What Would Happen if we took the Holy Spirit Seriously?
What would happen if we took the Holy Spirit seriously? The issue is of course, that everyone feels as though they take the Holy Spirit seriously in their theology. Pentecostals believe that the Holy Spirit helps Christians to have intimate experiences of God’s presence, Reformed Christians focus on the continual transforming work of the Spirit which brings us to maturity as disciples of Jesus, and the missional movement is beginning to talk more about the growing need for a missional pneumatology. Yet why does all of this still leave me a little frustrated and unsatisfied when it comes to understanding the Holy Spirit and practicing the discernment of the Spirit?
Do you hear people praying to the Holy Spirit very often? I don’t. It’s mostly to the person of the Father that prayers are addressed. Why is that? Is it because we see the Trinity hierarchically and so we direct our prayers to the one we perceive to be the ‘leader’ of the Godhead? And why do I often hear people calling the Holy Spirit ‘it’? Why do we hardly ever see practical workshops run by churches on how to discern the presence of the Spirit? And why is there still this persistent dualism in the church which functions to separate the Spirit from everyday life? I think some of these realities indicate that perhaps we are still confused about the Holy Spirit today.
John V. Taylor once boldly encouraged Christians to understand that the Spirit must be, “so central to our thoughts about God and about man that when the name ‘God’ is used our minds go first to the Spirit, not last.”1 This may be a contentious statement and of course we see the face of God through the incarnation of Jesus Christ on earth, however the Spirit of God has been manifestly at work since the creation of the world. It is through the Spirit that we become aware of the continual presence of God in our world. So perhaps we should be paying more attention to the Holy Spirit? What would happen if we took the Holy Spirit more seriously?
We might better understand how involved and interwoven God’s Spirit is in our universe.
Stephen Bevans uses the term ‘transcending immanence’ to describe the way that the Spirit is at work in our world today. He says, ‘The Spirit of God is so involved in the world (immanence) that we need constantly to be amazed and challenged by God’s presence (transcendence)’.2 He then writes about the manner in which the Holy Spirit is involved in every aspect of creation. This means that the Spirit is not only at work in the church but is also very much involved in our world. The Holy Spirit creates and shapes the church according to the purposes of God, however he is also at work as the ‘Spirit of mission’ involved in all aspects of our universe. Bevans says that since the Spirit is concerned with all things then, ‘The church’s mission is world mission in the fullest sense; one might even speak of cosmic mission. Nation building, earth keeping, ecological action, education, preserving and transforming culture, enhancing the quality of life, cultivation of the arts-all these are fields of activity for those who are given to the Spirit.’
This is really helpful because sometimes Christians separate the work of the Spirit in the church from the work of the Spirit in the world. As a result many are walking in a kind of dualism which leads to the formation of ‘Sunday Christians’ who are not sure how God could be at work in their daily lives at work or in social activities for example. If the Spirit is in all things then, in a sense, everything is sacred and there is no sacred/secular split.
We would know God as primarily a relational God
The fact that the Spirit of God is at work so intimately in our world reveals that God is a God who is relational and has a desire to connect with his creation. God is not the God as interpreted by the Deists. Deists believe that God wound up the world like a clockmaker and then removed himself from his creation. Instead, we can see that by his Spirit, God reaches out from the Trinity to connect with what he loves. Bevans argues that God’s ‘inside’, that is the dynamic relationship within the Trinity, can be known by his ‘outside’, that is his act of reaching out to the world in love. Through God’s actions we can see that he is a God who is very interested in closely connecting with his creation, above all, with humanity. In other words, by taking the Holy Spirit seriously, we begin to see that God is primarily a relational God rather than a God who tries to logically prove his existence to us. This is helpful for us in the area of apologetics where debates are often waged mostly around evidencing proofs of the existence of God. If God is primarily interested in relating to humanity rather than proving his existence, then this should shape the way in which we defend and proclaim our faith. This view of a relational God also means that Christians can make better attempts at interacting with, hearing from and experiencing God. This is something that good expressions of Pentecostalism have taught us which we can learn from, that is; it is possible to encounter God by his Spirit today due to this transcending immanence.
Would we allow the Spirit to bring disruption and discomfort into our lives more often?
It seems like in evangelicalism we have emphasised that the Holy Spirit is our teacher and our comforter. It is true that the Holy Spirit teaches us truth and also brings comfort to us when we struggle, after all Jesus said that the Spirit would be given to the disciples so that they did not feel like ‘orphans’ (John 14:18), that is without a parent. The Holy Spirit therefore helps us to know that we are children of God so that we can cry out ‘Abba Father’ to the God who we are friends with (Romans 8:15). However we are less comfortable with the role that the Holy Spirit plays in disrupting our lives and turning us upside down. In Matthew 4:1 we read that right after the very comforting experience Jesus had of the Spirit affirming him as the Son of God, the Spirit ‘led’ Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the enemy. Often the Spirit will lead us to places that we don’t want to go, teach us surprising things about God, turn our theology around, and give us experiences that we would perhaps rather not have. Have we domesticated the Spirit to the extent that we do not experience his ‘wild’ character in our lives and in our theology? The Holy Spirit does not bring us discomfort and disorientation for the sake of it, instead he turns us inside out so that we might be more aligned with the mission of God in our world. God knows how addicted humanity is to control and self direction, so the Spirit functions in our lives to bring us into line with God’s good purposes for us. If we don’t take the Spirit seriously we could find that all of our plans, programs and works for God are driven by our own desires and ambitions rather than by God’s Spirit. Bevans challenges us saying, ‘The Spirit is the Spirit as God turned inside out; the Spirit given to Jesus turned him inside out and opened him up to the vision of God’s reign among women and men; the Spirit lavished through Jesus turns his disciples inside out as they include unthinkable people and go to unthinkable places. Thinking missiologically about the Holy Spirit can turn the church inside out, perhaps making it more responsive to where God is really leading it in today’s world.’
What would happen if we took the Holy Spirit seriously and let him turn us inside out?
—[Image by Gisela Giardino, CC via Flickr]
1. John V. Taylor, The Go- Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission (London: S.C.M Press, 1972)5,6
2. All quotations from Stephen Bevans taken from, Stephen Bevans “God Inside Out: Toward a Missionary Theology of the Holy Spirit,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 22, no. 3 (1998): 102-5.