by Travis Pickell
Every week I meet with a group of guys to talk about the bible and pray for each other. This past week, we were talking about Acts 20. Specifically, the following verse, in which Paul is telling his friends from Ephesus why he will probably never see them again.
“And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by [or ‘bound in’] the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” Acts 20:22-23
What did it mean for Paul to be constrained by the Spirit? Did he hear God’s voice, from heaven, giving him an imperial command? Did he have an unrelenting urge within him to go to Jerusalem, which he could only explain as being God-given? What does it mean to “listen” to the Holy Spirit? How can we do likewise? And, what would our lives look like if we did? These were some of our questions.
A friend told me recently about an experience that he had while attending a bible study at his church. During the course of the study, he felt like he should ask a certain question–not simply that he wanted to, but that he should. As he explains it, though, he missed his opportunity to ask the question, and the leader of the group moved on to another topic. At the end of their time together, the leader did something uncharacteristic. He asked the group if anyone had anything else that they felt compelled to share. So my friend took the opportunity to ask his question, the group discussed it for a few minutes, and then they adjourned. Later, an older man in the group, who was still visibly grieving the death of his son, came up to my friend and thanked him profusely for the question that he asked. He said that the ensuing discussion was exactly what he needed to hear.
I believe the Spirit still speaks, moves and acts in our world, and in our daily lives–if (!) we let him. What grieves me, is that I used to be way more attentive to these sorts of leadings. There is something about “learning” and “knowing” about God, that can, if we are not careful, tame our experience of the very God we seek to know. Not that God is actually tamed- as CS Lewis reminds us, Aslan is “not a tame lion” (The Last Battle, 20). But rather, when we think we can figure out God, put him in a box so to speak, then we stop actually listening to him, and thereby we are tamed!
Celtic Christianity, from what I understand, has a great metaphor for the Holy Spirit: An Geadh-Glas… “the Wild Goose.” Geese are wild, unpredictable animals. Have you ever tried to run by a gaggle of geese while they are taking care of their goslings? It can be a scary thing! The Holy Spirit, in the bible is described as a dove – an apt metaphor to convey a sense of the peace and beauty which the Spirit brings. But as John 3:8 reminds us, “the spirit (or wind) blows wherever it pleases.” It is unpredictable and wild!
There is ultimately a paradox involved here. The Holy Spirit is unpredictable and wild, yes. But, we mustn’t think that God, then, desires not to be known. On the contrary, God “wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Only, God wants to be known on HIS terms, not ours. Perhaps we do not hear God’s Spirit speak because we still want to be God of our own lives. God does not waste words (cf. Isaiah 55:11) on those who refuse to listen. The irony is, that until we are willing to be tamed [constrained,bound] by the Spirit , we will live lives tamed by the world.
This has been on my mind a good bit these past few days. The Spirit is way beyond my comprehension. I cannot explain it (Him) to myself, let alone to other people. Some people make it seem as if they have the Holy Spirit figured out. They “have” the Spirit. When I compare myself with these folks I wonder whether I am not missing out on something. That is when I have to remind myself that, if I take the effects of sin seriously, any inkling that I have to know and love God, must come from God alone, through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is active in ways seen (yes) but also in so many ways unseen, in the heart.
For the past 4 weeks I have been teaching a class at church on the Apostle’s Creed. Because of the excitement of the new semester, I had not even started to prepare for this Sunday’s class until this morning. In fact, because I was just out-of-town, I had not even thought about it until today. Unsure of whether I would have enough time to prepare, and a bit preoccupied with all my recent thoughts, and questions, about the Holy Spirit, I sat down and tried to focus. That is, until I realized the topic for this Sunday’s class,
“I believe in the Holy Spirit”
Wild. Just like God.