Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit
Mark 3:20-35 came up in my daily lectionary. Here’s the full text:
20Jesus went back home, and once again such a large crowd gathered that there was no chance even to eat.21When Jesus’ family heard what he was doing, they thought he was mad and went to get him under control.
22Some teachers of the Law of Moses came from Jerusalem and said, “This man is under the power of Beelzebul, the ruler of demons! He is even forcing out demons with the help of Beelzebul.”
23Jesus told the people to gather around him. Then he spoke to them in riddles and said:
How can Satan force himself out?24A nation whose people fight each other won’t last very long.25And a family that fights won’t last long either.26So if Satan fights against himself, that will be the end of him.
27How can anyone break into the house of a strong man and steal his things, unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can take everything.
28I promise you that any of the sinful things you say or do can be forgiven, no matter how terrible those things are.29But if you speak against the Holy Spirit, you can never be forgiven. That sin will be held against you for ever.
30Jesus said this because the people were saying that he had an evil spirit in him.
I’ve heard several stories of people terrified that they accidentally blasphemed the Holy Spirit, which Jesus very clearly says can never be forgiven. Most of the time they don’t really know what they think they think blaspheming the Holy Spirit is, but it’s easy for this text to get twisted into fear.
The first question: what is blaspheming the Holy Spirit?
According to this text, the only place it is said, it is calling the work of God on Earth evil. It is not about having wrong theology about the Holy Spirit. It is not about using the Holy Spirit’s name in vain. It is not about ever thinking maybe the Holy Spirit doesn’t exist.
The Holy Spirit moves where she wills. God is very active in our world now, same as then. And yet, sometimes people in the name of God fight against what God is doing. I’m sure we’ve all done it so some degree, sometimes with what seem like very good reasons like protection of somebody else or our understanding of the Bible.
Where I try to be careful is about loud declarations that God can’t possibly be a part of something that’s happening, unless it is something that is blatantly evil (I do reject the Calvinist idea that God commits evil as well as good). For example, I recently say fellow MennoNerd Ben Corey share some words from Pat Robertson. There was a comment surprised that Ben would listen to him. Yet it seemed like a good, loving thought, even though some other things out of Robertson’s mouth very clearly are not. I see no reason to dismiss that as not from God – in fact, I see it as the Holy Spirit working through him. We don’t need to think in all-or-nothing, perfect-prophet-or-demon.
The second question: should we really take “never” to the literal extreme?
I’m inclined to think this is standard Jewish hyperbole. It is pretty clear in a lot of other places that God has forgiven every sin. Why would this be an exception? Coupled with the wrong ideas about what it is, this can be very harmful. Even with the healthier idea, most of us have probably done it multiple times, at least in thought if not in spoken words. Is Jesus the kind of God who would reject you forever for being blind to his actions once?
Using the word “never” understates the seriousness of the problem. It was a serious problem in Jesus’ day, up to the point that they killed God incarnate because they were convinced he was evil – with good reasons to think that, starting with their biblical interpretation.
It’s the original sin: eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. We claim to be able to tell who is the sinless prophet and who is a demon. Often we’re wrong, since we tend to restrict the Spirit to a tiny box that conveniently thinks exactly like us.
When we do so, we reject the opportunity to join in on what God is doing, or sometimes we actively fight against it. It isn’t that God is rejecting us for thinking the wrong thing, it is that by definition we are rejecting God. “Never” is hyperbole, but the more we continue to deny what God is doing, the harder it becomes to see what God is doing, the more we play God in a little judgemental box, and the harder it is to realize the radical love of God offered to ourselves.
So don’t be afraid of accidentally committing something God is incapable or unwilling to forgive, but take the warning seriously to keep our eyes open to God at work all around us and seize those opportunities to join in.