I have an aunt from Texas who occasionally sends us special kids editions of puzzles from the New York Times. I have found the difficulty level of these kids puzzles to be relatively age appropriate … for me. They’re just my speed. Occasionally I will invite my 8-year-old daughter to join me in solving them.
In a recent edition, the entire front page of the section was its own puzzle; full page. There were dozens of little objects arranged in rows and columns. To solve the puzzle, you had to match the objects in pairs of anagrams; same letters, two different words. So for example there was a picture of Santa, and another of a devil. Santa/Satan, that’s a pair.
We did great at first, rattling off 5 or 6 pairs. But it got pretty difficult pretty quickly. So much so that we decided to pause and move on to another puzzle. But as I opened up the newspaper and folded it to a new page I realized that the puzzle we were working on wasn’t just on the front cover, it was also on the back! No wonder we got stuck, we were only working with half of the clues!
St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, teaches a similar lesson about the riches of the Christian faith. He explains very clearly that a person cannot understand the riches of God, the wisdom of God, the mysteries of God, the blessings and gifts of God, apart from the Spirit of God dwelling within them.
He writes, “… no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, so that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God” (I Corinthians 2.11-12). He goes on to explain, “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (I Corinthians 2.14).
It’s simply not possible to understand — to comprehend — the fullness of the gifts God has given to us — the blessing and joy of His love and mercy and salvation given to us through His crucified and risen Son — apart from His Spirit dwelling in us. Why? Because it is the Spirit of God who reveals these mysteries to us (I Corinthians 2.10).
We cannot get there on our own. It is not possible; like trying to solve a New York Times puzzle with only half the information. Goodness, the puzzle is mysterious enough when you’re working with all the clues! It’s impossible with only some.
I must confess up front that this is a poor analogy. It is deficient in many ways. For starters, God is not a “puzzle” to be solved. God is God. God is love. God is life; He is the source of life for all creation. He is the source of new life for broken hearts and sinful people. He has freely given to us this gift of salvation through his Son; the forgiveness of sins, healing of brokenness, new life that does not know death. I use the example of the incomplete puzzle to illustrate the futility of our struggle for spiritual meaning, apart from God’s Spirit dwelling in us.
In our search for meaning, and understanding of God’s Truth, if we are bereft of the Spirit of God, or we turn the gaze of our hearts away from God’s Spirit and towards our own spirit, or the spirit of the world (pneuma cosmos), it is like trying to understand the mysteries of a puzzle with only half a page. Not only is God’s Truth concealed, it is obscured. We very easily deceive ourselves into the assurance we are on the right path, only to be journeying deeper into darkness.
Apart from the Spirit of God dwelling in us, our search for meaning is an exercise in futility.
So it is that St. Paul implores us, along with the Church at Corinth and throughout the ages, to remember the Good News that as Christians we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
Through baptism and chrismation we are born of the Holy Spirit and anointed with the fullness of the gifts of the Spirit. We have received … the Spirit that is from God. The early church used language of illumination when referring to the Holy Spirit dwelling in us; like a lamp being lit. Christ who is the Light of the World fills us with his light through His Spirit dwelling in us. So it is that Our Lord who is the Light teaches saying, “You are the light of the world.” Meaning, not you in and of yourself, but by my Spirit dwelling in you.
Having received the Spirit that is from God, St. Paul teaches that we are now able “to understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.”
The Christian Faith is not simply a matter of gaining information or data. It is a matter of understanding and meaning. It is a matter of comprehension. There is a difference between knowing something, and understanding it. The Spirit of God dwelling in us enables us to understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.
In the early church there was catechesis for those preparing to be baptized, followed by what was called mystagogical catechesis. This was the teaching received after a person had been illumined by the Holy Spirit? So some of the teaching was actually saved, it was reserved, until after a person had received the Holy Spirit! Why? Because without the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, they would not be able to understand — to comprehend — the mysteries of God.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem, the 4th century Church Father, writes in his own catechetical instructions, “See, I pray you, how great a dignity Jesus bestows on you. You were called a Catechumen, while the word echoed round you from without; hearing of hope, and knowing it not; hearing mysteries, and not understanding them; hearing Scriptures, and not knowing their depth. The echo is no longer around you, but within you; for the indwelling Spirit henceforth makes your mind a house of God. When you shall have heard what is written concerning the mysteries, then will you understand things which thou knew not.”
What are these mysteries of God? What are these “gifts bestowed” on us by God? The Greek word St. Paul uses is charizomai which means “to give graciously, give freely.”
It comes from the same Greek word as charisma, meaning gift.
Which is from the Greek root word charis, which means “grace” itself. God’s favor, His goodness, and kindness, and mercy given freely to us. It is wholly unearned and undeserved. It cannot be taken or created, it can only be received. The gifts bestowed on us by God through His Son are, as St. Paul writes to the Ephesians “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright speaks to the riches of God’s gifts, and the mystery of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. He explains that St. Paul “clearly doesn’t mean that Christians automatically know everything about God, or why would Paul bother to write letters?” Illumined by the Holy Spirit dwelling in them, it means that Christians now “have open access to God’s mind”
He goes on, “… there is a wealth of knowledge and life-enhancing understanding waiting for us to explore. Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs and a rule-book for life, such as anyone could master in a weekend. It is as many-sided as the world itself, full of beauty and mystery and power, and as terrifying and wonderful as God himself. There is always much, much more to learn, to relish, to delight in.”
We cannot understand the things of God, the wisdom of God, the Truth of God, the mysteries of God except by the power of the Spirit of God dwelling in us. And even then, we cannot understand these mysteries in their fullness, this is not a simple matter of knowing or not knowing, light switch on, light switch off. The door has been opened for us through the Spirit dwelling in us to freely explore the mind of God through the mind of Christ.
As we ponder this teaching in the days ahead, I pray that this word of Truth would inspire in us several things:
First in Humility; at our own inability to comprehend the things of God by our own wisdom. How easily we slip into the fantasy that our knowledge and understanding, even if it is God’s Truth, is a result of our own cleverness, and not the result of God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us.
Second in Gratitude: for God’s unfathomable gift of Himself, His Holy Spirit, freely given to us so that we might understand the immeasurable gifts he bestows upon us through His Son. If this gift does not inspire in our hearts Great Thanksgiving, nothing will.
Third in Curiosity: to explore the wisdom and mystery and riches of God given to us through His Spirit. The idea that we know it all, we’ve learned it all, we’ve got it all put together or sorted out; surely that notion is of the devil himself. Through the Holy Spirit dwelling in us we have been given “access to the mind of God.” How can we resist this wonderful and awe-inspiring invitation to explore deeper and deeper these mysteries of love and grace and joy and hope and salvation given to us by God the Father through His Son, by the power of His Holy Spirit dwelling in us?
Off we go then, with humble and grateful hearts, further up and further in.