In his article in The New York Times yesterday (May 17, 2016), David Brooks asked the question, ‘What is the central challenge facing our era? My answer would be: social isolation’, he wrote.
My answer would be: ‘Isolation from God’. TS Eliot once wrote, Hell is oneself, hell is alone, the other figures in it merely projections.
In John 16:5-6 we read Jesus’ words to his disciples as he walked with them one more time before his arrest and crucifixion: “But now I am going to him who sent me; yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.”
The more he spoke of his ‘going away’, the more depressed his disciples became. Aware of this he used these last hours to assure them that his going would not be the disaster they anticipated. But, as so often happens, self-pity blinded them to the deeper, hidden purposes of God.
In John 16:7 we read: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate (Helper) will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”
Sometimes we can feel isolated from God— sometimes by feelings of failure, of unworthiness, sickness or grief. What Jesus was saying to his first followers, he also says to us today, ‘Don’t despair. I am making a promise that makes it possible for you to experience me in your life.’
Indeed, the Spirit opens our eyes to our need: “And when he comes, he will convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:8-11).
Jesus’ words seem cryptic, but when we consider them their meaning is clear. The Holy Spirit’s work is to awaken us to our isolation from God. Why is it that someone who has lived a life of indifference or even hostility towards God can suddenly be aware of their sin and their need for personal salvation? CS Lewis was in his thirties when he came ‘kicking and screaming’ into God’s kingdom. It is the Spirit who convicts the world of sin, righteousness and judgment.
The word convict is a technical word in the original language, meaning to cross-examine a hostile witness. Jesus was saying that the Spirit would also challenge and awaken our conscience.
Was this really new? Wasn’t King David convicted of his affair with Bathsheba? When we consider Jesus’ words, we see there’s a significant change in the way the Spirit works. There is a new definition of sin. The Spirit convicts us of sin, not simply because we break the Ten Commandments, but because we don’t acknowledge Jesus as our rightful ruler. We choose to be isolated from him.
This is most significant – for us personally and for our outreach. The question God will one day ask all of us is this: ‘What did you do with my Son?’
Some twelve months ago eleven heroin smugglers were executed in Indonesia. Two of them were Australians. One of them, Andrew Chan, had turned to Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior during his long imprisonment. The Spirit of God had convicted him of his sin and accountability to God. When I read this I thought of one of the two criminals crucified with Jesus who had said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ The Spirit awakens us to our need for forgiveness from God so that we may be longer isolated from him.
David Brooks’ solution to the issue of isolation is to build meaningful community, ‘One community at a time’. It’s a good idea – as far as it goes. Jesus’ solution goes to the heart of our real isolation, our isolation from God. When we turn to the Lord Jesus, he, the Lord of the universe, promises to come into our lives in the person of his Spirit. What is more, he builds us into the new community of his people. But that’s another theme for another day.
To know Christ is never to be alone. As King David could say, Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me… (Psalm 23:4a).
© John G. Mason