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Christians talk a lot about being “filled with the Spirit,” but what does that actually mean? And how is it accomplished?

Paul’s command to “be filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18 is intriguing. The form of the verb “filled” that Paul uses is what’s called a present passive imperative. Without getting nerdy, that means it’s a command that we are to obey in the present tense (present + imperative). But the odd thing is that it’s in the passive voice. We are commanded to “be filled.” Are you seeing the significance? Paul is commanding us to be doing something that must be done to us.

This raises an important question: How do I receive something that is outside of my control? If it’s the Spirit who fills me, then why is Paul directing that command to me?

I find this deeply mysterious and often frustrating. It’s easier if there’s a procedure I can follow, something I can simply do to fulfill this command. But it seems more mysterious than this—a realization that should not surprise us when we are discussing the workings of the Spirit.

James K. A. Smith is often helpful with this sort of thing. In the following quotation, Smith is exploring French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of how a person “falls” asleep. Smith suggests that this account might help us in thinking about being filled with the Spirit:

“I cannot ‘choose’ to fall asleep. The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythm that welcomes sleep. ‘I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up; I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there’ (PP 189)[1]. I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed—but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. ‘I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper…There is a moment when sleep “comes,” settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be” (PP 189–90, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome. What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls ‘habitations of the Spirit’ precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?”[2]

Bed

Smith is suggesting that our embodied practices (“liturgies” is Smith’s broad term for these practices, whether they be “sacred” or “secular”) might prepare us to receive the Spirit’s filling. We ourselves are not doing the filling—that is the Spirit’s work. But by engaging in specific embodied practices—the eating and drinking of communion, the posture of our knees on the floor in prayer, the raising of our hands in worship, the use of our vocal cords in praying, singing, or reading Scripture—we are training our bodies, and thus our whole selves, to be receptive to the Spirit’s filling. The power of our bodies and of embodied practices (liturgies, broadly conceived) is the subject of Smith’s book (and an important earlier book), and he convincingly argues that human beings do not primarily consist of the thoughts in our heads, but of the desires—the love—that fills our being and is directed at objects around us.

Imagining the KingdomCould it be that just as sleep “settles on the imitation of itself which I have been offering to it,” so our obedience to practices like singing to one another, giving thanks verbally, and performing acts of mutual submission actually make us receptive to the Spirit’s filling in our lives? These activities are listed, after all, along with the command to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5.

We could try so hard to be filled with the Spirit, and in a certain sense we should. Be the sleep analogy helps me to step into the mystery a bit. As Smith says, “Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome.”

Smith’s analogy does not lessen the mystery of being filled with the Spirit for me. I still can’t say that I know precisely what to do. But I find the analogy helpful, and I find myself motivated to actively welcome the Spirit, to engage in those postures that make me receptive to the gift.


 

[1] Smith uses the abbreviation “PP” to refer to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962).

[2] James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013) 65.

Small Theology

Mark Beuving —  May 7, 2015 — Leave a comment

The Beuving Family (Web) _0095I can remember looking forward to the day when I would have kids with whom I could have theological conversations. Not that this was the reason I wanted kids, I just thought it would be exciting to teach my heirs some amazing theology.

My daughters are now three and five years old. I have not begun reading them theology textbooks at bedtime, nor have they heard me speak the words “justification,” “pneumatology,” or “hypostatic union.” But we have certainly had plenty of theological conversations.

These conversations always arise unexpectedly. I don’t plan theology lessons for my girls; the theology invites itself into our regular conversations. Often, a character or plot development in a movie or TV show will lob me a doctrinal softball, and I’ll take a swing. (I’ll ask my girls questions like “Will Hiccup ever see his daddy again, even though he died?” or “Why do you think Rainbow Dash is so sad?” or “Who else do we know who died and came back to life again?”) Sometimes these turn into great conversations, sometimes they don’t. We never go very deep, but sometimes we have meaningful (if not complex) conversations about important theological truths.

We have talked about God’s constant provision and the importance of valuing God’s gifts when my daughters have complained about the dinner menu. We’ve talked about having compassion for the poor when both of my girls threw fits about the kind of sheets mommy put on their beds. We’ve had several chances to talk about human depravity and the importance of forgiveness when kids at church or at preschool have been mean.

My favorite theological conversations lately have come when we sing to our girls at bedtime. I’ve been singing part of Mumford and Sons’ “After the Storm”—the girls love it. I’ll sing, “There will come a time, you’ll see / with no more tears / and love will not break your heart / but dismiss your fears.” Then I’ll stop and ask them, “Did you know that someday we won’t cry or be sad anymore? Do you know when that will be?” It’s a perfect chance to talk about the return of Christ and the reality of heaven.

I also cycle through the verses to “This Is My Father’s World.” Every night I’ll sing a couple of verses, and every now and then we’ll talk about what the song means. Just last night my five year old asked me what it means that God “shines in all that’s fair.” So we talked about God’s omnipresence, his power in creation, and the goodness of God’s world. We did this without using any big terms, which was a great exercise for me.

As I looked ahead to the time I would talk theology with my kids, I also pictured them much older than preschool age. But I’ve been surprised at how often I get to talk theology with my girls. I shouldn’t be surprised—I know that theology is practical. I know that everything in this world relates to God. But somehow, I didn’t expect theology to be so readily applicable to so many of the things my daughters experience so early in life. For me, it has been a great reminder that everything is theological, and that God cares about—and is active in—every detail of our lives, no matter how small our lives may be.

In the midst of busy seasons of life, the weight of everything I’ve committed to and everything that has been placed in my lap often becomes overwhelming. I run out of hours in the day, I’ve done without sleep a few (or a thousand) times too many, and my emotional stability deteriorates. I begin making mistakes in the projects I’ve taken on, and I sometimes have to wrap up projects before I feel they’re truly done.

In these times, I feel like I’m letting everyone down. I’m not living up to my full potential in my work, I’m not giving anyone the attention and care they deserve, and my “time with God” is lacking. I feel like I’m not being faithful in anything.

My guess is that you can relate, even if you wouldn’t state it quite so dramatically.

The best advice I’ve received for these times in life came from our (Eternity’s) president, Joshua Walker. I’ll recount my version of his advice in the following paragraphs.

Only you and God know everything that’s on your plate. When you’re in a busy season like this, you will legitimately be letting people down. They’ve asked you to complete certain projects and you’re not getting them done on the timeline or with the quality that’s expected of you. But the people you’re letting down don’t know everything you’re dealing with at the moment.

For example, my students may be submitting papers that don’t reflect their full potential. I may be disappointed with my students, and their grade will reflect this. But only God knows the full extent of what each person is handling.

Here’s something we know but struggle to believe: It doesn’t matter what other people think of you.

My students don’t need to please me. They need to please God. And if being faithful to God in the totality of their life means that they won’t have time to complete an assignment, my displeasure does not necessarily reflect God’s displeasure. My students are letting me down, but they may not be letting God down. (This line of thinking can be applied to every area of life: Letting down your boss, spouse, friends, kids, or students may not always mean letting God down.)

In the Christian worldview, success is not defined by productivity, profitability, or positive feedback. From a worldly perspective, Jonah was phenomenally successful. He went to Nineveh kicking and screaming, and pouted through the end of the story. But he preached a simple message and a wicked civilization turned to God in an epic revival. From a worldly perspective, Jeremiah was a terrible failure. Though he preached faithfully and did everything God asked of him, his life’s work failed to produce a single convert.

In modern terms, you want to be successful like Jonah, not insignificant like Jeremiah. But we know that biblically speaking, Jonah is the cautionary tale and Jeremiah is the success story.

Biblical success is all about faithfulness to God. Jeremiah was a huge success because he remained faithful to God, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Tired 1

Success in God’s eyes may look like failure in the world’s eyes. You may be letting everyone down. Your life may be an obvious failure by virtually every definition of that term. You may even feel like a failure yourself.

But there is only one person you need to please: God. And he is already pleased with you. If you are doing your best with your time and resources at the moment, it doesn’t matter what praise or promotions or grades you get. If you are wearing yourself out as you seek to glorify God by doing your best in the midst of an impossible situation, then you are succeeding. You may not be getting “the job” done, but God knows everything that’s on your plate. It doesn’t matter if everyone you know and love thinks you’re lazy, or incompetent, or scatterbrained. God knows. And he couldn’t possibly love you more.

God knows you better than you do. He knows what you’re capable of, even though you constantly mis-assess your abilities. He knows how much (or how little) you can get done, even when your own timelines are unrealistic. And he is pleased with you.

God wants you to be faithful, not superhuman. So if faithfulness is your goal, and if you’re pursing faithfulness with every resource God has given you, then you are a huge success—even if you’re failing.

Now, it could be that your stress and your overwhelming schedule are symptoms of your idolatrous pursuit of something other than God. Don’t waste your exhaustion; search your heart to see what needs to change. You may well be taking on more than you should in an effort to reach some unbiblical standard of success. You may be letting people down because you are prideful or lazy.

But as you examine your heart, carefully redirect your pursuits back to God. Make every effort to be faithful to him in the commitments you’ve made in your family life, in your church, in your job, in your schoolwork. And if you are striving to be faithful to him, know that he is pleased, know that he knows that you can only do what you can do, and know that that’s enough.

Social media is a huge blessing. I have not been shy about praising social media platforms like Facebook and Pinterest and also smartphones themselves, which are our primary portal to social media. Many aspects of social media provide us with the opportunity to be better friends, better citizens, better humans.

And yet social media is also a powerful tool for polarization. Social media has a unique ability to increase our arrogance, our self-certainty, and our blood pressure.

Why?

Why does social media make us angry and opinionated? And how can we use social media in a more healthy way?

The biggest problem with social media is also its greatest asset: brevity. We love social media because it gives us snapshots of information about our friends, our interests, and our world.

But while brevity (combined with connectivity) is social media’s greatest strength, it is also social media’s greatest danger. Our world is filled with important and complex issues. Human beings love to discuss everything from the nature of humanity to the President’s foreign policy to the true motivation of terrorist groups to the theological distinctives of celebrity pastors. These conversations need to happen. But these aren’t issues that we can sufficiently grasp in short conversations.

So why do we keep trying to have these discussions in 140 characters or less?

Social Media Distraction

The truth is, the media we use shapes the way we think. Neil Postman famously wrote on the changes in thought processes and social interactions with the advent of the television (in addition to the previous shift that came with Gutenberg’s printing press). While Postman could be a bit alarmist, he was certainly right to warn us of the danger that we might be “amusing ourselves to death.” In the spirit of Postman, author and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin recently said, as he reflected on the new year:

“My greatest reservation of 2014 has to do with the sanctimony of social media. Partly, it’s the speed of digital, the incessant necessity to respond. But throughout the year, on a variety of issues, I kept noticing a lockstep consensus, in which to disagree, or to dissent, was to invite the backlash of the crowd. It’s hard to be nuanced in 140 characters, and yet the whole point of reading and writing is to engage.” (article here)

Brevity is a powerful tool for grabbing a person’s attention. It’s a wonderful way to surprise your audience, to catch them off guard, to pique their interest. That’s why headlines work so well: Grab the readers attention, then nuance your position. But with social media, the headline is the content. That’s about all the space you’ve got for content. So you can make a sharp political statement that will grab people’s attention. Some people will love it, because they already agree with you. Others will be furiously offended, because they already disagree with you. But no one is going to change their mind. No one will even be informed. They will simply read your potent statement and become further entrenched in their corner, whether that’s your corner or the opposite one.

As Ulin said, social media also carries a sense of urgency. You only have a few seconds to process all of the information on your feed, so you’ve got to form your opinions quickly. You have very little time to decide who was at fault in the most recent shooting, to evaluate how damning the President’s recent statement really was, to form your opinions on health care, or to determine whether the newest controversial movie is a must-see or a scheme from Satan. In the amount of time it takes you to scroll down your feed, you have to decide.

And that’s not a recipe for healthy opinions. That’s a recipe for an opinionated, arrogant, polarized society. Social media gives us access to limitless information, yet it does not make us informed citizens. Alissa Wilkinson, chief film critic for Christianity Today, recently wrote a great article entitled “In Praise of Slow Opinions.” She argues that everyone is in a rush to give the “hot take” on the latest film or issue. Readers want someone with a strong opinion right off the bat, and writers are eager to offer their “hot take” because it generates clicks. But we ought to be wary of quick opinions.

Life is complicated, and so are films, politics, social issues, and theology. Why are we so eager to get such strong and quickly-formed opinions on everything?

A major culprit is social media. Or more precisely, our misuse of social media. I still believe that social media is a huge blessing, for reasons I’ve already expressed. But when we jettison meaningful conversations in favor of sharp tweets, we’re begging for increased blood pressure and a more polarized society. Social media is a great way to connect and stay “in the loop,” but it’s no replacement for true dialogue. For that we still need books, blogs, articles, lectures, and good old-fashioned conversations—each of these means of communication possessing its own strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and dangers.

For the last fifteen years, I’ve pretty much had only one answer to the question, “How are you doing?” It’s always: “Tired.” Or maybe, “Busy, tired. But good!” As far as I can tell, this is the standard answer to the question.

How are Americans doing? They’re tired.

When I started college in 2000, I became acquainted with “busy.” It was a lot of work. And I was always tired. Then I started seminary and realized I previously had no idea what “busy” was. For much of seminary, sleep was like a hometown friend that you gradually lose contact with. And then I graduated and entered the real world and discovered, yet again, that “busy” always has added dimensions and “tired” is essentially a lifelong companion. Then we started having kids, and well, I’m looking forward to sleeping in again when I retire.

Life is good, but it’s hard. Life is rewarding, but I’m exhausted. I know I’m not the only one.

So why are we so tired? Sure, we’re tired because we work too hard, we go to bed too late, we book our schedules too tightly. But those are just the practical reasons. I’m interested in the theology of it. The theology or rest, and also the theology of tiredness. In this short post, I’ll just offer two biblical reasons for our constant tiredness.

Tired 1

The primary reason we get tired is that God designed us that way. He actually built it into the fabric of his world. God created everything in six days, then rested on the seventh. And that becomes the pattern in Scripture. Just as God rested, we human beings are called to rest as well.

This implies that even before sin entered the world, human beings needed rest. We needed sleep. This only makes sense: Could something as obviously divine as sleep be a mere side effect of sin?

So our need for rest is actually good. It was modeled by God himself. We were designed to put in a good day’s work and then to need rest, to finish off a solid work week and then to need to relax. Rest is good, and so is tiredness.

Next time someone answers your “how are you” with “I’m tired,” maybe your response should be: “Good!”

But another major reason for our tiredness is the fall of humanity into sin. This world is broken. Every aspect of this world has been tainted by the reality of sin. This makes the world dysfunctional, disorderly, and actually: tired.

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes declares all things “vanity,” which is his way of calling life a huge enigma, a stubborn puzzle that frustrates humanity at every turn. And in that context, he says,

“All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it” (1:8).

It’s a tired world. Worn out. Full of weariness to an unutterable extent. Sin bogs us down, trips us up, and quite literally pulls us toward the grave.

We are tired from living in a sin-stained world. The exhaustion of this world will eventually overcome us all. In the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher reminds us to pursue God while we’re young, before this weary world exhausts our bodies so fully that they come to a grinding halt (12:1–8).

Our own sin contributes to this exhaustion as well. As Paul makes clear in Romans 1, human beings are worshipers by nature, and while we are designed to worship God, we often turn our ultimate pursuit to idolatrous ends.

For many Americans, our idols are our careers, our reputation, our financial stability, and our carefully purchased world of comfort. This means that we often work harder and longer hours than God intends because we are pursuing much more than we need. Our greed forces us into cycles of achievement that wear our bodies down. We believe in the myth of the self-made man or woman, so we expend more energy than we have to create our own kingdoms.

But God created us to be dependent. You’re tired because you need rest. That feeling of exhaustion is God’s reminder that you need him, that you can’t do everything yourself, that there are not enough hours in the day to build his kingdom and yours at the same time.

So go ahead and be tired. Don’t be ashamed of it. Enjoy that satisfied exhaustion that comes at the end of (and all throughout) a job well done. But if you find yourself feeling exhausted and realize that you’re wearing out your body in idolatrous pursuits, then take God’s gift of fatigue seriously and rest. He made you human for a reason; he designed human beings to need rest for a reason.

Our goal should not be tired-free living, as though we were professional vacationers. Our goal is to be tired for the right reasons, to enjoy a godly exhaustion our whole lives, and then to finally enter that blessed rest of God for all eternity (see Hebrews 4).