“You are forever opposing the Holy Spirit,” Stephen tells the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:51. He is calling the members of the religious council enemies of the Holy Spirit, a bold claim.
Stephen is speaking truth to power. He tells the Sanhedrin they are just like their ancestors who persecuted the prophets and killed those who foretold the Messiah’s coming. They have received instruction from angels (7:53) and yet have become enemies of the Spirit.
Mennonites have been accused of having a dearth of theology surrounding the Holy Spirit. Some of our theologians have emphasized the Spirit’s importance, but compared with our charismatic siblings, it could be said we don’t focus on the Spirit enough.
I bring my own baggage to this conversation. Having had toxic religion in my past, I’ve been hurt by people telling me and others I love that “the Spirit has moved me to tell you . . .” What usually follows is something that directly benefits the person who felt the Spirit move, even if that benefit is just to look more righteous.
“The Spirit has moved me to tell you that you should be tithing more.” Someone said this to my brother who was on a limited income due to his disability.
“The Spirit has moved me to tell you that you need to pray to be given a spiritual gift.” I was a very devout person who spent all my free time at school or at church, but this person thought I needed to do more, just like her.
“The Spirit has moved me to tell you that you have backslid and need to confess.” When I ran away crying after hearing this, my friend bragged that she had “brought me back to right living.”
When I disconnected myself from the friends who were present, I heard my friend say, “No one talk to her. The Spirit is convicting her.” That was a catalyst in ending our friendship.
Due to experiences like these, I feel skeptical when someone tells me what the Spirit is telling them.
What encourages me about the Acts 7 story is that nothing Stephen says deviates from the Christian tradition. The charge of blasphemy brought against him was false. In his defense, Stephen tells the story of Jesus, saying that Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He recounts the story of Moses and Abraham along with other faithful people of God. He accuses the Sanhedrin of legalism, of refusing to bend with the movement of the Spirit. This is not meant to make Stephen look sanctimonious. He knows that what he says will lead to his death.
I do not mean for this to be a commentary on martyrdom but on manufacturing movements of the Spirit for one’s own gain. If people have used the “movement of the Spirit” (so called) to hurt you, I hope you can find comfort in a healthy connection to the Spirit, as Stephen did. I think Stephen’s transcendent focus on Jesus and the Spirit — atenzio, the Greek word for “gaze,” which describes Stephen looking to Jesus in verse 55 — could help us discern the Spirit’s true message.
Stephen did not give in to the intimidation and persecution he faced for defying the Sanhedrin. His message from the Spirit was both strong and full of love. In his last moments, Stephen asked God to forgive his murderers. Such courage and grace comes only from a long-term relationship of deep connection with the Divine.
Sometimes we throw ideas at the Holy Spirit to see if they stick. If we can’t muster any other support, we’ll at least be able to claim it was the Spirit that told us what to say or do.
If we really want the Spirit’s guidance, Galatians 5:22-23 is a good place to start. It lists the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the characteristics of a Spirit-filled life. Stephen exhibited love, peace and faithfulness, even unto death.
When I think back to the times the Spirit was weaponized toward me or others, I can see that the fruit of the Spirit was not evident. Instead there was condemnation, judgment, fear and self-importance. Those who oppose the Spirit haven’t borne the fruit of what an atenzio (gazing) connection produces. We work against the Spirit if we exhibit the antithesis of the Spirit’s fruits, including hate and an inflated sense of ourselves.
When Stephen was filled with the Spirit, he gazed into heaven and looked to Jesus. If we pay careful attention as Stephen did, listen carefully and reflect on the fruit of what we hear, then we can move in concert with the Holy Spirit.