More than a feeling, or why you may not actually have a word from the Spirit

Here’s my heretical sentence for the week (you should have at least one a week). Non-Christians who are attentive to the world around them through slow rhythms of life might very well have lives more in line with the coming Kingdom of God than distracted Christians leading hurried lives.

Talk amongst yourselves.

Having made this heretical declaration, let me be quick to add that slow and attentive, while being necessary to participate in the life made available by the Spirit, is not the same as life in the Spirit. This is because, as I posted last week, the Spirit has an identity. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Crucified One. And this gives us cues to the Spirit’s presence and movement among the various details we encounter in life.

Ok, let me unpack this a bit. Every event, or everything that happens, has a “surplus of meaning.” That is, the potential meanings of an event are hard to exhaust. I don’t notice everything present in an event and interpret what I do notice according to my values or focus.

I opened my front door for years, for instance, and never noticed that it had a stained glass cutout in it. When I did notice, the potential meanings ran several ways. Someone switched doors on me. A thief? A prankster? A housemate? A “pay it forward” do-gooder? Or, I’m not very attentive. Is this a general principle? I am very attentive to some things, like books that have been borrowed from me and what kind of laptop a person is using and liner notes on an album cover. Do I have something against doors? Did I have a bad experience with one as a child? Am I an anti-doorite? Others around me have known for a long time that the door has a cut-out, so this narrows the range of potential meanings, but when asked they can’t tell me what kind of hardware is on the other side of the door or whether they pulled or pushed to get in.

And my neighbors who see me go in and out of the door all the time assume that I live in the house, but might be distrubed to see others enter in the middle of the day without knocking or ringing the bell and call the police on my unsuspecting parents.

OK, I could have found a better example. But it is good enough to show that even the simplest of events has a myriad of details and several potential sources of causation. And it shows that the perspective of the one viewing the event matters when supplying meanings. We see some things and not others, partly because of where we are standing (location) and partly because of what we are accustomed to look for (focus). And if this is true for a non-mysterious event like opening a door, how much more the case for a mysterious event like the moving of the Spirit.

So, how do we speak of the Spirit amid all the details of life? The identity of the Spirit as the Spirit of the Crucified One gives us both location and focus.

Let’s start with focus. We are looking for things that look like Jesus. For instance, we are looking for non self-seeking or securing things. We are looking for instances of self-relinquishment and trust. We are looking for events where there is mutual submission and understanding. We are looking for moments of reconciliation or of self-giving love. We notice humility and kindness. We notice those who don’t demand attention and who associate with the lowly. We notice those who love their enemies and do kind things for them, because after all, while we were enemies to God, Christ died for us. And as Paul says, this love…this very kind of love…has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Ok, but what do I man by location? From where do we view the world? Well, first let’s say that the incarnation teaches us to pay attention to the world. Jesus did not come to us a generic human, as an every-person, but in the particularities of time and space. And so our new incarnation of Jesus’ presence in the world should take the conditions of our world seriously, as the location from which the good news of God might emerge and have meaning. But as every good business man knows, its all about location, location, location. And here are some of the locations of the movement of God in the world: a barren womb, the ruthless treatment of slaves, wilderness, exile, an unplanned pregnancy, a manger, Galilee, a cross outside the city gates. Notice where the movement of God is largely missing: the perfect couple, Pharaoh’s court, a military victory, Rome, empire.

Here’s my point. If we want a front row seat to the movement of the Spirit of the Crucified One, we should be in places of brokenness, vulnerability, incarceration, disability, conflict, poverty. After all, Jesus came to preach good news to the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for the blind… You get the idea. These places are the natural habitat of the Spirit of God.

So, here’s my point. Because we lead hurried, non-attentive lives, the only thing we are attuned to is our inner self. How we feel from moment to moment. We have few stories of the Spirit, because our focus and location are  severely circumscribed. So, all we know to report related to the Spirit are our own inward experiences.

Please here me at this point. These may very well be experiences of the Spirit of the Crucified One as well. The Spirit works in these broken, impoverished, conflicted, and vulnerable places as well.  But apart from attentiveness to these other locations, we may be overly apt to equate how we feel with the leading of the Spirit.

As a preacher, people often have a Word for me that they have received from the Spirit. This thought came to them, they prayed about it, felt peace about it and decided to bring it to me as a “thus sayeth the Lord” moment (in a best case scenario. I have received other, less considered words as well). And I have had experiences where I am certain this was indeed the case, that this was a Word for me. But I have had more experiences where the “word” was just plain wrong or was incomprehensible, at least to me.

Here’s the thing. I think that the Spirit’s movement in our lives is as likely to be experienced as troubling as peace-giving, as much bewildering as confirming. As PT Forsyth once wrote, and I paraphrase, “there are few of us who can distinguish the voice of the Shepherd from the gusts and sighings of our own fitful selves.” Our inner lives are no less complex that the world of surplus meanings.

Here’s what I’m arguing for. I’m not arguing for less attention to your inward life. I’m arguing more for an attentivess to these other things as a corrective, as a way of attending to the life of the Spirit more deeply and with greater texture and nuance, than simply my inner experiences or feelings.

Come, Holy Spirit.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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12 Responses to More than a feeling, or why you may not actually have a word from the Spirit

  1. Shannon A says:

    “Spirit of the Crucified One” clarifies my confusion about the previous post. I am tracking deeply with this one. Thanks friend and see you in October.

  2. cathy moore says:

    Amen. Thanks, Mark.

  3. Thank you! Food for thought. Much appreciated.

  4. Brian F says:

    I would like to first agree. Let me add to my agreement that both the scriptures, through Amos, and the Son tell us that the plan for the kingdom participants is that all would hear His voice. The evidence that we are bad at hearing, and even worse at sharing should surprise no one. But it is anti-kingdom to not desire to hear and to not share what we hear from the Spirit. But to not hurt each other in the process – that’s the challenge.

    Discernment of God’s voice is a multi-step process. There are helpful questions for the hearer to ask, such as 1) Is it God’s voice I am hearing? 2) Is this for me or someone else? 3) Is this a message for now? 4) Is there an interpretation? There are equally helpful questions for the recipient. 1) Does this message sound like the Shepherd? 2) Is there confirmation of this word from another source or the Spirit within? 3) What is to be done with this word?

    The encouragement for those of us steeped in the written word is again from Jesus, “You search the scriptures diligently, not aware that the author is standing in front of you.” While the love letters from God give foundation and context to the relationship, it is in practicing the presence of God that our lives grow to be like him, increasing our discernment, but more importantly, our joy.

    • Shannon A says:

      I think there is a third way between a “word from God” and the “written word” Brian – it is the voice of the Spirit that is heard/experienced/discerned in community. I am too cynical of human nature and narcissism to put much faith in a “word” from an individual. My experience of the Spirit as I have grown older and wiser is more of “inspired ideas” that I can test in conversation with the diversity found in spirit-filled community. I am not a “spirit experience” guy any more so please read this in the context of my out-of-balance cynicism. I need men in my life like you to restore some balance. Peace friend.

    • Carly says:

      Brian, I am with you and I had not yet considered all of those factors/questions involved in being a good listener.
      Additionally, the part of this blog that most stood out to me was the opening paragraph. I just want to keep sharing the idea that God shows up in “non-Christians” with a higher frequency than we imagine. It’s something that took me a while to be open to, but made life better once I was.

    • Excellent Shannon. The same questions are helpful, and I would say necessary, in discernment of the Spirit in the voice of the community. It is not a given that the community hears right – as in the promised land spy report (community vrs Joshua and Caleb), but definitely discernment of the community has always been a valuable tool for listening.

      Carly, both the confession of a foreign king and the spiritual discernment from a donkey are quoted in scriptur,me. Why can I not hear the voice of God through my neighbor? If we believe that “no one can come to the Father unless the Spirit draw him” then we believe that the Spirit is at work in the world. “To listen to children and sage alike… that is my quest.” (Favorite quote from Channing.)

      • Brian F says:

        I had strange experience lately. As parents we have to work to let our children be the grownups they are. It is too easy to operate in the parent-child relationship we have known since the day they were born. Going down to Ft Worth last month for my son’s white coat ceremony was yet another rite of passage, but not as you might expect.

        Later that day, after the ceremony had given way to thoughts of moving and dinner, the conversation turned to Linda’s health. Now Ben, mind you, is only beginning med school, but when he voiced a recommendation, still wearing his white coat, my mind could not help but give deference to his recommendation. Gone was the boy and present was Doctor Ben. The white coat gave him respectability and power of persuasion. The rite of passage was totally mine.

        This is the way society had trained me. The man in the white coat knows. The person saying “thus sayeth the Lord” has a special relationship with God. The problem, however, lies more in us than the exercise of sharing words from God. My white hair and your titles do not imbue power. The kingdom has never been about power. Authority and power are from God alone, and we are but fortunate ambassadors, servants of the only one with power. When you or I speak with power, it had better be God’s power – or it should be tossed with yesterday’s news. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the church today is to step away from a model which is appropriate for the military and corporations, and into a living, more organic view of Christianity and discipleship.

        I so enjoy this great conversation. Thanks for spawning it.

      • carly says:

        This is a response to your story below. I recognize that deference to power based on language, and what is socially accepted, all over my day to day life and the lives of people I interact with. That is why that opening paragraph stood out to me — not because Christians are necessarily “wrong” or “right”, but because I have experienced, in my own life, a need to be drawn outside what is comfortable to believe and pay attention to.

    • Mark Love says:

      Brian, I agree that the voice of God is a living voice and addresses us all ( I think this post affirms that and I have certainly benefited from receiving such words in my own life), but not all in the same way. Many of the most Spirit-led, fruit bearing people I know never “hear” God as a distinguishable internal voice. But for those who do, I would hope they are as careful about their discernment as the process you outline here. Thanks for these helpful questions. I would add a few other further questions. First, a pastoral question related to power. What will it mean if I approach someone bearing a “Word from the Lord”? That very move shifts the power differential in the relationship. Now, maybe that is called for sometime. But, it is just the case that the bearer of the message has seized the God-ground and reduces the possibility of discernment that might occur between the two parties. The power dynamics when one receives a word for someone else are fraught with pastoral/power issues.
      Also, I think we’d all have to be aware that we perceive from a standpoint. That is, whatever word we receive we interpret (the very purpose of your questions listed above), and we interpret based upon what we already believe, even if this word challenges what we believe. At the very least, this should give us pause. Amos Yong, the pentecostal theologian from Fuller, cites case after case within global pentecostalism that seems to indicate that the “experience of the Spirit” often reinforces what we already believe, and, with the added sanction of being Spirit-led, makes it even more dogmatic. It is striking in his stories how often pentecostalism carries cultural values that reward privilege and power. So, I would want to add another set of questions, again related to the the identity of the Spirit as the Spirit of the crucified one: How might this word be related to my own sense of privilege and power? Is my location in the world the same as the location of the crucified one?
      I’ve done exercises with my students where we read the same passage several times with different orienting questions. The one that typically brings the most profoundly different reading is when we read from the perspective of the poor or powerless. I think what might be true of the written word, which we interpret, could be as easily applied to a living word.
      We’ve been singing this song at church in which we sing that we might restore our nation, presumably to some former time when we were more godly. I was sitting next to an African-American guy, and I asked him when he thought that might have been. White Christians might think pre-sexual revolution, so sometime in the 50’s or 60’s, or maybe in the Reagan era when we had a president who seemed to share our religious sensibilities. But my African-American friend didn’t experience those times as particularly Christian. All this to say that location, location, location, is so huuuge in what we look at and how we interpret it. So, I would want those kinds of questions as well.
      I know you would agree that the questions you list, and even with the ones I would add, are no guarantee that we are hearing well. So, here’s to thicker layers of discernment and what Luke Johnson calls a “modesty before the mystery.”

  5. Eddie Mcrae says:

    More Than A Feeling is track #1 on the album Rock And Roll Band. It was written by Scholz, Donald T..

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