Many years ago, when I taught homiletics in the diocese’s diaconate formation program, I used a subscription-based homily service as an example to help my students distinguish between moralizing and good preaching. The homily service provided many good examples of moralizing, but moralizing is not good preaching.
Moralizing is an unthinking reiteration of conventional values; as such, it is utterly pointless. Those who embrace conventional values do not need to be reminded of the ideas to which they’ve already given assent. Those who do not accept conventional values usually have a consciously chosen reason for doing so and are unlikely to be persuaded by a repetition of what they have already rejected.
For these reasons above, I consider moralizing to be bad preaching. When I encounter moralizing, I know I’m dealing with a topic that the speaker has never really examined and probably has no desire to examine critically. In western Christianity, the Holy Spirit is one of those topics.
We’ve all heard preachers make statements like, “If someone gave you a new phone or tablet computer, you would certainly not leave it unopened in its packaging; you would open it and begin using it immediately. You have received the gifts of the Spirit, and you must open yourself to the Spirit’s gifts and put them to work!”
That statement sounds wonderful; it’s inspirational and affirming. No one would dispute any of its truthfulness, but there just isn’t enough truthfulness present in that statement. It is possible to talk about the Holy Spirit in ways that avoid moralizing but doing so can come at a very high price.
If I was going to talk about the Holy Spirit in a serious and thoughtful way, I would begin by identifying specific ways that the Holy Spirit guides Jesus’ disciples to learn, appropriate, and practice his teachings. Three of those ways come to mind immediately.
In God’s plan, the spiritual and the physical realms are not opposed to one another nor even separate from one another. It is not possible to be spiritual without being religious. Similarly, it is not possible to love created things without loving their Creator, nor to love the Creator without loving created things. Dichotomizing between regions of God’s creation is a sign of neither wisdom nor good fortune; it is delusional. The Spirit of God guides us away from the shallow, fleeting comforts of consumerism.
In a similar manner, there is no real conflict between Christian morality and human freedom. The moral guidance that the Christian Faith offers is a prerequisite for human freedom to grow and mature. Human freedom is not indeterminate; it has an innate directionality and goal, that is, love of God and neighbor. Love of God leads to greater love of neighbor, and love of neighbor leads to greater love of God. Affection or attraction without responsibility isn’t love; it’s selfishness. The Spirit of God guides us away from the selfishness that treats other people and God as if they are inanimate objects that exist solely to serve our desires.
No one, particularly the Holy Spirit, respects a double standard. To expect forgiveness, attention, or respect from others without first granting those things to others is self-deception. To judge the failings of others while holding oneself above judgment is as ludicrous as it is duplicitous. Everyone stands in need of forgiveness, and everyone is obliged to forgive. The Spirit of God guides us away from the dishonesty that is self-righteousness.
You can probably guess why moralizing about the Holy Spirit is so popular. Inspiring or consoling thoughts that demand no change in our lives allow us to live in denial about our personal failings. When we avoid the effort to understand the person and work of the Holy Spirit, we can remain comfortable in our unredeemed behavior. When we keep the Holy Spirit at a safe distance, we can deny our need for repentance and reform. On the other hand, when we come to know the Spirit of God, and allow ourselves to be guided daily by the Spirit, we are guided away from sin and toward fidelity.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus described the effects of the Spirit of God in one’s life. He said, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” (Jn 14:26-27) The Spirit grants peace and dispels fear because the Spirit keeps one continually in communion with God.
Here are two easy ways to determine if you are being guided by the Spirit of God. First, ask yourself how often and well you give God the worship that God deserves. The Spirit teaches us to pray as we ought. (Rm 8:26) Second, ask yourself how often and well you fulfill Jesus’ command to treat other people as you want to be treated. The Spirit teaches us to live in harmony with one another. (Phil 2:1-3)
The truth and meaning of human life are found in love of God and neighbor. This statement is mere moralizing unless one’s love is expressed in concrete acts of self-sacrifice, honesty, and forgiveness; these are evidence of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.