Wings, Wind, and Wildfire:
the Holy Spirit
By Audrey Stallsmith
The concept of the Holy Ghost must be confusing to young children. I can see many dutiful Sunday School tots, who try to picture Him in their minds, envisioning something like Caspar with a halo!
As Chesterton suggests in one of his columns, "It might make things a little clearer, for children or foreigners, if we did not speak of the Holy Ghost, but only of the Holy Spirit. The word 'ghost' is antiquated in that meaning; and, what is worse, is still alive and kicking in another and more grotesque meaning."
But the word "ghost" can actually give us a conception of what the Holy Spirit is. As a ghost is supposed to be a departed person's spirit without his/her body, so the Holy Ghost is Christ's spirit without His body. Or God's spirit, since God is all spirit, and the three members of the Trinity aren't really separate in the same way that we nonsupernatural being are.
Chesterton's Father Brown remarks that "a real live man with two legs once said to me: ‘I only believe in the Holy Ghost in a spiritual sense.’ Naturally, I said: ‘In what other sense could you believe it?’"
Unfortunately, we have a tendency to think of the Holy Spirit as being more like a thing than a person--a virtue, perhaps--that we can amass in bits and pieces. "Do not pray for more of the Holy Spirit," F. B. Meyer adjures us somewhat testily. "The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity and is not in pieces. Every child of God has all of Him, but does He have all of us?"
"Do not be worried," C. S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, "if you find it (or Him) rather vaguer or more shadowy in your mind than the other two [persons in the Trinity]. I think there is a reason why this must be so. In the Christian life you are not usually looking at Him: He is always acting through you."
In other words, He is the motivating force of our spiritual life. He is the one who first brings us to God and His Son and who can keep us faithful, if we allow Him to do so. "A sinner," Charles Spurgeon contends, "can no more repent and believe without the Holy Spirit's aid than he can create a world."
In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan (the lion who represents Christ) gives new life to persons or the land by breathing on them. In fact, according to Wikipedia, "both 'spirit' and 'ghost' are translations of the word for 'breath' in Hebrew and Greek." So, just as God originally breathed physical life into man, his spirit animates our nonphysical rebirth as well. But--in your bodily life--if you think too much about the working of your lungs, you are liable to bring all other activity to a standstill. And, in your spiritual life as well, you weren't "born" to just breathe!
I suspect that too many people are trying to "manifest" the Holy Spirit--as proof that they have Him, perhaps--without simply allowing Him to work through them, silent and unseen. "The mistake is too often made," Hannah Whitall Smith notes in The Christian Secret of a Happy Life, "of looking upon the 'baptism of the Spirit' as an experience rather than a life. . .Yet the Scripture plainly teaches us that the gift of the Holy Spirit is a universal gift to all believers, one without which they cannot be believers at all. . .if I want to be filled with the Spirit, I need not ask for more of the Spirit to be given to me, but only that more of myself may be given to the Spirit."
So we can't have a Christian life of any kind without the Holy Spirit. That is why "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. It is an eternal sin." (Mark 3:29 LB)
When Christ made that statement, the Jewish religious leaders had just accused him of being possessed by Satan. I think He was trying to tell them that, by denying His Spirit was God's Spirit, they closed themselves off from that Spirit. And they thus made it literally impossible for God to work in them.
The Holy Spirit can, of course, touch the hearts of unbelievers as well as believers. Or else those unbelievers would never see their need of salvation. But there must be some willingness on their part to let Him in.
Although God and His Spirit are omnipresent (everywhere), He has drawn limits for Himself. With humans, He will only enter when invited, though He may do a lot of persistent knocking beforehand! "God does not love Christians best," as an unknown author points out. "He simply has more access to them."
"I have been here all the time," said he [Aslan in Lewis's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader], "but you have just made me visible." "Aslan!" said Lucy almost a little reproachfully. "Don't make fun of me. As if anything I could do would make you visible!" "It did," said Aslan. "Do you think I wouldn't obey my own rules?"
Once invited in, the Spirit occupies our "house" to the extent that we allow Him to do so. "Theologically," Smith notes, "every believer has everything as soon as he is converted, but nothing is his experimentally until by faith he claims it."
Perhaps this is why some Christians seem to be filled with the Holy Ghost at conversion and others need what is called a "second blessing." In fact, I suspect that the amount of room we Christians allow the Spirit can vary quite drastically throughout our lives. So we are probably going to need more than a couple blessings! Even with God in the house, we are too often inclined to make our own decisions without asking His opinion.
When we do ask, His Spirit--like most good counselors--will try to help us figure things out for ourselves. "A good counselor doesn’t give orders or even direct advice," Philip Yancey reminds us. "Instead, a wise counselor summons up a response in the person being counseled."
Often we find God's silence maddening. But, by listening in silence, the counselor encourages the patient to talk things through. We take more to heart the things that we figure out for ourselves.
When the Holy Spirit is in us, however, we find it all too easy to believe that all of our conclusions must come from Him. Which is, of course, definitely not the case! One of the most difficult tasks for us Christians is distinguishing our own wishful thinking from His leading.
"Because the Holy Spirit is within us," Madeleine L'Engle cautions in A Circle of Quiet, "because He can be known only subjectively, only, that is, by means of what I am, we shall never feel absolutely certain that it is in fact the Spirit who is working. This is the price that has to be paid for inspiration of every kind."
That is why it's essential to compare our conclusions to scripture--and to the opinions of other Christians. "I seek the will of the Spirit of God through or in connection with the Word of God, " George Mueller writes. "The Spirit and the Word must be combined. If I look to the Spirit alone without the Word, I lay myself open to great delusions. . ."
So we must never conclude that our emotional response to any subject is the same thing as the Holy Spirit. Lewis cautions in The Problem of Pain that "the gift of the Holy Spirit. . .can't usually be--perhaps not ever--experienced as a sensation or emotion. The sensations are merely the response of your nervous system. Don't depend on them." He goes on to remind us that "emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth."
Or put it this way. Other people do not cause our emotions. Our response to those people causes our emotions. When we are feeling particularly loving towards God, we will also feel "filled with the Spirit." But our feeling "dry" and "empty" doesn't necessarily mean the Spirit has abandoned us. It can just mean that we are having a bad day. And, on such days, we are apt to feel irritated with everyone--even with God. But that doesn't mean He has stopped working in us.
Dorothy Sayers says, of the kingdom of God, what may also be said of the work of His Spirit. "It is secret, living power--like yeast." In other words, though unseen, He causes us to "grow in spiritual strength, and become better acquainted with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." (2 Peter 3:18 LB) But, as an unknown author writes, "When real growth takes place, nine times out of ten we are not aware that is happening. Growth is God's department."
That growth can seem painfully slow to us. "As the world must be redeemed in a few men to begin with," George MacDonald points out in Unspoken Sermons, "so the soul is redeemed in a few of its thoughts and works and ways to begin with: it takes a long time to finish the new creation."
Fortunately, the Holy Spirit also prays for us, because we don't always ask for the right things ourselves. What we claim will make us better people, is frequently just what we think will make us happy instead. The Spirit does know what we need, however, even when it may render us temporarily unhappy.
Perhaps that's the real reason the Spirit makes us uneasy, because we have given access to Someone we can't control. And we suspect he is trying to make us holier than we really want to be! But that is what makes a religion different from a hobby. There is a supernatural force at work in us. And He will surprise us sometimes.
It does us good to be swept off our feet occasionally. (Perhaps literally for people in the charismatic denominations, and less literally for the rest of us!) Because our religion should be, when it comes right down to it, a love relationship rather than simply a set of doctrines. And, if we lose that, we've lost everything.
In Encounter with Spurgeon, Helmut Thielicke recounts how Old Testament Saul reacts like a backslidden preacher when he loses the Holy Spirit. He "moodily plays the cynic, criticizes all others, and hurls the javelin of detraction at a better man than himself. . .resorts to the witchcraft of philosophy and seeks help from dead heresies; but his power is gone. . ."
Saul's successor, David, is far from a perfect man himself. But he loves God in a way that Saul obviously no longer does. How that love manifests itself will be different for different people, different personalities. That's another reason we really can't judge the worship practices of other Christians, as long as they don't violate God's laws.
Although my denomination isn't a charismatic one, we do often get a strong sense of the Spirit's presence, especially at camp meetings or revivals where a large number of believers are assembled. No flames over people's heads as of yet.
But, though I haven't seen it myself, I hear that--back in the old days--a smoke or mist might occasionally descend over the front of the tabernacle. Reminiscent of what occasionally descended over the Old Testament tabernacle. And, although people don't "run the aisles" or leap over pews these days as much as they might have back then, things can get emotional at times!
I suspect believers in the past were less self-conscious, because they weren't as inclined as we are to analyze everything to death. They knew that they couldn't entirely explain God, so they were more inclined to just enjoy His presence instead.
New Agers talk a lot about "spirit" these days, but they are always reluctant to specify whose spirit they are talking about. I suspect, however, that it is the Holy Spirit they are really longing after.
He has been represented by a variety of symbols, including a dove, wind, and fire. So I think we can conclude that He is--like the dove--pure and free. Like the wind, seen only through the effect of his actions. And, like the flame, a burning that we hope will eventually consume all the dross in our lives and leave us also pure and free.