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Power to face the world

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Thank you, Holy Spirit!

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made a surprising observation toward the end of the 19th century: he announced that God was dead. This, of course, had nothing to do with whether God was actually dead or not. Nietzsche’s observation was more akin to a state of the union address. It was a dramatic way to note that, as far as the educated class was concerned, belief in the Judeo-Christian God had essentially vanished. Nietzsche had provided the eulogy.

For the philosopher, this wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, for the death of God would provide an opportunity for the rise of a new kind of human whose horizons would no longer be limited by the constraints of divine law. Those who can’t quite appreciate the significance of this declaration and its consequences need look no further than Hitler.

Thoughts shape our world

Why am I dusting off an old philosopher? Simply to make the point that ideas matter. They define who we are and determine the kind of world in which we will live. Nietzsche knew exactly where the death of God would lead. He predicted – and rightly, may I add – that the 20th century would be characterized by a kind of brutality and violence never before seen. And the 21st century would be worse! (Canadian journalist Mark Steyn eloquently examines the implications of Nietzsche’s observation in After America.)

So here we are at the beginning of a new century that shows every promise of being as barbaric, if not more so, than its earlier sibling:

• Destructive forces continue to reshape the Middle East.

• The West has secularized to an extent few would have thought possible 25 years ago.

• The welfare state, once touted as the paragon of social evolution, is now bankrupt. (People will take to the end of the welfare state as gracefully as a two-year-old having candy suddenly taken away from him.)

• As the renowned quantitative historian Pierre Chaunu predicted in the mid-1970s, the catastrophically low birth rates in much of the Western world are bringing it to the brink of economic and social death.

• Christians continue to be fodder for the totalitarian regimes that spring up as vigorously as crabgrass in the spring.

Why all this doomsday talk? There’s nothing quite as sobering as staring reality in the face. Even if the worst doesn’t happen, human existence remains challenging under the best of circumstances.

So what are we to do? Jump in front of a bus? Pretend everything will be fine? Invest in precious metals? Build a nuclear bunker? Roll over and die?

A Christian response

For Christians, none of these options are acceptable. Millions of Christians throughout history have had exceedingly difficult lives. In the Middle East and China, hundreds of thousands of Christians are facing existential threats. There is no reason to believe that the cup from which so many Christians have deeply drunk will not be placed on our table. Time will tell.

Followers of Jesus Christ should be the first to call a spade a spade, for we worship the God of truth. Christians should face an uncertain future with resolve and grit, joy and unbridled hope. They should view ominous times as opportunities to trust God and tell others about the good news. Even when Christians are denounced as intolerant, they should firmly stand on the unique claims of Christ and unashamedly proclaim them whenever they’re asked about the hope that’s in them (1 Peter 3:15).

But let’s face it: how can we expect to live up to such high expectations when most of us have a hard time keeping it together when confronted by a simple flat tire?

Strength through the Holy Spirit

No one ever receives on Sunday the strength to face Monday. In Matthew 10:19–20, Jesus echoes this principle and provides the rationale. He exhorts his followers not to worry about what to say when they’re arrested, for special assistance will be given at that very moment through the “Spirit of your Father.” The key to living a life that honours our Lord resides in the power that’s available through the Spirit of God.

Genesis 1:2 includes the first mention of the Spirit in the Old Testament. The formulation is as unexpected as it is pregnant with meaning: “The Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”

This text is addressed to a people who had come out of a brutal period of slavery under the iron fist of the Egyptian Pharaoh. They were facing an uncertain future filled with terrors, imagined and real. To these anxious souls, Moses offered them what they needed most: insight into ultimate reality.

The word Spirit (in Hebrew, ruach) can, depending on context, be translated as “Spirit” or “wind.” Here, the reference is likely to both. Ancient people believed that the wind was the primordial force of the universe. It symbolized the power of destruction.

By alluding to the Spirit, Moses restructured the very matrix of the universe. The primordial power at the helm of the universe is not some anonymous force bent upon humanity’s destruction. It is the ruach elohim, the Spirit of the Lord. At the pin-point origin of the universe, there is a person.

Protection and care

Moreover, God’s Spirit is said to be hovering over the waters. The idea of anything hovering is not particularly comforting. To some extent, popular culture has taught us to associate anything that hovers with either angry ghosts or flying saucers filled with belligerent aliens. There’s none of that here. While there is no exact equivalent in English, the overall meaning of the verb is clear: there’s a sense of parental protection.

When we brought our firstborn home from the hospital, we laid him in a crib set up in our bedroom. For a long time, we simply stood there observing him, watching his every move. Had an intruder come into the house with the intent to harm the baby, we would have protected him even at the cost of our lives. We hovered above him.

And so the Spirit of God hovers above the world. The primordial power of the universe is not only endowed with reason and power. He cares deeply for all creation, and particularly for men and women.

In this conviction, there is hope enough to face all, and joy enough to laugh at evil – even death – knowing that the God who created the universe is also the one who, through his Spirit, lovingly watches over us.

—Pierre Gilbert is associate professor of Old Testament and theology at Canadian Mennonite University, associate dean with MBBS Canada at CMU, and author of Demons, Lies & Shadows (2008).

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