Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Prevented by the Holy Spirit"

It's been a while, but anyway...

The role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian is often portrayed as overwhelmingly "positive".  That is, the Spirit enables the Christian to live in a manner of which they were incapable while they were still under sin.  They can be obedient by the Spirit (Rom 8:4).  They can understand the things of God (1 Cor2:12).  They can overcome the desires of the body (Gal 5:16).  I could go on and on.

The contemporary word to describe the Spirit's effect on the Christian's life is "empowerment".  Not a bad word, I suppose, given its use in Scripture.  However, I have been considering the extent to which it accurately describes the Spirit's role.  The trouble is that it is possible to interpret "empowered" language as having purely energetic connotations and not directive.  So we decide which way we want to serve God and which gifts we would like to have and then we pray and wait for the Spirit to show up to give us the Get-Up-And-Go that we need.  The Individual is in the driver's seat, rather than God.  Of course, not all uses of this language intend to have these implications (indeed, probably few do).  Maybe it reflects the limitations of our lexicon.

I was pondering the role of the Holy Spirit in ministry and mission recently as I read the account in Acts of Paul's second missionary journey.  Paul starts with a limited but reasonable and godly objective - to visit the churches that he and Barnabas had already planted to see how their faith was progressing (15:36).  At first, things seemed to go according to plan as he visited his old haunts of Derbe and Lystra (16:1-5).  However, his mission then took an unexpected detour across the province of Asia and then by sea to Macedonia (16:6-12).  In two places in this passage the Holy Spirit is described as actively preventing, rather than empowering, Paul's opportunities for evangelism.  Paul was kept from preaching in Asia by the Holy Spirit (v.6) and the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul from entering the town of Bithynia.  The implication is that at both these points there was a desire by Paul and his companions to preach Christ as they had done in other places, but the Spirit directed them to another task that God had prepared for them.

I wonder how Paul felt.  Up to this point Paul was probably feeling very Empowered.  Everywhere he went people were heeding his call for repentance and putting their trust in Jesus.  But then when he got to Asia things started to "go wrong".  Bear in mind, the province of Asia covers a large part of modern Turkey.  That's a lot of country to cover without being given a chance to preach the Gospel.  Then to get to the end of the road and not being able to enter Bithynia either?  Did Paul wonder if the Spirit had left him, I wonder...

What we see instead is that the Holy Spirit is more than just Ministry Rocket Fuel.  The Spirit is the one who opens and closes doors for the Gospel to spread.  The Spirit doesn't just Empower, but Directs and Enables mission.  Those engaged in the preaching of Jesus learn from Acts 16 that they are not the Captain and Navigator of their own course.  Those jobs are firmly in God's hands.

Almost two years ago I started full-time parish ministry with all sorts of ideas about what I'd be doing.  There were the initiatives I'd been dreaming up for few years at Theological College, as well as the opportunities that I was encouraged to pursue by the people in the parish.  These days things look a lot different to what I'd imagined - the things that I thought I'd be doing have been put On Hold while other ministries take priority.  Some days this can be tough as I turn to tasks that I would consider Not My Strong Point.  The temptation to shake my fist at the sky like some ecclesiastical Basil Fawlty is present occasionally, I'll admit.  However, I think I'm slowly learning that (for my own good and that of the Kingdom) I've been Prevented by the Holy Spirit.  Maybe it's because God knows better than me what the people in my parish need from me.  Maybe I've been Prevented in order to avoid catastrophe due to overconfidence and inexperience.  Whatever the truth, I press on knowing that God is in control.  Furthermore, as I reflect on how my Lord has put me to use, there are blessings that I have received which I might have missed out on had I simply been given my own way in everything.

Sola Deo Gloria!

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