Perhaps the most common reason (of the many reasons) people come to religion is control. Life feels unpredictable. I’m not sure how to process what’s happening. I don’t feel like I have any semblance of power over my circumstances. Well, maybe I should try religion! Doesn’t that usually boil down to something like, “God can control the uncontrollable?” And if I obey certain rules, if I pray a particular way, and if I am a part of the right group then God will control things in my favor, right? So we develop practices, laws, and boundaries so that, effectively, we can control God (or at least control how he relates to us), and thus have some control over our untamable lives.
Christians have often been just as hung up on this way of using religion for the sake of control as people of any other faith. But Pentecost, the Sunday we are about to celebrate this week, ought to completely wreck this view of God and how to relate to God. Pentecost is about God’s gift of his Spirit.
In his book Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human, Steven Guthrie writes, “The very name ‘Spirit’ (ruach in Hebrew; pneuma in Greek) has an element of uncharted wildness about it.” That’s because ruach and pneuma both mean “spirit,” but they also mean “breath” or “wind.” Wind is something that is unpredictable and uncontrollable. It can be a gentle breeze to cool your face on a hot summer day, or it can be a raging storm with the power to uproot trees. It can be against you one minute and behind you the next.
Jesus, in a conversation with a very religious man names Nicodemus, makes use of this double meaning (“spirit” and “wind”) to make clear one of the most profound spiritual insights of all time:
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit (pneuma) gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind (pneuma) blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
Jesus is saying that God is not the kind of being you can control. You can’t control who gets access to him and the life he offers. You can’t control whom he blows toward. You can’t control where he goes next. God is not tamable, not even through our religious programs and practices. If that is why you’re into religion, you might as well chuck it.
But if you want a life with a God who is too powerful to be controlled by a practice, a God who is too surprising to be predicted by a preacher, and a God who is too creative to be constrained by a principle, then come to the God of Pentecost. I guarantee you he won’t disappoint.