When you hear the words, Holy Spirit, what’s your first thought or emotion? Are you filled with excitement and hope? Do you have a sense of fear and trepidation? Or perhaps confusion and ambivalence?
However you answered my question, it is likely that something was stirred up within you.
Conversations regarding the person and work of the Holy Spirit are rarely simple intellectual exercises, and this is just as it should be. An encounter with the third Person of the Triune God is intended to transform and impact every aspect of our life, and then ripple out into the world around us.
A transforming Spirit
Jesus promised his disciples that they would receive power to be his witnesses to the world when the Holy Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:8). This was an earth-shattering declaration. Things would never again be the same. Following the amazing reception of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter connected the dots for his audience. Quoting from Joel 2, he declared: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people…. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:17–21).
But let’s back up for a moment. Who was the preacher that day? Peter?! A man who just a few weeks earlier couldn’t even own up to the fact that he knew Jesus when questioned by a slave girl. Confused, scared and powerless, he denied Jesus and then cowered in hiding. Yet a few weeks later, Peter and the rest of the disciples were bold, inspired and courageous witnesses for Jesus.
What caused this incredible transformation? First, Jesus rose from the dead; and second, the disciples received the Holy Spirit. So then we might ask, why does this matter to us? Because it’s no different today – an encounter with the living and powerful Spirit of Jesus has the potential to change everything.
A transforming relationship
Over the past three decades, I have served in a variety of ministry roles, but before all that I was a teenage farm boy who loved basketball and fast cars. Even though I grew up in an awesome Christian family, I thought Christianity was nothing more than dos and don’ts, and the don’ts seemed a lot more appealing.
But then something amazing happened. I met Jesus when I was 19, and the Holy Spirit took up residence in my life, and nothing has been the same since. As the Apostle Paul puts it: “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).
That reality – the Spirit of God living in us – turns following Jesus into a life-giving journey.
Not a religion, but a relationship with Jesus.
This happens because the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, is at work in us and is working in the world through us. Jesus communicates with us, frees us from the law of sin and gives us power to love and obey God’s direction in our lives. The Spirit helps take our eyes off ourselves, and empowers us to reach out to others around us and fills us with spiritual fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). Our lives are given purpose and meaning as the Spirit invites us to participate in God’s redeeming and reconciling mission to the world.
So what does this look like? When I mentioned to a colleague that I was working on an article focusing on a practical theology of the Holy Spirit, she told me that I better make it applicable to real life. She had just spent a weekend trapped inside the house with her ornery sons, and she was disappointed with her lack of Christ-like character. She felt like she’d lost touch with the Holy Spirit and the power she needed to be the person God intended.
After I reflected on her comments, I concluded she was mistaken. She hadn’t become disconnected from the Holy Spirit but distracted.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus called the Holy Spirit our Advocate, Counsellor and the Spirit of truth (14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). These descriptors tell us that the Father and the Son send the Spirit to guide, advise, encourage and help us. For this to happen, we need to listen and pay attention.
Stop, wait, listen
Increasingly, I believe the most important thing we can do as Christians is stop, wait and listen to what God’s Spirit is saying to us.
Stop our frantic activity, wait and then pay close attention.
One of my friends reminds himself daily that he needs to “allow the Holy Spirit to have the loudest voice in the room.” My friend disciplines himself to regularly stop during his day and say to God, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” This simple act has often allowed him to sense the Spirit’s direction to rethink a decision, apologize for something he has said, or move in a completely new direction.
The Holy Spirit was with my colleague all through her frustrating weekend, but she needed to actually stop and pay attention before she could experience the power and peace of the Spirit. When she finally slowed down enough to hear, she immediately sensed what she had been missing, found a renewed sense of God’s presence and was able to love her boys in the way both she and God desire.
Our Western culture bombards us with incessant noise and myriad forms of busy-ness – with the result that most people’s lives are filled with stress and anxiety, and devoid of hope. People cram their lives full of activity in a frantic attempt to give their lives meaning.
We, as Christians, can also get sucked into this trap. Instead of taking on more activity, when we sense something is out of kilter, we need to stop, drop and pray right then. Don’t wait – it doesn’t have to take a long time. Again Paul reminds us that the Holy Spirit “helps us in our weakness,” and “intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (Romans 8:26–27).
Instead of becoming busy for God, we need to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:25). Steve and Evy Klassen, authors of Your Ears Will Hear, make a great point: “When we tune in to God as the Active One, our actions are grounded in our connection to him. We want to work hard at the things God is guiding us to do, not because everything depends on us, but because we are acting in partnership with the God of the universe.”
Partnership. That’s what Jesus intended when he said his followers would receive power to be his witnesses when the Holy Spirit came on them.
[Bryan Born is president of Columbia Bible College, Abbotsford, B.C.