On Pentecost, Without Fear

May 15, 2005 | 14 comments
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Today is Whitsunday, the Day of Pentecost, commemorating the day when the apostles “were all filled with the Holy Ghost,” as Jesus had promised they would be. I’ve written about Whitsunday before, about how I’ve never, to my knowledge, experienced any comparable spiritual manifestation or revelation, and also about those small gifts of belief that I yet hope are mine nonetheless. This year (coincidentally?), I find myself thinking about many related matters–about how much I yearn for some sort of clear answer or witness or sign or confirmation regarding what my family and I should do about this major decision which stands before us, and about what it would mean to not–perhaps to never–receive one. We’ve collected every bit of data we can; we’ve pestered friends and family and colleagues for advice and insight; we’ve prayed and fasted. And yet there it remains: a choice between paths which are both characterized by far more unknowns than knowns. If a choice is to be made, it will have to made without guidance from above.

Well, we’ve made our decision: a change of job, a change of location, and perhaps, depending on how the next year works out, a change of our life direction entirely. It’s a big and frightening decision, and I continue to wonder if it is the right one. At the same time though, I find that I am without fear.

I read Acts 1 and 2 this morning, refreshing in my mind the story of Whitsunday. And an interpretation occurred to me, one that begins in Acts 1:6-8. The apostles, after having been taught by the resurrected Lord for 40 days, desire Him to tell them, before He ascends to heaven, why He doesn’t restore Israel’s kingdom at that time. Jesus responded by reminding them that it is not for them (or us!) to know “the times or the seasons which the Father hath put in His own power.” But then He added the promise that they “shall receive power,” and moreover that they shall be His witnesses. How was Jesus’s response a full answer to their query? Perhaps because the desire to see the kingdom of Israel restored reflected not just an eschatological wish, but also something large and deep always connected to such wishes–namely, a hope for peace and security and comfort and consolation. A desire for a resolution, in other words: “restoration,” in all its meanings. And the Lord promised the Holy Ghost to His disciples, to sustain us until all times and seasons are fulfilled.

And then came the Day of Pentecost, and the arrival of the Holy Ghost as a “rushing mighty wind”, “with cloven tongues like fire”, bestowing gifts of the spirit. And what did the apostles do? They immediately went out to the people to preach, and they spoke to each person they met in their own tongue: Parthians and Cretans and Medians and Arabians and Romans and Libyans and more understood what the apostles were saying, and were all amazed. And then Peter–fearful, passionate Peter–stood up before them all, and condemned them and invited them, and testified that “God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

A powerful story, to be sure. But also, I think, a sign of the sort of comfort and peace of mind which the apostles had perhaps implicitly sought from the Lord before. Peter quoted King David before the crowd (talk about guts!), and talked about God’s promise that He would be “always before [our] face,” and by so doing He would make known to us the “ways of life.” This morning, as I read these passages, it struck me that the world the apostles confronted was a confusing, frightening one, filled with unknown peoples and tongues. They were a small and simple group; how could they testify of Christ “unto the uttermost part of the earth”? Well, God didn’t tell them how they could do it. He provided no method, no answer, no key, no promise–that is, no promise of success or even insight; He only promised that He would be with them, wherever they went. The gifts of the spirit that came upon them that Sunday did not restore the world to its proper order, or even give them a solution to its disorder; they only allowed them to make their way through that disorder, speaking as they needed to speak, when they needed to speak, to whom they needed to speak. It often seems to me that we find nothing so frightening as the ambiguity and open-endedness, the insecurity and unpredictability, of life itself, filled as it is with so many people and so many tragedies and so many unknowns. How could God possibly restore us unto ourselves, and calm our fears, in the face of such a reality? Well, one thing He could do, and the one thing I so desperately wish He would do, is provide knowledge and instruction and guarantees; to reveal to me (via angels or still small voices; I don’t care which) which path my family and I should take, or at least warn us away from the one we shouldn’t. I believe He does do this for many people, because the scriptures say so, and because I have heard testimonies of such messages and moments or dreams of inspiration and guidance all my life. But that is not all He may do. Another thing He may do is manifest His power in every path we may take, in every face we may encounter. That is, He may grace our life in such a way that, while what we most deeply desire may not be “restored” to us, we may yet find, through being His witnesses, that His attendance and concern are before us nonetheless. That’s not an answer, not a resolution or revelation or explanation; not really. It may not take away our questions and doubts. But it may (as in reading this account I think may finally and truly have been the case for Peter) sustain us with courage as we act and choose, and thus take away our fear.

Paul said something similar, much later on. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” God’s power, given to those who desire to commit to Him and receive His spirit, may not be (except for those few, special souls like Nephi) the power to set all things right, or even the power to set anything in any particular way at all. But it may be enough to allow us see God’s righteous hand in all settings and all ways, perhaps even enough to, without fear, speak and act and choose and make our way through all those ways, and know that we will be sustained. That is a great enough gift, I think.

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14 Responses to On Pentecost, Without Fear

  1. Melissa on May 15, 2005 at 2:59 pm

    Russell,

    Thanks for sharing this personal experience. I’ve always thought that fear was the antithesis of faith (as opposed to doubt) and so, to be able to move forward without fear, even without the explicit answer you seek, is a moving demonstration of your faith in God’s grace.

  2. Jim F on May 15, 2005 at 3:08 pm

    Amen to what Russell said; amen to what Melissa said.

  3. diogenes on May 15, 2005 at 4:35 pm

    Russell — I have often been in the same situation, apparently without an answer as to which path is right. Sometimes I have gotten rather clear or dramatic answers of the sort you mention, the sort we would all generally prefer. But I have come to believe that the influence of the Holy Ghost, at least for those of us who have had that Gift bestowed upon us, is more continuous and pervasive than we might think. Joseph Smith talked about the Spirit enlightening our understanding, and I have come to suspect that a decision that we have reasoned out, with fasting, study, and prayer, often is the right answer because of the clarity of thought that comes from the Spirit’s influence. This is a more hum-drum, day-to-day manifestation of the Spirit — if spiritual workings can be called hum-drum — but I think ultimately a more important function of the Spirit than the flashier ones that tend to catch our attention.

  4. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 15, 2005 at 5:46 pm

    Russell, I’ve blogged on silence …. though in this sort of case, once we have done what we should, God warns us if we have gone off-course, if the “off-course” is one that matters.

    Sometimes the path we take makes as much difference as what we name a cat or which car we buy.

    BTW, for the unstoppable threadjack, this time … http://forum.rockridgeinstitute.org/?q=dialogue05/day5

    But, seriously, sometimes the name of a cat or the brand of a car matters, other times, God says we can ride in chariots for all he cares, there are other things we need to be paying attention to.

  5. Russell Arben Fox on May 15, 2005 at 7:47 pm

    “I’ve always thought that fear was the antithesis of faith (as opposed to doubt)”

    That’s a tremendous insight, Melissa; I think I’ve had it before, but never really articlated it so straightforwardly. It’s interesting that Pope John Paul II’s constant refrain in his homilies and writings was “Be not afraid!” Someone can still act on faith in the midst of doubt, but what if one is too fearful to act at all?

  6. Bryan L on May 15, 2005 at 11:03 pm

    I think Brigham Young said something similar:

    If I do not know the will of my Father, and what He requires of me in a certain transaction, if I ask Him to give me wisdom concerning any requirement in life, or in regard to my own course, or that of my friends, my family, my children, or those that I preside over, and get no answer from Him, and then do the very best that my judgment will teach me, He is bound to own and honor that transaction, and He will do so to all intents and purposes. (Journal of Discourses, vol. 3:205)

  7. RoAnn on May 15, 2005 at 11:24 pm

    Wonderful post and comments. I, too, have had some of the insights mentioned above, but have usually been unable express them in such clear and articulate ways. Russell, I hope you and your family can continue to feel peace, even when inevitable setbacks and frustrations might tempt you to wonder if another path would have been better than the one you chose.

    Looking back on my fairly long life, I definitely agree that, as we choose to to accept it, God’s power (and as Melissa put it, “God’s grace”) is “enough to allow us see God’s righteous hand in all settings and all ways, perhaps even enough to, without fear, speak and act and choose and make our way through all those ways, and know that we will be sustained.”

  8. Miranda PJ on May 15, 2005 at 11:35 pm

    Such a couragious decision. I wish you the best.

    You use the Day of Pentacost as an analogue for your situation, and you truly shed light on the human condition. You’ve given an artful reading of this scripture, one that makes me wish that my own ability to read the scriptures was better than it is.

    The fear you describe is associated with your change. The fear I feel most often comes from the status quo. Is this where I belong? Am I stuck? Do I need to just let go of my sense of adventure? Do I need to readjust my expectations? I guess I’m in a funny position right now, and one that I never expected to be in. Sometimes I think it’s nothing serious, because it’s about where we live and how much we earn and other wordly concerns. I hold things together. I package myself up for church and put on my smiley face. I’m too young to have a mid-life crisis, but inside I can feel unhappy and fearful for the future. I’d seriously welcome a bit of uncertainty in my life right now.

    Melissa, your point about fear and faith are fitting. I can be such a control freak, and it drives people away. Losing my fear is about letting go. I need to have more faith. Faith in God and his ways and faith in others.

    But your words about faith have eased my mind. Paul also says that we should earnestly seek the best gifts. I’m trying to find peace, and your post has opened my mind to another way of looking at it.

  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on May 16, 2005 at 8:12 am

    I’d like a career in academia to work out here–but then, I’d like such a career to work out just about anywhere. But you can only tread water for so long. We’re looking to see what we can change, how we can respond to the new situation. I’m pretty sure we’ll give academia one year–probably here, but maybe somewhere else. And then? Well, five years is probably about as good a go as anyone can reasonably expect to give academia today. Come next April, if we don’t see any of that elusive security on the radar screen, we’ll likely be on our way to Plan B.

    But for now, I’ll just have to keep playing the hand I’m dealt.

    I can only add that many, many times, if we have worked things out and are headed in the right direction, God expects us to just keep going. If the changes we make are consistent with his will, sometimes all we hear is silence (since the Spirit accompanies us often more than we realize as we get used to it).

    Oliver Cowdrey had that problem, like all of us. He’d had significant direction from God, so he wanted more. Finally, God sent him a revelation reminding him of the past experience. I always found that part of the early Doctrine and Covenants important.

    Wish you well in your life. Appreciate your concerns and fears, but I wish you well.

  10. Rob on May 16, 2005 at 1:32 pm

    Russell, thanks for sharing your personal struggle, however I have to take issue with one thing you said–”If a choice is to be made, it will have to made without guidance from above.”

    Seems to me, you’ve been given a measure of peace about your decision. That means you haven’t had to make the decision alone.

    Also, the Lord has pretty clearly set a path for you by shutting down all the other opportunities you might have enjoyed and opened a window for you elsewhere.

    Far from making a decision without the Lord, I submit that he has been guiding you all along. Hope you can come to see that.

  11. Russell Arben Fox on May 16, 2005 at 3:23 pm

    You could be right, Rob. Still, it’s not the fact that “all the other opportunities” available were shut down–we could have stayed put. (Without assurance of anything long-term, of course…but then, we have no assurance of anything long-term anywhere else either.)

    In any case, I do think my family and I are enjoying a real gift in being able to act as we are. It’s not the gift we sought, but a real one nonetheless.

  12. Rob on May 16, 2005 at 4:14 pm

    True, Russell, you could stay. You could also have chosen to lay down on some railroad tracks, or taken a job at the local gas station, or started investing in state lottery tickets. There were unlimited such options available for you. But based on your career goals and the info you had, staying would have been only marginally better than the railroad option. So while you could have stayed and continued to get the same results there that you’ve gotten in the past, the only real option was to try something else…that something being the door the Lord opened up for you elsewhere.

    Glad you are embracing this new opportunity. Just don’t forget to confess the Lord’s hand in showing you the way to go here. You’ve been given a gift.

  13. Kelly Knight on May 17, 2005 at 9:43 am

    On a given Saturday, my oldest son and I made a trip to the city dump to get rid of some of the yard waste we had accumulated. Driving south, South Mountain was in our view.

    The next day being Fast Sunday, my son stood to bear his testimony and made an interesting observation. Apparently, as we drove toward South Mountain, he started thinking about the passages in scripture that speak of having faith sufficient to move mountains. And this is the observation: Not always are the mountains we must move physical and literal. More often they will be figurative. Perhaps overcoming a particular bad habit, or coping with the loss of a loved one, or making a move that will completely change one’s way of life.

    Russel, the Lord will help you move this mountain. Your lack of fear, as others have mentioned, is a clear indication of a correct choice. Though on a much lessor scale, I have purchased equipment for my business lately that required a credit line against my home. I have other equipment to purchase as well. On the one hand, I have no reservation about one piece, and total reservation about the other. So, I bought the one, and will put off the other till such time as peace comes to my heart, and the abscence of fear is the order of the day.

    Best wishes, and may that mountain be leveled. (Personally, I grew up in the Rocky Mtn’s of Colorado, and it will be a shame to see them leveled for the sake of paradise. On the other hand, I can’t wait to see what God has in store for me if I am faithful.)

  14. Floyd the Wonderdog on May 18, 2005 at 11:15 am

    When I completed graduate school, I had to make the choice between a few interesting job offers. When I prayed about it, the answer I received was that the Lord cared more about how I raised my children rather than were they were raised. That helped focus me on teaching my children and helping them to become the people the Lord would want them to be. As it turned out, I left my initial job after two years.