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.
Here is the quickest way I know to see his presence in a life where it seems to be hiding. After a fast establishing of the basics of belief, ask what I call "beyond" questions:
- When was a time you loved beyond your natural ability to love?
- When did you feel joy beyond your natural joy?
- Was there ever a time when you shouldn't have been able to forgive but you did?
- Tell me about a time you felt peace beyond your own peace.
You see the pattern. I have yet for these questions to fall to the floor.
The Quiet Work of the Spirit
If the Bible's teaching is true, then the Spirit's work in our lives is not only often quiet, I think it might be usually quiet. Now, I am personally a believer in all the "sign" gifts—tongues and prophecy and all the rest. I have seen miracles done in the name of the Spirit that I hold to be legitimate. He has spoken to me as an inner voice, unmistakable and specific, through deep dreams, the voice of community, even through the shape of a flock of crows, through the languages of rocks and ice. The dramatic stuff, the moments that are easy for me to believe in.
But do you know what? I have learned that those are wonderful exceptions to the norm. It's much more usual for me to feel him in the quiet moments of beyond, when the life of Jesus somehow stretches to reach something that I did not think possible. When I lived out the fruit of the Spirit beyond any ability of my own. When I knew something, or did something, or said something, or felt something that was right. That was God's work. That was the Spirit in those moments, sure as breathing.
Those moments ought to be painted as miracles. Because they are.
As leaders, it's easy to give halfway answers. It's easy to say the right things that fix the problem of a moment, yet miss an opportunity to change the course of a lifetime.
To see such moments for the rare treasures they are requires God's sight and insight—the work of the Holy Spirit. It requires invitation, sensitivity, and inner peace. Sometimes it requires silence to hang in a room longer than is comfortable. Sometimes it requires waiting for that last person to speak when you know they need to, but don't want to.
You remember, small-group leader, some moment in your leading when you did all this "beyond," right?
Well, that was the Spirit too.
What will it take to trust his leading? When will we be ready to surrender a little more, invite a little more, allow what has always been working powerfully beneath the surface to break out into the open?
Leaders, let's learn to see the Spirit in our lives where we least expect him, so that we can speak with confidence into the lives of others. Let's be honest, free of pretension, free of false spirituality, so that we can let him work freely. Let's begin to understand what it means that in him "we live, and move, and have our being."
Let's be Spirit-filled, in the quietest and most powerful ways.
I walked to her table. I sat beside her, and looked in her eyes. There was water welling up.
I smiled. "Do you belong to Jesus?"
"Yes," she said in a quiet breath.
"You were baptized in the name of the Trinity?"
"Yes," a little louder.
"Then from the moment you believed, the Spirit has been in you. He has loved you, gifted you, sealed you, and helped make you holy," I replied.
She looked me right in the eye—the kind of stare that gets you somewhere. That says, do not play with me.
Good. I wasn't playing.
"Now let's try to see where he's been hiding."
—Paul J. Pastor is author of The Face of the Deep: Exploring the Mysterious Person of the Holy Spirit. The book, a blend of theology and creative non-fiction, includes guided questions for small-group discussion. He lives in Oregon. Connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.