#23 of a Series on Psalm 50 – “Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.”
There is probably nothing worse to say about a person than, ‘He’s lost the Spirit.’ It’s the essence of being truly lost. But can we actually lose the Holy Spirit? How?
As was mentioned earlier, the Holy Spirit was active and present in the world from the beginning of Creation and particularly through the Hebrew Covenant, of which David was a central figure. But it is also clear that David’s perception of the work of the Spirit was much keener than most, and arguably even most today. While what would say today as the norm of the reception of the Holy Spirit through purification, Baptism and Chrismation was obviously not the case with David, it is clear that the Spirit was quite present and active in many ways, not the least of which was through His prophetic ministry. Only the Holy Spirit can inspire a true prophet. But our perspective is from the New Testament, the old has passed away and all things are made new[i].
Much is said in Christianity[ii] of the acquiring the Holy Spirit and it has been a bit of a focus of these reflections as well. In Orthodoxy, there is great theological focus on the personal reception of the Holy Spirit through the sacramental Mystery of Chrismation (akin to Confirmation in the West and in an ongoing way through the practice of the Orthodox Way). We celebrate as a Major Feast the Gift of the Spirit to the Church, at Pentecost as inaugurating a new age of His sustaining presence forever. There’s no taking that away. The Fathers speak of ‘acquiring the Holy Spirit’ personally through the whole of the Christian discipline process (read spiritual discipline) – Church life/worship, prayer, ascetical practices, virtuous deeds, charity, etc.[iii]
The Church teaches that the gift of the Holy Spirit once ‘sealed’ in the soul is a forever gift, God will never forsake his servants whom He so loves as to give Himself as a Bridegroom gives himself to a Bride. This is the innermost quality of the relationship that is established in Chrismation. So how is it that the Holy Spirit could be taken?
The Gift of the Spirit – To be Stewarded
Our relationship with God, actualized by the Holy Spirit, must be attend to lest it be lost. So many biblical examples come to mind here – for example, the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, wherein we learn that the life of grace is planted by God, but it will either thrive or die depending on living circumstances and environment. Of course, the parable as subsequently explained by the Lord Jesus, shows us that the ‘environment’ consists of spiritual attacks of things like spiritual immaturity (wilting in the drought) and succumbing to the ‘cares, riches and pleasures’ of life. (Lk. 8:1-15)
Christians are assaulted with temptations of every sort which can unravel the discipline (discipleship) of our spiritual life. When that happens, the ever-present Spirit seems distant or unknown. We feel cold. The relationship grows cold – the gift seems to be slipping away. After a while a spiritual apathy overcomes us, and we don’t care if we are losing our spiritual center. In stewarding the gifts of God, we do well to understand certain movements in this process.[iv] The Gift of the Spirit is a relationship, and relationships must be stewarded by constant communication, attentiveness, purification (leading to a deeper relationship) and love. The Spirit responds inwardly, prompting the heart to pray, and indeed the Fathers have identified the ‘heartbeat’ as something of a bodily metaphor for the intimacy and presence of the Spirit.
Grieving the Holy Spirit
When a relationship is going south, it causes grief. St. Paul describes it in this way,
“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not grieve God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live…. Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of malicious behavior. Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph. 4:29 – 32)
As with any relationship, when the sins above are present it is impossible to live in peace. The relationship with God is different though. God is the Giver of peace of heart, sweet words, truth, and love. To act in this way is to respond not to the presence of the Spirit in the heart, but to the promptings of the Devil and submission to Him in our actions.
Just as an aside, it is worthwhile to note the proliferation of foul talk in our culture. Christianity always fights the proliferation of foul talk. This is especially true regarding the holiness of the name of the Lord, the Name above every other Name, Jesus Christ.[v] When someone speaks thus to animate their words, they instill them not only with vehemence, but evil. Once this is started (I know from experience) it becomes increasingly difficult to control. As it becomes commonplace (sometimes even in ‘churches’) it further coarsens society. It’s worst effect? It grieves the Holy Spirit! Note that, like Peter in the Garden when he denied Christ three times, he ‘cursed and swore’. Thankfully, the beginning of his healing began soon after when he ‘wept bitterly.’ (Mk.17:71ff)
When we hear our outer language growing coarse or utterly sinful in using the Lord’s name in vain, the Spirit is not empowering our words and is far from our hearts from which the words precede.
Presumption and Delusion
There are two other sins to mention that are particularly harmful regarding our relationship with the Holy Spirit. Of course, all sins tend to spiral into a single vortex – as David found out – lust can join to anger leading to murder. The sins of presumption and delusion often work as a pair.
While both arise from a self-centered ego, spiritual presumption affords to oneself that which is a gift from God. It can affect anyone and pop up quickly. One scenario might be this – a person is baptized as a child and given the wondrous gift of Life in Christ and the Spirit. For whatever reasons, she carries on the outward activity (even highly engaged) of Christianity but does not examine herself – words, deeds, motivations – and soon begins to assume her ‘Christianity’ is her own, giving her a ‘boldness’ from her ego, not from God. This can lead to all sorts of bad things where the outward profession is increasingly different from the inner heart. Presumption usually leads one to think of oneself as better than others. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican is a fine example of how presumption is manifest. While applied to a ‘Pharisee’ it can be true of a Christian just as easily, but to even more harmful effect because, bearing the very name of Christ, others identify not just ourselves with Christianity, but worse, identify Christ with us! Saying in effect, “If that’s what Jesus Christ is about I want nothing to do with it!”
I find it necessary to mention that this is a great temptation in Christianity today because the systems established in the early Church to get us to do self-examination (as the Apostle commands – 1Cor. 11:28-29) have drifted from our praxis. The self-examination and confession of sins is at the heart of this discipline. The discipline of personal confession was pretty much lost in Protestantism in practice, except for a very individualized form, which denied the not only the value of external counsel and discernment, but the very forgiveness of sins in the power of the Spirit offered sacramentally. But even in the Roman Church as well as Orthodoxy, the value of confession has waned in various places and times, and with that, the advice of St. Paul goes unheeded.
The Sin of Delusion
Delusion (Gr. prelest) is the evil sister of Presumption, is essentially self-centered flattery which, like presumption, makes us think more highly of ourselves than we should, about which St. Paul warns decisively. (Rom.12:3) The thing about delusion is that while self-inflation is at its core, it leads, literally to a ‘deluded-false’ view of self and subsequently, the world. This then opens the heart to demonic inspired thoughts of one’s spiritual greatness and the demons will even provide visions and other forms of self-exaltation in dreams and the like. This can lead to serious mental illness. It could be said that all religious charlatans who lead countless people to their destruction, are suffering from this truly mortal (deadly) sin.
In fact, delusion and presumption are horrific temptations for priests and those in ministry because we are so close to great and wondrous truth and sacred gifts of God that we can get our egos entangled terribly in it all. This is especially true in preaching, and the road from the church is littered with the souls of deluded preachers and those who paid heed to them. The problem is that, because they (we) can become so ego-centered, in human terms ‘ powerful,‘ that the message seems to be convincing and compelling. Roll in the thunderous sound of one’s own voice electronically amplified in an auditorium, the applause of people, or thousands of adoring social media fans and ‘likes’, increased money, power, etc. and t becomes an extremely dangerous cocktail. This was one sin that St. John Chrysostom continuously and vehemently warned about in his day.
But all this arises, not from the Holy Spirit but from the demonic spirit of prelest. In this case, it could be said that the Holy Spirit has been ‘taken’ from the preacher, or perhaps seen another way, the preacher’s failure to humble himself and be vigilant has led to falsehood and delusion in both his message and presentation. This is often then accompanied by other moral failures (like sexual misconduct) then end up in the end, bringing him down – which is a good thing, because the evil is confronted and repentance is possible.
I would only add that among the greatest needs in the Church is that of discernment for priests – not just within ourselves (which can be deluded) but from others, whether laity, other clergy or, ideally, hierarchs. One example for me was when a parishioner asked me about a passage which I had preached about. Through the discussion it became clear to me that I had been wrong, and needed to be humbled and change my thinking. This is how the Spirit sometimes come to us and confront not only the misunderstanding, but the spiritual weakness and sin. So don’t be afraid to ask your priest about what he is preaching about. Rightly done, it can lead to a rich dialogue and correction of errors, misunderstanding and with it, humility.
I cannot begin to say where the Spirit is, or is not, or how existentially the Spirit may be taken from a person. These things are beyond me – the state of souls and particularly the Spirit who moves where He wills. But I cannot think of a worse Hell than from one which the Spirit of God has in some way withdrawn, in which all goodness has vanished.
Take not O Lord, thy Holy Spirit from me!
[iii] Wisdom 1:5 shows this relationship: “the Holy Spirit of discipline flees deceit and withdraws from senseless counsel”
[iv] I refer to these movements elsewhere as the ‘Spiritual Cycle of Stewardship’ as consisting of eight such movements.
[v]As a kid, the Catholic churches almost always had a ‘Holy Name Society’. I never knew what it was about, it was seemingly a pious confraternity. From Catholic.org: “The primary object of the society is to beget due love and reverence for the Holy Name of God and Jesus Christ. The secondary object is to suppress blasphemy, perjury, oaths of any character that are forbidden, profanity, unlawful swearing, improper language, and, as far as the members can, to prevent those vices in others (Pius IV, April 13, 1564).”
In today’s society, I can think of no other more valuable task force of committed Christians of all Churches and denominations to take on than the restoration of the respect for the name of the Lord and the saints, and speech in general.