When it comes to the Holy Spirit, most evangelicals fall into one of two extremes. Some seem obsessed, relating to him in strange, mystical ways.
Other Christians neglect his ministry altogether. They believe in the Holy Spirit, but they relate to him the same way I relate to my pituitary gland: I’m really grateful it’s in there; I know it’s relevance for something; I would never want to lose it . . . but I don’t really interact with it. For these Christians, the Holy Spirit is not a moving, dynamic person. He’s more of a theory.
Yet Jesus made his disciples the most astounding promise about the Holy Spirit, one so astounding I think many of us do not really take it seriously: it was to their advantage, he said, that he return to heaven if it meant they receive the Spirit (John 16:7). If you ask Christians if they would rather have Jesus beside them or the Spirit inside them, which do you think most would select?
Doesn’t that show how far apart we are from grasping what Jesus was offering to us?
The Holy Spirit appears 59 times in the book of Acts, and in 36 of those appearances, he is speaking. “But wait,” some say, “we can’t use Acts as a pattern for our time! The apostles were a unique group.” And I comprehend that Acts shows a special epoch of apostolic history. But you cannot convince me that the only book God gave us instances of how the church walks with the Spirit is filled with stories that have nothing in common with our own. As John Newton put it, “Is it really true that that which the early church so depended on—the leadership of the Spirit—is important to us today?”
How We Experience His Presence
How then do we experience his presence? We probably have seen this question greatly abused. As I noted, many equate his movements with emotional flurries, irrational impressions, or random confluence of events. As I study Scripture, I see three ways we experience his presence: in the gospel, in our spirit by communion with him in prayer, and through his sovereign control over our circumstances.
1.In the Gospel
For instance, in Ephesians 3:14–18, the apostle prays that the Ephesians would have the strength to understand the love of Christ—its breadth and length and height and depth—so that they may be “filled with all the fullness of God.” According to Paul, those two things—knowing the love of Christ in the gospel and being filled with “all the fullness of God”—are synonymous.
Puritan Thomas Goodwin compared this experience to that of a toddler son when his father swoops him up into his arms, spins him around, and tells him, “You are my son and I love you!” At that moment, the boy has become no more his father’s son, rightly speaking, than he was the time before. But being caught up in his father’s arms he feels his sonship more closely. When God’s Spirit fills us, he sheds abroad God’s love in our heart, making our spirit rise up to say, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 5:5, 8:15)
2. In Our Spirit
From the scripture, we see that God guides his people in a mission by putting special burdens into their spirits. When Nehemiah left for Jerusalem to rebuild its walls, he didn’t have instruction from God. He simply said that God had “put it into his heart” to do it (Neh. 2:12). When Paul came to Athens, Luke records his spirit was “provoked” within him about the idolatry in Athens (Acts 17:16). He evidently took this provocation as a direction to stay and preach the gospel there. Later in his ministry, he would identify a holy “ambition” that God had put in his heart to preach Christ only where he had never been named (Rom. 15:20). Up until then, his ministry had been broad—debate the gospel, build up the churches everywhere—but the Spirit later narrowed the focus of his ministry. Throughout our lives, we (at times) pass through a “holy discontent” about a specific issue or the pressing in of a specific promise of God to our context. This is often the Spirit’s invitation to go for a particular ministry.
3. Through Our Circumstances
Throughout Paul’s life we see him interpret open and closed doors as evidence of the Spirit’s leadership. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he makes it clear he will stay in Ephesus to preach because a “wide door for effective work” has been opened, which he evidently took as the Spirit’s leadership (1 Cor. 16:8). Again, no special prophetic word, no handwriting in the sky, no Virgin Mary in a grilled cheese sandwich—just an open door.
This one can be tricky, because an open door doesn’t always mean something is God’s will. Jonah happened on a ship to Tarshish, but God’s will for him was 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Likewise, a closed door doesn’t always mean something is not God’s will. In Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians of why he would stay in Ephesus (stated above), he notes many difficulties lay ahead of him. He didn’t interpret these hardships as evidence God wanted him to leave, but to stay.