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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fellowship and the Freedom of the Self

As I think about the community of Christ and the 21st century fellowship of believers, there is the question of the freedom of the self. What does it mean for the self to be free? What is the role of the fellowship of believers in this freedom?

In Paul's letter to the Galatians, freedom is one of the primary concerns. Whatever the precise nature of the issue, it is clear from chapter four that the Galatian believers were being encouraged to observe various laws and obligations as the basis of their faith: "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you."

They were being goaded back into slavery to law, rather than being set free. Law was replacing freedom.

In chapter three, we find that not only does law replace freedom, but when law is central to faith, the Spirit takes a back seat: "Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?"

In other words, the point is not to be set free by the Spirit and then go back to a life of law; rather, the believer begins the life of faith with the Spirit and continues walking the life of faith with that same Spirit. It is not by law, but by the Spirit that believers are set free.

Paul sums up his exhortation to the Galatians in chapter five by saying, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery....You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace."

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free! What would it look like to cultivate fellowships of freedom? What power might our fellowships have in this day and age if we looked to set each other free to live the Spirit and not by law?

In his 1983 lecture "The Culture of the Self," Michel Foucault discusses at length the care of the self as it was conceived by the ancients, particularly the Greeks and also the aesthetic Christians. At the end of his first lecture, Foucault briefly discusses a few reasons why the care of the self seems to have disappeared in the contemporary age. One the reasons he notes is the manner in which the self is instructed about itself. Essentially, he suggests that our notion of self is imposed on us either by authoritarian/disciplinarian structures (schools, etc.) or it is the result of mass media. His comment here is noteworthy:

"Most of those techniques of the self have been integrated in our world in educational and pedagogical, in medical and psychological techniques. The techniques of the self have been embedded either in some authoritarian and disciplinarian structure or substituted for and transformed by public opinion, mass media, and polling techniques, which play a formative role in our attitude towards the others and toward ourselves so that the culture of the self is imposed on people by the other and the culture of the self has lost its independence." [Lecture 1, The Culture of the Self]

For Foucault, the notion of "self" is imposed on us; it is not the result of personal and independent cultivation. Rather than an independent self that cultivates itself and cares for itself, we in the 21st century live in an era where our identity and notion of "self" is either imposed on us or it is the result of media and market/advertising manipulation. Usually, our concept of self winds up being a mixture of multiple inputs, most of which are damaging. So, for example, we may grow up in communities (secular or sacred) where we are given a dogmatic definition of who we are, with little room for personal exploration. Our dogma denies us the independence to explore the self. Religion, social class, ethnicity, education, etc. all define the self.

In addition, we are manipulated by advertising, marketing, or political media so that we will behave in a certain way: buy this, buy that, support this candidate/legislation, act a certain way at work, etc. As we talked about in Market, Brand, and Sacrament, meaning is dictated by advertising. What the self should value is determined by fad and fashion. As Foucault suggested 25 years ago, our concept of self is imposed on us and we lose our independence.

In other words, the self is controlled, manipulated, and conformed; the self is not free. There may be many who read this and find it ridiculous. America is the land of the free. If anyone is free, it is Americans. And while it is certainly true that we have the blessed opportunity to cultivate an independent self, we are most often controlled and manipulated for the interests of the institutions, corporations, and political organizations. Institutions in America rarely (if ever) exist to set the self free; rather, they exist for advancing agendas, values, and corporate bottom lines.

American Christianity is no stranger to this system. It is most often organized around Movements. It exists for its own values, agendas, and fund raising. Often it exists for its own sake and not the sake of the fellowship of all believers. As such, it is the modern reconstruction of the "I am of Paul. I am of Apollos. I am of Christ" disputes that Paul addressed in his letter(s) to the Corinthians. We each have our loyalties to a particular denomination, church, parachurch organization, favorite theologian or theological movement, etc. Even the so-called Emerging church is, sadly, just another in a long line of Christian Movements. Rarely do movements exist to set the self free to care for itself or to understand and cultivate the self.

A believer who understands the call to Christian freedom, however, and the freedom of the self to explore faith with honesty and integrity--this Christ follower will leave behind these silly squabbles and rise above the fray to a higher calling and a more pure pursuit. Religious movements are built by conforming and controlling people--imposing a concept of self on an individual; but a Christian fellowship is founded on freedom. "It is for freedom that Christ has set you free." The believer is respected as a unique individual who is not first and foremost a product of the Movement; instead, each believer is set free to understand faith and to define what "faith" means for that individual and their own situation in life.

So, if we combine these insights from Paul and Foucault to our discussion of freedom, I would suggest that the community of Christian believers ought to be a fellowship of freedom. The respect for each individual's personal exploration of faith is of paramount importance. When there are forums of freedom, we can then begin to understand the self and care for the self. These forums of freedom are brothers and sisters in Christ sharing their hearts and lives with one another in honesty, openness, and freedom.

Community as the starting point for understand each other and caring for the self. Cultivating the self does not occur in a vacuum. The self cannot understand itself without others. Individualistic anarchy is always the worst scenario. But the self cannot authentically explore itself without freedom from others.

In summary, there is this very strange and bizarre scenario: Christian brothers and sisters cannot flourish without each other, but they cannot grow in community unless that same community sets them free. "It is for freedom that Christ has set you free." Will God raise up Christian leaders with the courage and vision to set people free? And is God raising up people who want their freedom? Are there those who truly long to understand and cultivate their self?


Kevin Winters said...

Freedom always occurs within the constraints of culture--which gives us the first understanding of what it is one does, the first level of intelligibility--and individual striving--the content of which is first, I don't know if I want to say 'determined,' but perhaps within the horizon of culture (with all the indeterminacy and openness that that word implies).

But I don't know if we should term the freedom of believers as each person defining faith for themselves. Rather, I think we should see it as creating the open space of inquiry where we actively discuss our faith, its content and structure. In this sense it is an inherently meditative community, one that actually takes time away from other concerns to simply sit and become present with their experiences and thoughts. On this point Groothuis is correct: we need to slow down in our consumer community.

I've recently (within the last month) been trying very hard to slow down in this way, to tear myself away from my habit of always having to have two or three things happening at once (studying and watching the TV/a movie being one of my primary vices) and it seems to have had a great impact not only on the clarity of my thinking but also a 'lightness of being,' a feeling of unburdening which is something I haven't felt for a long time (or don't ever recall feeling).

Perhaps, somewhat paradoxically, we can become free only by often 'not-doing', or perhaps 'doing' in a different modality of simple contemplation and meditation. Then we can see the cultural sedimentations and habits that we have been enured by and thereby give us the 'vision' to see that we can also change, that our current world is not the totality, but rather one semi-coherent world among others. Of course, this has to be done with care for fear of then just going the other extreme into relativism. It's a tricky thing, being free.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Kevin, thanks for you insightful commentary and personal reflections. You said:

But I don't know if we should term the freedom of believers as each person defining faith for themselves. Rather, I think we should see it as creating the open space of inquiry where we actively discuss our faith, its content and structure. In this sense it is an inherently meditative community, one that actually takes time away from other concerns to simply sit and become present with their experiences and thoughts. On this point Groothuis is correct: we need to slow down in our consumer community.

I think what I am going for in saying that each person should define their own faith is that I am reacting against the practice of conforming one's self to the norms of the community. This can become conformity for conformities sake. Usually leaders like to see their followers step in line with the norms, but I question whether or not we should poke people a bit more sometimes: "I know this is what we believe about the self, but is this really what you believe about the self?"

I look around and it seems to me that religion is competing in the market place in the same way as the corporations and corporate branding. A cereal company generates an image of the person who eats their cereal; a shaving lotion company creates an image of the self who uses the lotion; a lipstick company creates an image of the sexy, confident female self who uses the brand. All of these are designed to market not a product, but an image of the person who uses the product. It sells us a philosophy of self.

Religion in America often uses the same kind of techniques: this is the self who joins our movement/religion/church and buys our books/DVDs/devotional guide/etc. The self gets predetermined; it's just like corporate branding.

Freedom would reverse the paradigm, I think, and suggest that we (the religious community) do not define your self, you define the self. And this process of definition is a careful and (as you say, Kevin) slow-down process that involves care (Foucault) and even struggle and pain.

jps said...


I submit that you are trying to get to Galatians 4 & 5 without going through Galatians 2 first. I know, you've heard it before! But, if we try to have freedom of self without first going through the "death to self" and resurrection as a new being in Christ, all we have is a bunch of unregenerate selves running around trying to define who they are. But, if we first die to the old self and allow Christ's life to become our life, then and only then can we experience true freedom of self to become all that God intended us to be.


Jonathan Erdman said...


What do you mean by "death of self"? This is no small question.

In the American market place, one can witness a death of self and a conformity to the images that corporate advertising uses to sell its product. The religious institution has an objective to predetermine the self to fit its institutional agenda, thus the death to self simply means conformity and submission to the powerful spiritual elites. Also, political institutions have their own power-advancing agendas.

So, there are many institutions that preach a death-to-self message, and all of them have in mind a conformity that denies the self its ability to reflect inwardly and outwardly. It crucifies personality, creativity, and originality.

Did Paul in Galatians 2 have in mind such a death of self? A death of self that was merely a control mechanism for the institution/powerful?

jps said...


Absolutely not! Paul is envisioning a death to the old self, the one enslaved to sin. In its place he envisions a resurrected self, filled with Christ via the Holy Spirit.

This new self is free from fleshly lusts, hence Madison Avenue tricks don't work on it. This new self is free from delusions of power, since it knows that all true power belongs to God, so it is free from the manipulation of earthly powers. This new self is in tune with the Holy Spirit, listening to what God is saying, so it is able to speak a prophetic word—encouraging or rebuking—into each situation.

This new self is truly a self, but its motivating power is no longer subject to the earthly realm, so it is more truly you than any other self you might try to construct via whatever narrative you might try to substitute for the God-given one derived from the Holy Spirit.


Ken said...


I am curious as to what you think Paul is referring to in Galatians 6:2 where he refers to "the law of Christ." This comes after Paul has already said "For freedom Christ has set us free." So apparently the freedom Paul is referring to is not freedom of self to do anything, but freedom to live according to some "law" Christ has established. It cannot be the mosaic law, for that is what Paul is arguing against throughout the book.

So apparently even in the quest for Christian freedom we are not truly free in the free-est sense.

And, just to note, here is what I believe "the law of Christ" is; the requirement to live self-sacrificial life devoted to God and fellow man for the purpose of worshiping God and drawing others into that worship. This is still very much open to tweaking, but it is a good working definition.

ktismatics said...

"Paul is envisioning a death to the old self, the one enslaved to sin."

In Galatians Paul talks mostly about being enslaved to the Law. Even the "die to self" bit in Gal. 2:20 comes hot on the heels of the prior verse: "For through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God." There's a sense in which Law and the old self are bound up with each other in a death spiral: both of them have to go in order that the new self might live freely in the Spirit.

"This new self is free from fleshly lusts"

But the Law isn't going to restrain these lusts. Paul isn't preaching ascetic denial of the flesh; he's looking for a freeing of the self in such a way that the flesh itself becomes an expression of the Spirit. As Paul says in the second half of v. 20: "and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God."

"in the quest for Christian freedom we are not truly free in the free-est sense."

Given Paul's insistence on dying to the Law and living the new life of freedom through faith, one might expect Christians to be more willing to tolerate a few excesses of liberty in the process of learning to walk in the Spirit.

Kevin Winters said...


Your description seems to be describing Christ and certainly not anyone I know or have heard of. If a life in Christ is possible, it must be possible for someone who actually has faults, which your born-again description doesn't have.

That is part of the problem and, I think, part of Jon's problem: we put up these paragons of righteousness without seeing that their faults are actually part of who they are. So we go describing the born-again individual like a whitewashed house, all the dust pushed under the rug, the spots on the carpet covered with rugs or furniture, and everything looking peachy keen! I know that is a problem in my religious tradition: people don't like their religious leaders to be human...

ktismatics said...

We need to invoke some kind of "alternate reality theory." In one reality the Law and the old self stand in perpetual opposition to each other. This opposition results in the divided self conundrum Paul describes in Romans 7, where he simultaneously wants to obey the Law and to disobey it. Then there's another reality in which the Spirit and the new self cohabit peacefully. In this other reality personal motivation isn't tormented by external constraints and the obedience/disobedience impasse. Instead motivation is internal, guided by Spirit, freed by love. Theoretically anyway.

daniel said...

(Romans 7:14-21)

For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin.

For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.

If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.

Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.

For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.

Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.

Paul rights this as a born-again believer. WE take the struggle to another level as Christians, it does not vanish, it is a cross we bear daily and are all the more human for it.

The law is spiritual: its meaning can only be understood spiritually, that is through the meaning brought to it by Christ as the fulfilment of the law.

These were just a few thoughts prompted by a most interesting post. Thanks Jon once more.

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death Romans 8:2

Note there is a law of the Spirit; hence freedom and law are not opposites. Freedom exists within boundaries which give freedom its definition and meaning.

ktismatics said...

As I read it, Romans 7 describes the conflict between the old self and the Law that invariably results in sin and death. This conflict is irresolvable unless the old self dies, thereby ending its ill-fated marriage to the Law. But the old self doesn't disappear altogether: it, like Christ, is resurrected as the new self. No longer married to the Law, the new self is free to join itself to the Spirit.

This whole section you cited, Daniel, recapitulates v. 1-12. V. 13 poses the question: how could this marriage to the Law have gone so badly, given that the Law is good? Paul answers with a more personal example of why the marriage didn't work out. And he concludes in v. 24-25 with the death of the old self and the resurrected new self in Christ -- a restatement of v. 4-6.

The difficulty comes in forsaking this old reality once and for all, this old marriage that's already dead and buried through the death of the old self. Living in this old reality brings back from the grave that persistent and demoralizing undead sense of inadequacy from which Christ already provided the escape. Let that old marriage go! Be free of the Law! Live a new life in the Spirit! *closes in prayer*

daniel said...

That's interesting Kt, I thought Paul was speaking from a position of being made new spiritually, but still putting to death the flesh - not a once-off achievement, but an ongoing process.

I'll read again and lets explore. It comes back to earlier conversations about goodness that were never resolved or concluded. (not that they need to resolve or conclude!)

ktismatics said...

As I read it, the old man is divided against itself, split between "the inner man" which concurs with the Law and "the flesh" which violates the Law. It's similar to the Greek split between mind and body. The Greeks solution was to subject the body to the mind. I think Paul's solution is to get rid of the whole dualistic scheme, which the Law tends to reinforce.

However, there's no question that in Romans 8 Paul starts out like a good Greek philosopher. But then there's 8:11, where the flesh itself is resurrected and becomes a spiritual body. Is it possible to know what Paul was really talking about? Did he always know what he was talking about?

jps said...


No, that is not the case at all. I firmly believe that if a person sins, they should confess it before God. But, I also see scripture clearly stating that we don't have to live in sin, that holiness is a calling that is a genuine possibility.

I find that in american christianity, the opposite it true. We are afraid to preach death to self; we see the results in lives that continually crash and burn in sin, so we re-theologize it all. We create a "I'm righteous in Christ, but in real life I suck" scenario. That is a travesty of the gospel, which knows of a REAL transformation, a REAL deliverance from the power of sin.


Jonathan Erdman said...

I want to first respond to Ken and Daniel.

I think that, yes, there is a new "law of Christ." But I agree with Ktismatics's theology (as well as James's take): We are beyond the Law-Flesh struggle. The point of the believer's life is to be no longer bounded by law. Ken/Daniel seem to want to suggest freedom "with boundaries." But true freedom is not freedom if it is subject to limitations. If we reintroduce law to the believer, then this is not freedom, it is restricted freedom. But let us join with Paul in saying that those who live according to the Spirit are no longer under law. (Galatians 5:18) To me, it is hard to imagine that Paul could be more clear. As Ktismatics says, the law and flesh work together to produce an economy of death. Paul wants us to live a new life.

If there is a "law of Christ" it is probably as simple as "love one another." I take this from John chaps. 12-17 where Jesus explains to his disciples that his "command" is that they love. This is not a command/law in the sense that binds us. Love is too intangible to be quantified as a law; rather, it is a product of Spirit transformation. It is an inward disposition that manifests itself in outward works of kindness/goodness/etc. Or, perhaps it is an outward work that manifests itself in an inward disposition...whichever way you want to look at it!

Lastly, I agree with James in that I believe a Spirit empowered life renders it possible to not sin. But, here's my question: If we live beyond law ("metanomianism," as I call it) then the point of whether or not we "sin" is moot.

jps said...


Yes, I agree with you; if there is a "law of Christ" that can be defined, it would have to be John's "Love one another." Paul would agree with that, since he says in Romans that "love is the fulfillment of the law." But, to try and do that is a work. We CAN'T!!!

There is no way that we can love one another, just as there is no way we can keep any law. That is what regeneration is all about. The old self, with its sinful, self-centered, impatient, "I want it now, in the way I want it, and no other way" has to die. And the good news is that Christ took it to death on the cross. It isn't something we have to conjure up or work at. It is done--TETELSTAI in Greek (perfect tense, passive voice, by the way), as Jesus cried out on the cross (whether he did it in Greek or Aramaic or Hebrew is irrelevant, the author of the gospel took whatever it was in and translated/transcripted it).

To try and get it any other way than by faith is to transform it into a work and put yourself back under the law--Galatians 3 all over again. Just as preachers preach that salvation is by grace through faith, so is sanctification. In fact, to separate them is not the biblical gospel. The two go hand in hand in Paul. Evangelical christianity has separated them--something that Tozer bemoaned over 50 years ago--but that doesn't mean it is biblical.


Melody said...

But true freedom is not freedom if it is subject to limitations.

If you roll back to chapter six you'll find Paul talking about no longer being a slave to sin, but a slave to righteousness. I find it a depressing chapter, though I don't think it was meant to be. The point is Paul seems to think we're chained to something and should be.

"The only freedom is to choose your own cage." - L.M. Montgomery

daniel said...

Reading Romans chapter 7 - 16 last night inspired by this conversation and Ktismatics comments was very encouraging. I'm convinced that as Christians, there is spiritual life that takes over from the control of the flesh - this is our freedom from the law of sin - but the struggle continues between our old flesh man and new spirit man as we alk out our Christianity. We must put the old self to death as a continual assertion of the spirit's authority in our lives.

Some more thoughts on freedom - as a musician, I am involved in some free jazz and free improvisation. There are no rules, no law... complete freedom to express. However, certain principles come into play. Instead of being confined to playing certain notes and avoiding others, or playing in a certain rhythm or tempo, these are matters of personal choice.

What is cultivated is the ability to listen to what one is doing, and what others are doing around you if playing in a group. Then, to obey what one feels is a good choice for whatever reason, based on this listening. What guides this is a love for music - if there is no love, it will be communicated as such, but where there is love, there is affective music. There is hence no need for law.

There is a parallel in the spiritual life of a Christian. We listen to the voice of the spirit. This is our paramount skill. And we obey. We obey because we love God. We live in the spirit - the law of the spirit is life in Christ.

Another important spiritual law for Christians is forgiveness. Because God has forgiven us of our sins and given us new life we are compelled to forgive others and demonstrate God's love in this way.

A further law is to imitate Christ. This also can be compared to what happens in freely improvised music. In free jazz, there is inevitably a leader, and the other musicians who are following and listening to the leader will engage at times in forms of imitation to bring coherence to the whole sound. In other words they will copy and imitate the sound that the leader makes on their respective instruments. Sometimes this can become very intuitive as musicians get to know one another and play together a lot.

The leader role may change in different sections of a musical piece, but certain instruments are well suited to lead in different ways. A trumpet will lead in a different way to drums for example.

Another metaphor for the leadership of the holy spirit may be a conductor. Some free improvised music can have a conductor that gives signals to the musicians. Of course unimprovised unfree music typically has a conductor that keeps the musicians to the score - the text, the rules. Here the only freedom is in interpretation - a lower form of freedom in my view compared to improvised music.

I prefer to see the holy spirit in me as a divine composer and companion whom I allow to lead.

As Christians God's grace is there so that we can improvise our spiritual lives - each in our own way following the lead of the spirit, following the melody, the rhythms of God's grace.

"Come to me...and learn the unforced rhythms of grace." (Matthew 11:28,The Message)

samlcarr said...

Daniel "I prefer to see the holy spirit in me as a divine composer and companion whom I allow to lead." and I liked your impro on Mtt 11 too.

This has been a fascinating discussion that I kept wanting to jump in on but due to some tight schedules never got actually in.

There's a focus in the Synoptics that I think writing based solely on later church needs somewhat skips and this is Jesus defining the law of love in such a way that all others (not just the 'one another') that we come into contact with are included. It makes real obedience and even more daunting task.

I'm not at all sure that I can really obey 'the law of Christ' even when I want to very badly. It is this real dilemma that I see Paul realistically and personally tackling in Rom 7.

It does indeed bring us back to God's grace and the grace of our fellow travellers too.

samlcarr said...

Getting back to the question of freedom of the self, I think in Romans and in a number of other places in the NT, we see that we the readers are being given freedom. An argument is presented as in Romans or in Galatians but it is not just by dint of authority, rather Paul sets out to convince the reader-hearer that he's right and that we should then DECIDE to agree/follow. God wants us to be free to follow, or not, and I'm pretty sure that that is what my experience of God has been about.

daniel said...

Good honest thoughts Sam, can identify with what you are saying.

I've also been thinking more about Jon's insight via Foucault. It is true that we have come to regard associative meaning as the some total of truth and it effects our sense of self. These associations have become more meaningful than inherent value based choices.

Marketing strategies play into this: I use a perfume that associates with this or that image, or wear certain branded clothes drink certain cool drinks etc.

This extends to other life choices, people can land up doing good simply to look good, even adopting a cultural identity for these reasons, hazard to say many of the "cultural Christians" and even those who claim to be purer are infected with this disease of the self too.

The "techniques of the self" developed within public opinion and mass media that Foucault describes, and the loss of "independence of the self", can be seen as a surrender of the individual will to the world. God invites us to instead give him this allegiance, and allow him to reshape us.

I know that in my own life it is a struggle to do the right thing not just for how it looks on the outside. It is always a challenge to stay committed to the self-cleansing process with the Lord, and not resort to empty formulas and the comfort of being socially accepted as a "good Christian". As Jesus said clean the inside and the outside will automatically be clean.

Jesus also said whoever saves their life (self) will lose it, whoever loses it for his sake will find it.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I thought your analogy with jazz was fantastic. Things like truth, goodness, and freedom require a certain amount of improvisation based on listening. Well said, Daniel. This is why overfixating on things like so-called "timeless truths" can be so damaging: it tends to isolate the individual and shut them off from listening/feeling/improv. and instead it creates people talking at and over each other. After all, if you've got the timeless truths tucked away in your pocket, what else do you need? The skill of listening is something I have found to be very weak in the churches I have been in. But listening is essential to developing a fellowship of freedom.

I'll share one of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite musicians:

"...I think the majority of musicians are interested in truth....There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror...."

John Coltrane

daniel said...

I love that Jon, that's a beautiful sentiment. What a great quote. I'm putting it on my blog as a comment under your name if you don't mind!

If we can't listen to each other whom we can see, how can we listen to the Holy Spirit whom we cannot see?