

    First off – good post. I have long viewed pluralism as a good thing and believe that an outright dismissal of pluralism is short sighted. However, I don’t accept Yoder’s view that Babel wasn’t about sin and rebellion when clearly in scripture it’s viewed as such. In fact, my point is that Babel isn’t about pluralism…that’s not the point of the account.

    We accept pluralism as a fact of the world we live in and should seek to communicate the gospel confidently in an open, pluralistic community. Confident because we know it’s the truth.

    Good post.

  13. David, I was referred through Ted’s blog. Great post. Thank you. I think that to reject pluralism would be to admit fear that Christianity would not hold its own in the marketplace of ideas. I know that I have no such fear. A humble witness that is based in self-examination and a knowledge that God is sovereign is enough for me to be at ease in the world.

    Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri was a model of a place where all were made to feel welcome, but where no compromise in belief was made.

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