Certain events in life can utterly crush us, unless we have the power and solace of the Holy Spirit who can heal terrible wounds in our souls and help us endure unspeakable circumstances.
The call over the intercom for Dr. Matthew Sleeth brought him out of his break; there was no point of being irritated. Interruptions were par for the course in the ER. This particular case was a young man who had shot himself in the head but was still breathing. Dr. Sleeth intubated the young man, pushed for resuscitation and went to answer the next emergency call.
Almost a year later, he was working with a quadriplegic young man who had an infection. The patient was pleasant, polite, apologetic for his difficulty pronouncing words, eager to do anything so he could join his family for Thanksgiving.
Dr. Sleeth left the room only to be stopped by a nurse who told him, “Matthew, do you know who the patient is in room 5?” He obviously knew the young man’s name from the charts, but the nurse shook her head. “It’s the man you saw last spring who shot himself. His parents are on their way. They specifically asked if you would be here when they arrive in an hour.”
Trepidatious, the doctor waited to meet the young man’s mother and father. “My anxieties were soon allayed,” he wrote. “The parents literally fell on my neck in thanks. The mother kissed me. The father kissed me. They kept repeating, ‘You gave us our son back!’…’He got his faith back!’
“Got his faith back. I had heard this phrase before, but at that point in my life I don’t think I’d ever personally met someone who had made this claim…. If pressed, I think some of my friends might have acknowledged belief in an abstract creator who started up the world and was off doing whatever one does for an encore after creating a universe. But a God who could change lives? Answer prayers? Offer hope? Yet here before me was someone who had actually made the choice to die and come as close to it as one can possibly get, and though he would never walk and might never get a job, marry, or have children, he was now glad to be alive.”
Dr. Matthew Sleeth reflected, “Hearing about the power of faith is one thing. Seeing it firsthand is another… As an atheist, I did not understand everything that was taking place that day… To them, the future was ablaze with light, life, and possibilities in a way my atheism could not explain.”
The Unique Gift to Believers
While the Bible does say that God grants certain general blessings on everyone, he also reserves a particular kind of peace and grace for his people.
In a sermon, David Wilkerson challenged his listeners by asking, “What is the advantage that you have as a believer over a non-believer, beyond salvation itself?... It's the supernatural comfort of the Holy Ghost. It's the wonderful experience of having him come and convey and communicate the love of God into our hearts.”
He pointed to the Lord’s promise to console his people, which God gave to the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip and bounced upon her knees. As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice; your bones shall flourish like the grass; and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants” (Isaiah 66:12-14, ESV).
God personally comforting his people in such an intimate way would’ve seemed like an incredible, nearly impossible promise to the people of Isaiah’s day.
This was the God who smote King Uzziah with leprosy for attempting to burn incense in the Temple instead of letting the priests do it. This was the God who dwelt in the Holy of Holies where only the high priest could go once a year. This was the God who killed hundreds of Israelites for their rebellion in the desert.
This same God would also come close to his people and tenderly carry them? So much of the law was set in place to show how impossibly sinful people were, to demonstrate our dire need for an atonement that could last, but what would that be? All the sacrifices of sheep and rams and bulls hadn’t been able to do it. There was no way for God to come so close to his people without them dying from the sheer conflict of their sinfulness and his holiness.
The disciples probably also struggled to comprehend how this would work when Jesus told them, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:26-27).
How could God ever come so close to sinful people? How were they ever going to be comforted in spite of the overwhelming unfairness and evil in the world? How was God personally going to teach them, if Jesus was going away? None of this made sense, trying to look in from the outside.
The Lamp to Our Feet and Souls
Although modern believers live on the other side of the cross, David Wilkerson pointed out that many still have a very incomplete understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work. “Some people know about the Holy Ghost that he comes down and you speak with tongues. There is a ministry the Holy Ghost had been sent to do, a specific work. We've got to understand that work. He is a comforter. He has been sent to communicate the love of God and of Jesus Christ into our hearts. He has come to heal; he's come to revive us. He's come to minister to us.”
He pointed again to the book of Isaiah. “For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15).
“God is saying, ‘I have to send the Holy Ghost and I have to bring comfort and revive my children or they're going to give up and despair.’…
“The Holy Spirit says, ‘I know everything that you've done. Every thought that you've thought, every failure that you’ve had. I know wherein you have grieved me’, but he says, ‘I've seen it all, and yet I will heal you. I will speak peace to your heart, and then I will lead you out of this place of bondage, out of this place of fear. I will lead you on.’”
Part of this comfort is perhaps counterintuitive at first. The Spirit convicts God’s people of sin, revealing our own harmful actions and selfish motivations to us. He ushers us toward repentance and a right relationship with God. This puts our hearts at peace because we were designed to obey God.
The other counterintuitive part of this peace is the promise of hardship if we serve Christ. Peter wrote to the early church, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13, ESV). Our struggles and trials here on earth are not the blind machinations of an unfair world; they have been given a purpose by a loving God. We will meet him face-to-face one day and see the glorious results of our present pains, and that is a great comfort indeed.
God gives his peoples an infallible compass for the right way through a starless night, an eternal lantern so we aren’t stumbling blind and an eternal Comforter until time finally wraps itself up and finishes.
The Answer to Four Questions
Dr. Matthew Sleeth would come to Christ in his 40s, give up his positions as emergency room physician and chief of the hospital medical staff, and begin teaching about how science supports scripture.
The memory of how faith changed his young patient’s trajectory, taking it from the brink of death back into something effervescent, would became a key component in his writing the book Hope Always: How to Be a Force for Life in a Culture of Suicide. In it, he would describe that young man’s story and then muse about the many other ways that we try to bring meaning into our lives without God. “All of these things — when used as an avenue to provide purpose and meaning in life — will ultimately disappoint.
“They fail to answer the big questions in life: Why am I here? What is my purpose? How will I find meaning and happiness? What happens to me when I die? No matter how big or small we think, no matter how many ways we choose to distract and entertain ourselves, if our philosophy of life doesn’t have answers for these questions, we will have difficulty making it through the tough times that each of us inevitably encounters.”
Why am I here? Because God chose to create me and then redeem me.
What is my purpose? To glorify God with my life and enjoy him in both this world and eternity.
How will I find meaning and happiness? Ultimately, by listening for God’s call, submitting to his discipline and obeying scripture.
What happens to me when I die? God will gather me up and complete the process of sanctification that his Spirit began in me.
God not only gives us the answers to those four crucial questions, but he also grants us the Holy Spirit who sings out those answers to our hearts in our darkest moments. That knowledge should feel us with peace, joy and gratitude.