January 20, 2011
by Patrick Lafferty
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.
Phillip Lopate thinks it's unfair. While clean-shaven, he finds himself envying the bearded class as they walk like colossal men, exuding confidence and heartiness. So he grows a beard and basks in collegiality with the hirsute. But then the beard itches, which then festers into a new envy: he sees the clean-shaven among him as vibrant, youthful men of great promise. With no hair to obscure their face they reflect transparency and wholesomeness endearing to women and winsome to all else. In his essay On Shaving a Beard, Lopate untangles his follicular reflections. He heralds the significance of letting one's face become overgrown while also bemoaning the "unfairness" of never feeling at home with one's face—whether clean or covered.
Moving from the light and jovial to the solemn and sacred, it sometimes may seem unfair that God sent His Holy Spirit with the flourish He did at Pentecost only after Jesus had died, was resurrected, and then ascended into heaven. His appearance described in Acts 2 signaled a new era in His relationship to the world.
Now, it's not as though this was totally a surprise. Ezekiel had foretold the day that God would renew His people's heart of stone with a heart of flesh by giving His people a new Spirit (Ezek 36:27). Jeremiah added to the chorus of expectation proclaiming that God would one day establish a new covenant with His people: God's character, articulated in law and emblazoned upon stone, would be implanted afresh on the heart so that it might be ennobled in the world (Jer 31:33).
We see those expectations coming to a head at Pentecost. As a sign of His appearance, the Spirit of God enables some in the church to speak of Jesus in languages they'd not known previously, thereby confirming the acceleration of God's plan to proclaim the Gospel to all nations. But that was only the beginning of His new work. As Jesus had promised, the Spirit was sent in order to teach and remind all the Son had said to those who believe on Him. Paul adds that it is the Spirit who empowers us to manifest the holiness of the Law which neither we nor the Law could engender in us. Furthermore, it is this same Spirit who would confirm to our spirits that we were in fact adopted children of God, eliciting our most tender and plaintive addresses to the Lord as "Abba," the divine daddy.
So if the Spirit of God is so instrumental in enabling us to know and reflect the character of God, why dispatch the Spirit to our aid only after Jesus's earthly mission was completed? Doesn't that mean the deck was stacked, so to speak, against all those who lived before the Holy Spirit was sent with power? Where's the fairness of God in that?
Before our rant becomes too hysterical, consider a couple truths. "God lives in the heavens, He does all he pleases," says Psalm 115:3. God acts according to His will. Whether He reveals His nature or sends His aid progressively—dynamically over time—is His call. All things are at His discretion. "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" (Ex 33:19; Rom 9:15).
But as Mark outlined for us last Sunday, for all the Spirit's bountiful new work proceeding after Pentecost, there's a remarkable consistency to His activity throughout redemptive history. The Spirit has always exerted the will of God, always represented the presence of God, and always confirmed the pleasure of God to whom He favors.
It's that last dimension of the Spirit's work that probably has the greatest significance for us. David's contrite prayer in Psalm 51 confirms that the Spirit has always been in the business of persuading us of the favor of God. That should be a real consolation to us. Because that's what we really want to be sure of—that we are His and that He will not forsake us, no matter our frailty or folly.
Philip Lopate wants to be sure of that. Yes, his artful banter about beards is mostly tongue-in-cheek. But beneath the surface of his and our envy—envy of cosmetic or deep-seated differences—are unspoken questions: "Am I okay?" or "Do I matter?" Whether we're shaven or unshaven, reputable or risible, proven or pitiable—we're all asking those fundamental questions. Some are even honest enough to admit it. The Spirit of God—the one who validates the work of God the Son to secure the favor of God the Father—is and always has been responsible for persuading us of God's steadfast commitment to us.
In that light, questions of God's fairness get swallowed up in larger concerns of God's kindness. Were God fair in a mechanical way, none of us would know Him or enjoy Him. But He let His Son suffer the greatest unfairness so that we might know God's kindness—a truth the Spirit continually refreshes our memory of.
Are you scurrying to find your peace, oscillating between options like Lopate did with his beard? Or are you listening for the Spirit who whispers the truth of that peace eternally?