The Holy Spirit as Part of Us
All of us keep a part of ourselves, the inner self, hidden, and show the world only our outer self. In the Spirit, God overcomes that barrier. God now lives inside, in the inner self, and seeks ways to bring harmony to those two selves so that we are not split but have a unified identity.
We receive “gifts of the spirit” from the One who, by living inside us, knows precisely how each person’s unique combination of personality, upbringing, and natural skills can be used in God’s service. As Jurgen Moltmann points out, “the spirit of life” is only encountered as the Spirit of a particular life—as specific and as varied as the person indwelled. The Spirit enhances and shapes but never overwhelms our individual personalities and talents.
The Spirit cannot be kept like a personal pet, living in a small compartment somewhere inside us to be brought out at will. The living presence of God inside us should permeate everything we see and do. The Spirit does not act on us so much as within us.
The Holy Spirit Working Through Us
Philip Yancey’s friend Ken, a committed Christian who struggles with his faith, told Yancey, “Frankly, I see more evidence for the Spirit than for the other two members of the Trinity. The hunger for God that I feel—that is a sign of the Spirits presence in me. My fitful battles with lust, my conviction of pride, the strong sense of when I need to apologize, and when to forgive—these signs of God are to me every bit as impressive as a burning bush. They let me know God is still at work inside me.”
I have a hunch that small victories like the ones Ken describes give God as much, and maybe more, pleasure than any miracle from biblical times. I also know many “ordinary” people who visit prisons, care for the dying, build houses with Habitat for Humanity, adopt unwanted babies, welcome refugee families. They do these things under the prompting of God’s Spirit.
“Are you filled with the Spirit?” If you asked the apostle Paul such a question, he would likely respond by listing qualities that the spirit produces: love, joy, peace, goodness, etc. Do you have those qualities? And do you express God’s love for others? Each of Paul’s letters ends with a call to practical acts of love and service: prayer, sharing with the needy, comforting the sick, hospitality, humility. We dare not devalue the “ordinary”—actually, most extraordinary—work of God making himself at home in our lives. These are the marks of the Spirit-filled life, signs of the invisible made manifest in our visible world.
The Importance of Living in the Spirit
One of Yancey’s writing colleagues very nearly abandoned his faith after a horrific series of health and emotional problems. During his darkest hour, he said, God stayed silent. Prayer did nothing for him. At the end, when he finally emerged from the valley of shadow, he told Yancey, “You know what kept me from chucking the whole thing, from apostatizing? Just this. It would mean having to go to three or four people I respect more than anyone else in the world and tell them, ‘You were deceived.’ I could not bring myself to deny the reality of God’s Spirit in their lives.”
A mutual friend, listening in, had another opinion. “That’s exactly why I’m tempted to apostatize! Frankly, I don’t see the reality of God’s Spirit in people’s lives. I want some direct evidence of God.”
The Holy Spirit’s Mission for the Church
The “disadvantage” of knowing God through the Holy Spirit is that, when God turned over the mission to His church, He truly turned it over. As a result, many people who reject God are rejecting not God but a caricature of Him presented by the church. Yes, the church has led the way in issues of justice, literacy, medicine, education, and civil rights. But to our everlasting shame, the watching world judges God by a church whose history also includes the Crusades, the Inquisition, antisemitism, suppression of women, and support of the slave trade.
I often wish we could set aside church history, scrub away the many layers of sediment, and encounter the words of the Gospel for the first time. Not everyone would accept Jesus—they did not in his own day—but at least people would not reject him for the wrong reasons. What I longed for, however, is not only impossible but unbiblical. I must remind myself of Jesus’ words that it is for our good that he went away so that the Spirit can dwell within us.
We are the Spirit’s Dwelling Place
I find it much easier to accept the fact of God dwelling in Jesus of Nazareth then in some people who attend church and in me. Yet the New Testament insists this pattern fulfills God’s plan from the beginning: not a continuing series of spectacular interventions but a gradual delegation of His mission to flawed human beings. All along, Jesus planned to die so that we, his church, could take his place. What Jesus brought to a few—healing, grace, hope, the good news message of God’s love—his followers could now bring to all. “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” he explained, “it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”
It will sometimes appear that God cannot help us, or at least does not. It will appear that He has set us loose on earth, alone amid the evil powers. In truth, we all want a divine problem-solver. Christians may feel the same impatience over the slow, unspectacular work of the Holy Spirit just as Jews felt over Jesus the Messiah, who did not provide the kind of triumphant political rescue they wanted.
The questions we ask of God, He often turns back on us. We plead for God to “come down” and only reluctantly acknowledge that God is already here, within us, and that what God does on earth closely resembles what the church does.
Jesus joined the human race for a time so that he can now serve as our sympathetic advocate. He was himself but one and lived and died but once; but the Holy Spirit makes of every Christian another Christ, an AfterChrist; who lives a million lives in every age… Gerard Manley Hopkins
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For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 2:11)
Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church. (1 Corinthians 14:12)
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:23)
Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey