If everyone said the same things that would make it easier to accept but they don’t. Very different things are being said and that begs multiple questions.
Why is the Holy Spirit so prominent and how do we explain the divergent, sometimes contradictory, interpretations?
Outside of Jesus, He is the most common topic among Christians and the differing opinions not only confuse they sometimes cause conflict. One person’s ideas are often countered, not with “different” ideas, but with opposing ideas offered in a fractious manner. How do we understand this phenomena?
The one thing most Christians agree on is the Holy Spirit’s place in the Trinity. He is the third person of the Godhead and that, of course, means He is God. He has all the attributes of personality and divinity.
But, that also means we should be careful what we say about Him. Our teaching should be shaped in carefully worded statements all of which are substantiated by biblical reference. Spontaneous gushings, though sincere, may be ill informed.
A Word About Experience
That brings us to a very important topic, “Experience.”
People often base their ideas about the Holy Spirit on a personal experience they believe He caused. The experience becomes the guiding principle for everything they say or believe afterward. It is so paramount in their thinking that the experience is imposed on the Bible rather than the other way around.
That isn’t the way it is supposed to work. But, on the other side of the coin, those who oppose this approach aren’t very helpful. Merely mentioning the word “Experience” sends them into overdrive attempting to deny, not the theological implications, but the possibility that an experience ever occurred.
Dismissing “experiences” out of hand gives no one the right to claim higher intellectual/spiritual ground.
But, outside of spiritual issues, experience plays an important part in our lives. Every breathing person is EXPERIENCING life constantly. If you are alive, experiences are normal AND unavoidable.
Those who are wise learn from experience, so it is considered a very important teacher. And those with experience are respected.
The only people who don’t have experiences aren’t breathing. Those who can demonstrate skills developed through experience are considered first for job positions or promotions. In most settings experienced people are considered mature and capable.
When it comes to the Holy Spirit, however, experience is considered differently. As I mentioned, in some circles it isn’t allowed. And admittedly those who have had a Holy Spirit experience overplay it but that is no reason for those who haven’t – or say they haven’t – to dismiss it. It tends to be given too much weight or no weight at all.
A common scenario looks like the following:
Some person has a “Holy Spirit Experience” and they create a new theological sub-category to promote it. Another person who is more theologically astute doesn’t buy it. They know better and, therefore, refuse to entertain the issue, becoming dismissive – no discussion allowed – and the standoff begins.
This is particularly true when it comes to two specific issues: speaking in tongues and healing on demand. A few other issues have been spawned also – revelations, prophecies, laughing, etc. – but “tongues” and “healing” are the biggies.
When arguments arise around these issues people dive into their Bibles and produce proof texts, interpretations, explanations, word definitions, historical observations and any other “biblical” evidence they can find to prove either that the experience happened the way it was reported and for the stated reasons or to prove experiences don’t happen ever, end of story. Rarely are the questions resolved.
I am going to suggest that that is the wrong approach. Not a bad one but not the best one.
Rather than dismiss experience out of hand or hold it up unquestioned as the primary source of truth, we need to focus on it and explore the concept thoroughly. If it is a teacher, and everyone agrees that it is, then we need to study it apart from the other issues and well enough to learn.
If anyone argues that “experience” has no place in theology, I would agree. But it is a reality and should at least be treated practically and philosophically even if it can’t be afforded theological status.
And the truth is, you can point to many experiential moments in the lives of prominent Bible personalities that marked radical points of change and learning for them.
- Peter’s call by Jesus into ministry and his confession in response was an experience.
- Peter’s walking on and sinking in water but being retrieved by Jesus was an experience.
- Peter being rebuked when he refused to accept the coming death of Christ was an experience.
- Peter being rebuked again when he misinterpreted the transfiguration was an experience.
- Peter’s failure at the trial of Jesus was an experience.
- And being rebuked on the shores of Galilee following the resurrection was an experience.
Were these experiences? Yes! Were they emotional? Yes! Was the Holy Spirit involved? Yes!* Was Peter’s life changed by them? Without a doubt! And these are only some of Peter’s experiences.
Like it or not “Experience” plays an important part in the molding of a Christian’s life and refusing to accept them blinds us to important realities. Promoting a dismissive attitude toward experience interferes with the Spirit’s efforts to change us.
And the interesting thing is, many of those who disagree with tongues or healing readily admit that people are having experiences. Unfortunately, they stop at that point and fail to follow through with any meaningful explanation.
Well, now is the time to do the dirty work of interpretation. Exploring the concept properly can shed a little more light on the issue even if you don’t think the discussion is conclusive. It’s a door that needs to be opened.
As I said, the two “sides” on the issue are extreme, diametrically opposed. The one side focuses so much on their experience with God they trample all over the Bible just to make it fit in with their experience.
The other side sticks their head in the sand denying any and all experiences suggesting they have no part in our relationship to God. They refuse to “go there” and dismiss all claims of any kind.
I would say there is a place in the middle where truth can be found.
The reality is, a personal meeting with God is an intense moment. Every salvation is preceded by the working of the Holy Spirit which in turn produces a sense of conviction in the individual.
This is the most important juncture in any person’s life. They are being confronted with the choice between an eternal heaven or hell, with the problem of personal sin and a desperate need of salvation – a frightening situation.
And the person who truly believes in response to this conviction is delivered completely and forever from sin’s eternal consequences. The list of things that happen when a person is saved is quite long:
- Completely forgiven
- Adopted as God’s child
- A new nature imparted
- Indwelt by the Holy Spirit
- Assured of God’s love
To call that “Relieving” is an understatement in the extreme. Salvation is the moving of a person from the category of complete condemnation to that of absolute deliverance in the blink of an eye, at the moment of belief. They may not understand these ideas conceptually but they “experience” each one personally at the moment of salvation.
There is no dictionary in the world that wouldn’t call that an experience and because it is so intense we shouldn’t be surprised at the effusive ways people sometimes react.
But the important idea about this experience is NOT that people react. That really shouldn’t seem strange. The important point is their reactions will be different. You can’t script it.
We aren’t all the same. Some people are very expressive. Their feelings are automatically and immediately translated into sounds, body language or movements, facial expressions and gestures. They wear their feelings on their shoulder and make very poor poker players because of it.
And when this very expressive person meets with God there is no telling how they will react. You might want to get out of the way and give them plenty of room.
Others are just the opposite. Some people are so nonreactive and inexpressive you can’t be sure they have feelings at all. A personal meeting with God is just as intense for them but there is very little outward reaction to prove it.
And salvation isn’t the end of the story. It is only the starting point. Every salvation is followed by life change and life changes are usually preceded by mental adjustments that can be radical.
Some of Peter’s greatest changes were catalyzed by his worst failures.
I’m not referring to casual changes like deciding to have toast for breakfast instead of eggs. I’m talking about changes that effect the direction of your life and the way you think and act everyday for the rest of your life.
Every life change is also preceded by the same intense working of the Holy Spirit. These are not casual interchanges. They are agitating. They provoke a response and humans react to these personal meetings differently.
They cry, shout, become solemn, faint, fall over, get noisy, become very quiet or even blabber. Some become prostrate, some sit down, some stand up, others put their head in their hands, some bow their heads or maybe look up and some do none of these things outwardly in spite of intense happenings within.
In some cases people are healed emotionally and psychologically. It’s like hearing the greatest news in the world and having your greatest burden lifted.
In some cases people are healed physically.
And we shouldn’t think this strange or mystical. Many diseases are directly associated with stress. It stands to reason that relieving stress “medicates” the disease and what can be more stress relieving that a good dose of salvation or an “experience” after salvation that reassures you of God’s love and mercy.
Denying the intensity of the moment or questioning the reaction comes perilously close to denying God. People who seriously meet with God will have a response. Some of those responses will be very obvious and some not so obvious but there will be a response. We shouldn’t deny this.
But, on the other hand, requiring people to respond in some particular way – tongues, healing, praise, raise arms, bow head, sit/stand or whatever – is not only over stepping the boundaries, it is also controlling, manipulative and interfering.
A meeting with God is individual and personal. We mustn’t require any person to respond in some recognized way to prove they are “in” and the people who require these responses are expressing their own insecurity and imposing it on others.
Mystery and the Holy Spirit
It is true that there is some mystery surrounding the Holy Spirit. No one has ever seen Him with the naked eye and we don’t know exactly how He is working in each life. But that is where the mystery ends.
- We know He is working in every life individually constantly.
He is the interface between each person and God. He leaves no one out not even non-Christians. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would convict “the world” of sin, righteousness and judgment. That statement includes everyone not just Christians.
When accused of using demonic power to cast out demons Jesus, after showing the logical fallacy of that idea, insinuated that the suggestion was tantamount to blaspheming the Holy Spirit. Many implications can be drawn from this response.
One, the Spirit’s work is not as mystical as we like to think and misrepresenting it was one way to execrate that which is holy. It can have serious results.
Two, non-Christians – in this case Pharisees – can understand what the Spirit is doing and are responsible for their reactions to His work. In an effort to reject Jesus the Pharisees misrepresented the Spirit and came perilously close to blasphemy. Jesus’ response was a gentle warning to be careful.
Jesus’ remark was also tacit recognition of the Spirit’s ministry to everyone, even the unbelieving, and stands as a warning not to take it casually.
- We also know His first desire for every person is salvation.
Jesus plainly said that when the Spirit of truth is come He will convict the world of sin. Why? In His words, “because they believe not on me!” (John 16:8-9).
Jesus also said that if He (Jesus) is lifted up, i.e., crucified, He will draw all men to Himself (John 12:32). This drawing is the immediate work of the Holy Spirit and His intent to bring people to Christ and salvation.
- We know that He has given gifts to every person, saved and unsaved.
The abilities of a non-Christian are just as much the result of God’s gifting as the abilities of a Christian. Otherwise where would we say human ability comes from? The man in the moon? The Devil?
These gifts become “spiritual” once their use is governed by spiritual principles and directed toward spiritual goals. “Spiritual” is not synonymous with magic or mysticism.
I will say that human qualification doesn’t necessarily coincide with spiritual gifting. A qualified medical practitioner may or may not have the insights and sensitivities associated with the gift of healing but whatever gifts they do have will be expressed through the medium of their qualification.
Why So Much Attention
Discussions about the Holly Spirit, however, are usually more personal than technical and there is a good reason for that. He ministers personally to every Christian every waking minute of every day. He is the paraclete. He comforts, guides, encourages, teaches and counsels us not as a group but as separate subjects.
In fact, before a person becomes a Christian, He is the one who challenges them about salvation.
And who do we have to thank for this understanding? Jesus. Not your pew partner or your small group buddy. Jesus is the One who said:
- Accept a man be born of the Spirit he cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven.
- Regarding the non-Christian, “He will convict the world of sin, of righteousness…
As a Christian of many years and having heard certain terms used repeatedly to describe the Spirit’s working, I have come to understand that they represent impressions more than hard truth.
And no individual’s personal impression of the Holy Spirit should ever become a guidepost for our understanding of God’s Holy Spirit.
Personal statements that express our individual impressions, most of which don’t agree exactly with all other personal statements, are to be expected but we shouldn’t convert those statements into fixed teaching points.
The Holy Spirit does minister personally and directly to every Christian and each Christian will describe the relationship in terms that are individual. Terms like “amazing” and “encouraging” are very broad and leave a lot of room for interpretation. These personal impressions can be respected without imposing them dogmatically on everyone else.
The Holy Spirit is a Person. He does minister to every other person. Because He is personal we can expect people to respond in personal ways. But the proper way to describe these experiences is with the words of the Bible: conviction, regeneration, salvation, born again, enlighten, guide, teach and so on. Going beyond the meanings of these words is going to far.
What do you THINK!AboutIt?
*The Holy Spirit’s ministry was yet to change from the Old Testament to the New but He was still working in the lives of people even at the trial of Jesus.