BOOK EXCERPT: The Holy Spirit

One of the weirdest concepts in Christianity is the Holy Spirit. Not even Christians know what to do with that one. A recent Christian bestseller about the Holy Spirit was titled Forgotten God. In his bestselling book The Shack, christian author William P. Young projects the Holy Spirit as a mysterious, partially-invisible, ambiguously-ethnic woman. One long-forgotten allegory cast the members of the Trinity as people at a church potluck dinner in some rural southern antebellum town. Jesus is the Baptist minister — shaking hands and saying prayers, offering kindnesses and condolences. The Father is the county judge — powerful and intimidating, smiling seldom and keeping a watchful eye on the kissing booth. And the Holy Spirit? That’s the red-headed town prostitute. She stays on the fringes of the potluck crowd.    

The Holy Spirit is unsettling because he represents another way that the Christian God defies convention. God is supposed to be “up there” somewhere. Our natural idea of God is other-worldly, unattainable, heavenly, unfathomable. But the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is that God is intimately with us. Not only did the second person of the Godhead come to Earth two thousand years ago, the third person of the Godhead stuck around. And he talks to us, shows up in our meetings, teaches us lessons, reminds us of things, whispers to us, guides our decisions — influences our careers, our parenting, our spending and our thoughts. Not content with God in heaven, our story insists on God in the room with us. God in our heads.   

You have searched me, Lord, 
    and you know me. 
You know when I sit and when I rise; 
    you perceive my thoughts from afar. 
You discern my going out and my lying down; 
    you are familiar with all my ways. 
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely. 
You hem me in behind and before, 
    and you lay your hand upon me. 
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, 
    too lofty for me to attain.   

—Ps. 139:1-6

Too lofty indeed. This God is unescapable and ominous. Santa has a list, the government has drones, but God knows your very thoughts. Nothing is hidden.   

We Christians believe that the Holy Spirit takes action in the world. He is a change agent. He counsels us and reminds us of truth (John 14:26), encourages us (Acts 9:31), directs us (Acts 13:2), marks us out as children of God (Ephesians 1:13-14), delivers messages (Acts 4:31), effects miracles (Hebrews 2:4), empowers exorcisms (Acts 16:16-18), enables people to do unusual things like speak in tongues (Acts 2:4) or heal miraculously (Acts 14:8-10), assigns gifts and roles to Christians so that everyone in the church has work to do (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). And he resides in us so that our bodies become temples of God (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).  

We believe that God speaks to us. Sure, there is a wide range of expressions of this experience. Some Christians insist that they hear God’s audible voice, see visions, and feel his presence physically. Others don’t go farther than attesting that the Holy Spirit allows them to understand the words in their Bibles. But no Christian who affirms the ancient creeds denies that the Holy Spirit is alive and active in the world. The Christian God didn’t set the world in motion and then go watch a movie. He is involved, present, and concerned.   

So Christians have conversations with God. We ask him things and expect answers. We believe that the almighty eternal Maker of heaven and Earth has time for coffee, wants to know how I feel about my son’s latest report card.   

This idea has gotten many Christians in much trouble in the past. Very few of us actually hear God’s audible voice so we’re left to discern the Counselor’s guidance via other means, by developing an inward, soul-level awareness of the Spirit. This kind of communication is easily misinterpreted. And so Christians wind up saying unhelpful things, making career choices they regret, or even taking drastic measures like bombing abortion clinics. The idea that every believer is free and equipped to receive instructions directly from God may be the most dangerous doctrine ever put forth by any religion. Until this line in the creed, the Christian story has been simply outlandish and unlikely.  

Now it’s unsafe.   

Certainly if early Christians had invented their own religion — if the tenants of our faith were the product of human minds bent on proselytizing the world — we would not insist on including such a dangerous and unpopular idea. And certainly Christians have found ways to downplay this doctrine, or to balance it with more stable lessons from the Bible and common sense.   

And yet the creed insists on this truth. We believe in the Holy Spirit, a counselor, comforter and guide through life. To deny the existence of a living Holy Spirit is to deny Christianity.  

This is a risky faith.