Being God’s Beloved: Day 37: The Spirit of Love

According to John’s Gospel, on the Thursday evening before Good Friday, Jesus spoke at some length about the Holy Spirit, something he had not done before. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor [other translations have Comforter, Advocate or Helper] to be with you forever – the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:15-18).

I always appreciate that Jesus refers to the Spirit as “another counsellor”. It suggests that Jesus see himself as a ‘counsellor’ and as he prepares to leave this earth he asks the Father to send us a replacement counsellor, who will continue the work he started. And having said that, he is able to say, “I will not leave you as orphans” – we will have the Spirit, and that is as good as having Jesus. They are both God.

Jesus continues, “But the Counsellor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:26-27). Here we hear Jesus’ concern for the well-being of his disciples. He really does not want to leave them. (Saying goodbye is hard, even for the Son of God!) But he clearly sees the Spirit as being in continuity with him – Holy Spirit will teach the same message that I have taught, and with the Spirit, you have no need to be troubled or afraid. Indeed, be at peace.

In chapter 16, Jesus continues to teach about the Spirit. He says, “I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). Here there is a development in Jesus’ message. The Spirit will not be simply a substitute for Jesus. Jesus sees the Spirit as someone who is to be much desired – it is good that I go away so that you can receive the Spirit!

St Augustine, writing about 350 years later, grappled with the theology of the Holy Spirit. In the early years of the church, theologians had given most of their attention to Jesus and the Trinity. The Spirit was somewhat peripheral by comparison. But any talk of the Trinity inevitably required talk about the Spirit. Augustine tended towards psychological metaphors for the Trinity (rather than the social metaphors that I have used in these reflections).

In one of them he thinks of the Spirit as the love between Father and Son.[1] He draws for this on John 4:24, “God is Spirit” and 1 John 4:16, “God is love”, concluding that therefore the Spirit is love. In the love between two people, says Augustine, you have the lover, the beloved and the love between them. The Father loves the Son, and this love that binds them together is the Spirit. Augustine writes, “The Holy Spirit is something common to Father and Son, whatever it is, or is their very commonness or communion, consubstantial and coeternal. Call this friendship, if it helps, but a better word for it is charity [which in modern English is love]. And this too is substance because God is substance, and God is charity (1 John 4:8, 16), as it is written.”

Jonathan Edwards, a fiery preacher in New England who was born in the same year as John Wesley, took up Augustine’s ideas, as have many others. He describes the Spirit as “God the Father’s and God the Son’s infinite love and joy in each other”.[2] Edwards writes about the “Divine disposition or nature”, which is perhaps similar to what I have described as the heart of God or the centre of God, and says that the Divine disposition is love. Because the Spirit is love, when we commune with the Spirit, we are communing with the very heart (the Divine Disposition) of God. And then he goes even further by arguing that since Divine disposition, which is love, is the centre of God, God is ruled by the Spirit, since the Spirit if love: The Holy Spirit “as it were reigns over the Godhead and governs his heart, and wholly influences both the Father and the Son in all they do”. Edwards bases this on his conviction that the Spirit is, in fact, the Love that is at the heart of God. And since Love is so central – it is the organising principle of the triune God – it in effect governs God, and thus we can say that the Spirit governs the Godhead.

For us, living in the twenty-first century, this is meaningful, because we live in the age of the Spirit. Jesus has returned to the Father, and has sent us the Spirit. And so our primary and closest engagement with God today is with the Spirit. If the Spirit is the love that binds Father and Son in One, then we are indeed blessed to have the Spirit in our hearts. It means that Divine Love is in our hearts. And as much as the Spirit of Love binds Father and Son together, the Spirit of Love binds us and God together. The Spirit is the ultimate reconciler.

But let me sound a caution here in how we think and speak about the Spirit. The problem with Augustine’s metaphor of the Spirit as the love that binds the Father and Son, is that it makes the Spirit something much less personal that the Father and the Son. We know God the Father through the Old Testament as a personal God. And we know the Son through the Gospels as a personal man. But thinking of the Spirit as the love between them makes the Spirit something not personal. But, in fact, the Spirit is as much a person as the Father is a person and the Son is a person.

We live in an era of intangible powers – microwaves spring to mind. Many of us have, “The force be with you”, etched into our minds from Star Wars. An emphasis on the Spirit as love or on the Spirit as power tends to depersonalise our understanding and experience of the Spirit. This is aggravated by our tendency to use phrases like, “The Spirit which came at Pentecost” and, “It manifested in tongues of fire.” We would never say, “Jesus, which was crucified”, but we easily say, “The Spirit, which was poured out”. We must change our language! Go back and reread how Jesus uses personal pronouns when speaking about Holy Spirit.

To help with this, I have tried to make it a habit to drop the definite article “the” and rather talk about “Spirit” or “Holy Spirit”, as a name, rather than a descriptor. From here on, I will try to do that. I encourage you to try it too – to make Holy Spirit a person, as much as Father and Son are persons, with whom we can have a loving relationship.

In Romans 8, Paul writes about Holy Spirit, picking up on some of what Jesus said in John. He explains what it means to be filled with Spirit and to walk in step with Spirit. One of the first things he says is that when we are full of Holy Spirit, we share in the mind of God, because Spirit is God: “Those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires… The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace. You… are controlled… by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you” (Romans 8:6-9). Since Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, having Holy Spirit dwell in us is the same as having God dwell in us – Spirit is as much God as Jesus or Father are God. So, when Holy Spirit dwells in us, we have the mind and the heart of God right inside us – close and intimate. This is the immanence of God – God is near!

The second important thing that Paul says about Holy Spirit is that when Spirit lives in us, we are made sons and daughters of God, and we experience an intimate and loving relationship with God, like a good parent and their child. “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Romans 8:15-17). Spirit, being the Spirit of God and the Spirit of Love, binds us to the triune God so intimately that we really do become adopted children, much beloved.

Let us then, in these last few reflections, engage with Holy Spirit, as God-with-us.

Meditation for the Day

Listen to how you think and speak about Holy Spirit. Is Spirit an important person in your life? How would your faith grow if you engaged more with Holy Spirit?

Prayer for the Day

Holy Spirit of God, Spirit of Love and Life. I ask you to fill me up today. Remove the chains that bind you in me. Do God’s work in me and through me today. Let me be God’s Love in the world today.

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[1] Shults, F. L., & Hollingsworth, A. (2008). The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, p. 34.

[2] Shults, p. 61.

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