12 November 2014

Thinking About (the) Sin Against the Holy Spirit

In my post on God humbling us by raising us up I said that the situation in which a person's friend found herself reminded me of what Scripture calls the Sin against the Holy Spirit or the Unforgivable Sin. Because I don't want to leave any reader with the sense that I was describing a single personal act of sin on that person's part but rather, a situation of enmeshment and bondage involving a piety so paradoxical and destructive that the real God could not get a hearing, I want to clarify some.

I have been thinking about this situation since I first read about it and I am feeling somewhat awed (in the sense of being appalled) by the bind this person was described as being in. It is one thing to think of someone who has repeatedly chosen and chosen again something which is anti-God in a blatant way. We can understand how a person doing that might empty themselves of the capacity to respond to love (and ultimately to that Love-in Act we identify as God) and thus be in a state of unpardonable sin or alienation from (the REAL) God. But it is very hard to think of someone embracing a form of piety which is replete with references to God and who does so desiring on some level at least to embrace God, but who is really only embracing an idol in the process. The upshot of this choice is what I described as an incredible downward spiral, a situation of enmeshment and self-will which God may not be able to effectively penetrate and redeem --- at least not this side of death.

I never thought I would hear myself say those words: a situation. . .which God may not be able to effectively penetrate and redeem this side of death --- at least not about someone embracing some form of piety or religion. But then neither had I thought enough about the importance of the commandment against idolatry understood in terms of distorted forms of piety. Neither had I reflected sufficiently on the fact that when we believe in an idol our hearts are formed similarly. We take on the characteristics of that in which we believe. The hardening of one's heart can occur in many ways but essentially it is always caused by giving our hearts over to something which is other than God or to attitudes which are not of God (e.g., ingratitude, fear, or bitterness, for instance). But, as I think about the situation of idolatry what is really terrifying for me is the fact that the name "God" is given to the idol and to accompanying attitudes or ways of seeing, and that these are likewise said to be "divine" or "of God, " when in fact they are not.

The idolater yearns for God; that yearning is innate because God is present as a constitutive part of our being and makes us "meant for" and capable of union with God. No idol can meet this yearning or complete the person in a foundational communion but it (falsely) PROMISES to do so. When one puts one's trust in THIS false god and this empty promise, idolatry can also effectively close the person to the real God who is vastly different than the person imagines or has "bought into". What happens then is understandable but truly terrifying: when one speaks of a God of absolute futurity, of a love that does justice, of an unceasing love which is exercised in mercy, to a person who has come to think of God as One who causes suffering "in reparation for sin" or whose justice is distributive or retributive, for instance, the message may not be heard. The God proclaimed may be rejected, not out of spite, but because the person really cannot "hear" this proclamation.

Such a person may speak of God incessantly, explain the events in her life in terms of this "god", pray often (in the sense of crying out to God), and even have what seem to be extraordinary religious experiences of some sort, but, unless there is genuine growth in love, in human wholeness, compassion, and the ability to see others with the eyes of God, that is, unless the person truly grows in the dynamic presence of Love-in-Act, then all of this is empty. I believe this is a piece of what Jesus meant when he said, "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?'"And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from me you who practice lawlessness!"' (The Law of love, the Law which Jesus fulfills and is the incarnation of, the law which is truly written on our hearts is what is being referred to here.)

This blindness or deafness to the real God, this inability to accept a God of unmerited love and mercy coupled with a person's own need to justify themselves with their own accomplishments (even when these are paradoxically spelled out in terms of victimhood and failure) constitute a blindness and deafness the Lord may not be able to effectively penetrate this side of death. In effect they may represent a degree of enmeshment in something which is not of God which is so substantial as to be considered the sin against the Holy Spirit. Whether the choices for the idol were driven by fear or personal woundedness or the bitterness which attached to circumstances in life through which this woundedness occurred, they have resulted in a state of bondage in which the person finds it impossible to accept the gratuitous, unmerited, and life-giving love-in-act which is the God of Jesus Christ.

It is the fact that this state of bondage is caused and exacerbated by numerous choices for an idol which matches what the person already calls justice or mirrors her own woundedness, and further, that this is supposedly done in the name of various partial or even outright heretical pictures of God found throughout the history of Christianity which makes it so truly terrifying I think. One can say to such a person, "The God of Jesus Christ NEVER wills the suffering, much less the personal decompensation of those he loves," and in response she can point to the literature which insists God punishes us as an instance of tough love or something similar. One can say that God's love always results in greater human wholeness, profound happiness and stillness (shalom, hesychia), and never in despair or profound depression, and the response might then be, "But God gives both consolation and desolation; St Ignatius says as much" ---inaccurate as is this interpretation of what St Ignatius supposedly teaches!

 (N.B., One problem in this case, besides the assertion that God gives us desolations --- desolation is the work of "bad spirits" not of God --- is the fact that St Ignatius taught that consolations (like the pain sometimes associated with healing) may be associated with a somewhat uncomfortable experience so long as they bring us closer to God and thus increase our capacity for love and our growth in human wholeness; a desolation, on the other hand, was associated with anything that leads us away from God --- even if it is or was a relatively blissful experience. The measure in each of these is not the affective quality of the experience per se so much as it is the degree to which it makes us greater lovers and truly holy in the manner of the God who is Love-in-Act. It would be hard to argue, in such a case, that God causes experiences which are made to move us away from Him. It would similarly make discernment impossible if both consolations and desolations were from God; how would we discern what was right and best for us if misery, selfishness, and personal deterioration were as authentically Divine as growth in human wholeness, the capacity for love, and profound  and genuine happiness?)

Idolatry is, of course, a temptation and reality which strikes each of us. None of us escape it. Our hearts are the places where God bears witness to Godself and this is the defining reality of what it means to be human. But our hearts are ALSO the places where a battle for ourselves goes on as we create idols to console and sustain us only to turn to the real God more fully and exhaustively as these fail us again and again. I have written here before that a vacant house is a perilous place and that a heart not given over entirely to God will be given over to that which is not God. When this ongoing battle is given over not to money or materialism or other "simpler" forms of idolatry but instead to a distorted piety which reshapes one's entire personal reality, both inner and outer, then one's heart is indeed "hardened". As a result our enmeshment in this distorted idolatry may prevent the Holy Spirit from truly empowering us or shaping our hearts in God's own image. When this is true we may well be dealing with a form of the Sin against the Holy Spirit. Again, it is not so much a single act as it is a state of enmeshment or bondage which keeps us estranged from God despite our yearning for communion with God.

Recommendations for Reading: Beale, GK,  We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry, Meadors, Edward P, Idolatry and the Hardening of the Heart: A Study in Biblical Theology