The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Last week The Sundance Channel ran an enthralling documentary with the abstract-expressionist painter, Agnes Martin (1912-2004). At the tender age of 86 when it was shot, she quickly dispenses with questions about her technique to discuss inspiration’s role in her work. While Martin offers no Christian claim—one senses a heavy leaning toward New Age mysticism in her parlance—it’s evident she associates inspiration with unnatural faith, which she positions as the polar opposite of intellectualism, or what we call “natural logic.” Her opinions of why an inspired life is superior to intellectual existence can’t be argued, as they’re always backed by sage pragmatism. Martin admits she paints with her “back to the world,” ignoring its notions of achieving success to receive inspiration as it comes. In a comment (also featured in the clip below), she says: “I don’t have any ideas myself. I have a vacant mind in order to do exactly what the inspiration calls for… And after I have it, I make up my mind that I’m not going to interfere.”
Martin’s endorsement of vacancy stunned me into a deeper understanding of why modern believers find it so challenging to “live by faith, not by sight,” as Paul defines Christian discipleship in 2 Corinthians 5.7. From the moment we enter the world, our human intellect declares war on the divine inspiration—the very breath of God—that gives us life. Beings He creates to obey His will join battle with personalities we create to will earthly survival. Genesis 3.7 explains once Adam and Eve ate the Knowledge Tree’s fruit, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked.” Immediately after our first breath replicates the miracle of creation, the tragedy of transgression repeats itself. We open our eyes and realize we’re vulnerable. We start learning, filling our heads with facts and concepts. Inspiration loses ground to intellect. Trust gives way to doubt. But we weren’t created to see. God made us to be. As Martin so beautifully puts it, we vacate our minds to be what He inspires us to be, and we discipline our thoughts not to interfere. We live by faith, not by sight.
Peace and Purpose
Catching the Martin film over Pentecost weekend jogged my memory of the Bible’s second instance of divine inspiration. In John 20, despite Mary Magdalene’s news of Jesus’s resurrection, the disciples stay hunkered down behind locked doors, still trembling in fear of the hostile crowd that crucified their Master. It’s evening, hours after Mary’s tomb-side encounter, yet nothing has inspired faith in her report or courage to venture out and find Jesus. On the plus side, however, the disciples haven’t the slightest idea about what to do next. Their vacancy provides the perfect opportunity for inspiration. Jesus comes to them, unhindered by their padlocks. “Peace be with you!” He says, repeating it after He shows them His wounded hands and side and adding, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Then, John writes, Jesus breathes on them, commanding them to “receive the Holy Spirit.” He literally inspires them.
Combining the Genesis story of God’s breath of life with John’s account of Jesus’s breath of the Holy Spirit opens a fascinating insight about inspiration. God’s breath inspires us to be and live; Jesus’s breath inspires us to believe. Circumstances beyond their control force the disciples to turn their backs to the world, disabling their natural logic and priming their unnatural faith. Prior to breathing on them, Jesus does one final sweep, as it were, to clear any lingering intellectual anxiety and indecisiveness. He speaks peace and purpose to their minds. “Stop worrying,” He says, “and start believing. If you believe the Father sent Me, believe I am sending you.” Knowing they’ll never drive back the onslaught of natural logic unaided, Jesus’s breath presages the filling of the Holy Spirit. It occupies the disciples, leaving no room for interference.
The Inspired Life
We experience, enjoy, and reap the benefits of the inspired life by shifting our focus from survival to being, trusting rather than seeing. We turn our backs to the world, rejecting its fears and logic in favor of embracing God’s peace and purpose. In 2 Timothy 1.7, we read: “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” The inspiration of the Holy Spirit gives us power to evict fear, replace it with love, and discipline ourselves against negative reasoning that interferes with what God inspires us to do.
Following our minds limits us to what we visibly perceive; it feeds a survival mentality keyed to view everything as a potential threat. It’s a lousy way to go, though, because it hangs us up trying to figure out what’s really happening and leads nowhere God created us to be. Although Agnes Martin brilliantly clarifies “inspiration” in the abstract, she echoes concrete wisdom Solomon captured thousands of years ago: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your paths.” (Proverbs 3.5-6) God’s breath inspires us to acknowledge Him in every way. The breath of Christ inspires us to trust Him in lieu of understanding. God’s direction always looks hard and often turns out harder than it looks. But after Jesus speaks peace and purpose to our minds, we press on by faith, knowing if He sends us we’ll never go wrong.
Listen carefully to Agnes Martin’s approach to painting and you’ll hear an inspiring metaphor for faith. (Apologies for the poor sound/image synchronization—it’s the best clip I could find.)
(Tomorrow: Above All Else)
Postscript: Online Bible Study
Well, as they say, the people have spoken and the votes for when best to hold an online Bible study are (as they also say) too close to call. Thus, it makes the most sense to accommodate both sides. While I finalize the details of the host site, mark your calendars for either—or both—of these dates: Thursday, June 11, at 8 PM CDT and Saturday, June 13, at 11 AM CDT. Within the week, I’ll publish the site location and other pertinent information. By next week I hope to complete a brief study guide for those interested in thinking about the topic, reading the selected texts, etc., in advance.
Thanks to everyone who either voted or emailed their preferences. Your enthusiasm ensures this will be an exciting venture we’re sure to enjoy together.
Finally, of course, you’re all welcome to participate, whether or not you voted in the poll. The more the merrier! (As they say…)