She was close to crying under the fluorescent lights. My question from a few minutes before still hung in the air:
"Can you tell me a time you felt the Holy Spirit in your life?"
Three others had answered already, about half of a small night class I was teaching at a local Christian college. Their answers had been good, in the spiritual sort of way you'd expect—one had felt him as a rich warmth of the heart as she led a friend to Jesus. Another felt him, most Sundays, as she led worship. One, after he'd miraculously escaped a car accident that should have maimed him.
But then … her. And tears.
Just a whisper: "I don't think I've ever felt him. What is wrong with me?"
Leaders of any Christian group—from a class to a whole church—who talk about the Holy Spirit face multiple challenges. Theological challenges range from relatively common heresies (perhaps thinking of him as an impersonal force or influence) to the complexities of different understandings of spiritual gifts. Practical challenges are just as diverse—how do you talk about the Spirit specifically and accurately if the Bible itself seems to veil him in mysterious language and metaphor: wind, fire, oil, a bird?
Then, perhaps the most daunting, are the moments like the one hanging above, the pastoral challenges. These range from deep trauma (some of the experiences I've heard people share that happened "because of the Spirit" can only be termed spiritual abuse) to problems of indifference, apathy, or doubt. Quite often, it seems easier not to talk at all about the Spirit, who certainly seems to be the most complicated member of the Godhead where conversation is concerned.
But for many of us, even if we wanted to avoid the Spirit, he doesn't let us. There are questions that must be answered, passages that must be explained, and problems that must be corrected. Oh, and the very life of God awaiting our invitation to empower, renew, and conform us to the image of Jesus, true Son of the Father.
Yes, the Holy Ghost haunts us. As well he should. It is a haunting of love, a haunting for our good. So how do we lead ourselves and our groups into living our lives with the Spirit?
I am learning that the answer to that question is the stuff of years. Maybe decades. But I think that I have discovered one of the first steps for those of us who have wondered where he has been hiding in our lives: We need to learn to see.
Where Is the Spirit?
For years, I was haunted by the question, Where is the Spirit? And I was saved into a Charismatic tradition! The answer that has begun to come has been simple: He has always been here. I have not been able to recognize him.
I am learning to bring my experience into resonance with the Bible's teaching. The Spirit, creator and sustainer of the cosmos, is close to his creation. Immanent. But much more importantly, I'm learning to see him in the story of my life. And that is helping me understand him in the stories of other Christians.
If someone has doubts about the Spirit's presence theologically, the problem is easy—explain the theology. The Spirit seals and baptizes all those who belong to Jesus. The full experience of that may not come all at once, but the reality of his full love, his full presence in your deepest identity as a believer is beyond argument. You are his, he is yours. You are beloved and full of the Spirit of the Great Lover.
But it is usually the lived theology that is so hard. The experiential questions. We may preach all night that the Spirit is there, but if he doesn't feel there? That's a different story.