When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. John 16:13
I did something very dubious for a Christian mother: I asked my youngest daughter to cross her fingers for me when I needed luck in a game. It worked. Now my daughter’s faith in finger-crossing is very much reinforced. Part of me wonders if perhaps the devil influenced the odds in order to seduce her to superstition. The other part of me thinks I shouldn’t be so ridiculous.
The past months I have been rethinking my beliefs about spiritual life. God, angels, devils, the human spirit, what does the word ‘spirit’ actually mean? I used to visualize spiritual powers as invisible, but real beings, somewhat like viruses and bacteria, some good, some bad. For example, I learned that daily prayer will protect us from evil spirits, and isn’t that remarkably similar to washing your hands before dinner? I still think it’s a good metaphor, but it shouldn’t become a form of magical biology.
The word ‘spiritual’ is also used in a different way. I recently had a conversation with a friend about Augustine’s Trinity, and he said: “I think when Augustine says we cannot “see” justice, he is saying justice is not a physical object that we can discern with our eyes, it is abstract or spiritual, and can only be discerned by the eye of the mind/spirit.” So here ‘spiritual’ just means that it is purely abstract. Like ‘justice’, ‘courage’, ‘love’, ‘truth’. These aren’t things we can see or touch, but they are nevertheless real.
Making ‘spirit’ abstract in this way, reduces my fear of being manipulated. Perhaps strange for a Christian, but I am afraid of being moved by the Holy Spirit. Not for nothing did I begin sorting out my questions on faith with the text: ‘Who lives my life?’. I wish to make my own decisions, and find the idea of being moved by anything, even the Holy Spirit, frightening. However, I have no objection to being led by ‘truth’ or ‘justice’, on the contrary I am frantically searching for truth everywhere. I hope the Holy Spirit now smiles at my reducing him to an abstraction for the time being, I mean no disrespect, but focusing on this part makes it easier for me. If I start here, I may come to know and love him more fully1 later.
If we call ‘spirits’ abstract concepts, then ‘spells’ are the things that move us, or capture us. Like music, a book, movie, paintings, the smell of apple pie. Or the atmosphere in a building. People can also have such a spell on us, or even the memories of our dead ancestors. I have begun to pay attention to these influences, noticing how they make me feel and then act. Some bind me, making me feel very small or weak, others inspire confidence and set me free. Some make me feel like an intruder, others make me feel welcome. We are constantly moved and influenced by such things, most of the time unnoticed. I don’t think we can avoid this, but we may learn to navigate so that we use these moving influences to our benefit. The more we are aware of the influence of things: how they move us to action or inertia, trust or fear, the more we can make good choices in where we go or what we read or listen to, and how we will react.
The story of Saul and David2 sheds some interesting light on this topic. Saul was plagued by a tormenting spirit from God, and then David’s music made him feel better. Now this evil spirit certainly wasn’t content to be an abstraction. He threw Saul in black moods and fits of anger, completely out of control. Yet not out of God’s control: it is still a spirit from the Lord, allowed by the hidden wisdom of God. David’s music must have made a remarkable difference, offered a great relief. Even so, it did not lead Saul to repent and be truly cured. Again we see this great difference between good and bad spirits. Good influences never force their way: they set us free.
By now I have a clearer vision on spiritual influences. My example of crossing your fingers for luck is quite ridiculous. Foremost I want to be led by the spirit of truth. There are helpful ‘spells’ like music, friendships, prayer, that foster this spirit. But these won’t magically turn things right if I don’t want that, as I discovered when thinking about the difference between good and bad influences. There is absolutely no need to fear manipulation by the Holy Spirit, reducing him to an abstraction won’t be necessary. With this fear gone, I am most happy that the Holy Spirit is powerful to liberate, heal, enlighten, inspire and empower us when we ask, and best of all: give us peace.
- E.g. his gifts of healing, prophecy, these miraculous aspects frighten me, because they seem such a display of power and overrule our own faculties of reasoning. Again no offense meant, I am grateful for healing that I myself experienced, it is just that I don’t think the loving God even wants to be so dominant as is sometimes portrayed in charismatic movements (in my perception)
- 1 Samuel 16:14-23