Lately we've been speaking a lot about listening to the Spirit bearing witness within us. Over the years this is something that has been an integral part of my understanding of spirituality. But the Spirit is constantly speaking beneath all the "monkey mind’ and white noise that our consciousness throws up into our thought life. Sometimes we hear the nudging of the Spirit very clearly; at other times it is muffled beneath our desires, compulsions and preoccupations. This morning I was no more intent upon hearing the Spirit than usual but I did hear something. What I heard was clear but not necessarily the meaning or implications, yet I'll take a stab at sharing this with you.
While eating my oatmeal, I listened to a lecture by Barbara Rossing who spoke on the concept of the end of the world both in apocalyptic thinking and in the modern millenarian theology of fundamentalist Christians. One of her throwaway lines captured my attention. She said she was not as drawn to concepts of sin and repentance as she was of the paradigm of illness when she looked at how we are destroying our world and edging very near to the end time. It wasn't the eschatological implications about her preference for illness language that concerned me but her need to separate sin from illness. She said that we need healing more than we need forgiveness. This chafed against my understanding of Scripture and human experience. I've come to believe that we need forgiveness in order to be healed. Unless we come with confession of our sinfulness it is very unlikely that we will be healed. Jesus often prefaced his physical healing with the statement, your sins are forgiven.
These were the thoughts or tumbling around in my mind as I moseyed from the kitchen to my computer to continue my morning meditation with a lectionary. After reading Psalm 51, an anatomy of sin and forgiveness, I was even more convinced of the horrific affects of sin upon our bodies, our emotions and our relationships. Indisputably, the matrix of sin, forgiveness and healing ought not to be torn apart. This realization led me to desire an increase in purity in my life. Unfortunately purity has taken on such a prudish connotation. Nonetheless, while reading J.I. Packer's Keeping in Step with the Spirit, I was confronted with the need we have that the Holy Spirit be allowed to battle our sinful impulses and to cleanse us from the filth of our sinfulness. Here's how J.I. puts it:
To highlight the work of the Spirit in making Christians aware and
ashamed of sins defilement and stirring us to "...cleanse ourselves
from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect
in the fear of God" [2 Corinthians 7:1] is thus to underscore a biblical
emphasis - one that needs a good deal of underscoring in a decadent
age like ours, in which moral standards count for so little and the
grace of shame is so much at discount.
To highlight the work of the Spirit in making Christians aware and ashamed of sins defilement and stirring us to "...cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God" [2 Corinthians 7:1] is thus to underscore a biblical emphasis - one that needs a good deal of underscoring in a decadent age like ours, in which moral standards count for so little and the grace of shame is so much at discount.
My mind went back to Sunday morning where we spoke of Isaiah who had his tongue burned by flaming incense from the throne of God, whose main confession was that he was a person of unclean lips and dwelt among a people of unclean lips. Apart from the superficial interpretation that we ought to clean up our language (something we may want to consider) there is a deeper implication that our lives are not as they should be and there is a need, a very deep need, for purity.
That said, J.I. Packer suggests purity is not at the center of the work of the Spirit anymore than power or performance. He also says that the distortion of purity is especially pernicious. Before mentioning what these deformations are, it is good to hear his summary concerning our constant battle with impurity:
The Christian who thus walks in the Spirit will keep discovering
that nothing in his life is as good as it should be; that he has never
fought as hard as he might have done against the clogging restraints
and contrary pulls of his own inbred perversity; that there is an element
of motivational sin, at the least, in his best works; that his daily
living is streaked with defilements, so that he has to depend every
moment on God's pardoning mercy in Christ, or he would be lost; and
that he needs to keep asking, in the light of his own felt weakness
and in constancy of heart, that the spirit, will energize him to the
end to maintain the inward struggle.
In exalting the Spirit’s work of purifying us we can very easily be led into the deformations of legalism, Pharisee-ism, compulsive scrupulosity, morbidity, and pessimism. I would add to that list, spiritual narcissism and egotism. While J.I. Packer does not put it like this, he may as well say that the Spirit will more than less purify our natures over time as we cooperate with him. Our need for forgiveness and healing will always be there but progressively, we will be making progress as we learn to lean into the Spirit.
At Watershed the desire for purity is probably not on the top of the agenda, at least not explicitly. Our expectations are so low that we find it very hard to have the faith that the Spirit can change us, or that God desires to or will change us. My hunch is that we are so stuck on self-effort, coupled with the awareness that our exertions have never worked before, that we feel hopeless about any forward movement. Left to ourselves this is undoubtedly true but if the Holy Spirit is an ontological reality and the gift of God is for our empowerment then that dead hope can be resurrected again, purity can again become an increasing possibility.
If power, performance, or purity is a not the epicenter of the Spirit’s ministry, J.I. Packer leaves us wondering exactly what he considers it to be. By reading this book as slowly as I am, it gives me the opportunity to be expectant and curious. Thanks for accompanying me as I read.