Think of God’s plan as a series of Voices. The first voice, thunderingly loud, had certain advantages. When the Voice spoke from the trembling mountain at Sinai, or when fire licked up the altar on Mount Carmel, no one could deny it. Yet, amazingly, even those who heart the Voice and feared it–the Israelites at Sinai and at Carmel, for example–soon learned to ignore it. Its very volume got in the way. Few of them sought out that voice; fewer still persevered when the Voice fell silent.
The Voice modulated with Jesus, the Word made flesh. For a few decades the Voice of God took on the timbre and volume and rural accent of a country Jew in Palestine. It was a normal human voice, and though it spoke with authority, it did not cause people to flee. Jesus voice was soft enough to debate against, soft enough to kill.
After Jesus departed, the Voice took on new forms. On the day of Pentecost, tongues–tongues–of fire fell on the faithful, and the church, God’s body, began to take shape. That last Voice is as close as breath, as gentle as a whisper. It is the most vulnerable Voice of all, and the easiest to ignore. The Bible says the Spirit can be “quenched” or “grieved”—try quenching Moses burning bush or the molten rocks of Sinai! Yet that Spirit is also the most intimate Voice. In our moments of weakness, when we do not know what to pray, the Spirit within intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. Those groans are the early pangs of birth, the labor pains of the new creation.
The Spirit will not remove all disappointment with God. The very titles given to the Spirit—Intercessor, Helper, Counselor, Comforter—imply there will be problems. But the Spirit is also “a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come,” Paul said, drawing on an earthly metaphor from the financial world. The Spirit reminds us that such disappointments are temporary, a prelude to an external life with God.