A little while ago I was walking along the Nottingham canal thinking about things and talking to God, and as I prayed I said the words that I have said thousands of times before: ‘Come Holy Spirit’. But for some unknown reason, as soon as I said those words that time, I stopped, and I asked myself why I was saying them.
Did I believe that the Holy Spirit wasn’t already dwelling in me, and needed to turn up before anything can happen? No. So why did I need to ask the Holy Spirit to come? Those questions set in motion a train of thought that has led to conversations with people that I love and trust, and has resulted in this blog post.
If 3 years at university have taught me anything, it’s that the way we talk about things and the way that we think about them are linked. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with much of what the Christian circles that I have been a part of all my life actually do in practice, what I am calling into question is the language that accompanies those practices. Whilst this is largely a semantic issue, I don’t think that makes it any less important.
My argument is this: in the Christian circles that I am familiar with, we place too much emphasis on being filled by the Holy Spirit again and again, which I think tricks us into thinking there are times that we have less of the Spirit, and times that we have more. Instead of asking to be filled up, our emphasis should be on asking God to help us to see more of the Holy Spirit in our lives, in the knowledge that anyone who has been baptised in the Spirit has already been filled.
I don’t think that there are many people in my Christian circles who would say that they believe there are times that we have less of the Spirit. As far as I can see, there is no biblical basis for such a belief. In this list of verses about being filled with the Spirit, they all seem to refer to an initial filling with the Spirit, or to people who are said to be full.
The idea that being filled is a one time thing is, to me, consistent with the language used in the Bible of the baptism of the Spirit, for example, when Jesus predicts the baptism of the Spirit at Pentecost. After the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, there were times when the apostles needed further guidance and teaching (see Acts 10), but, as far as I can see, there was no need for a ‘fresh wave of the Spirit’.
Jesus says in John 14 that his disciples are in him and he is in them. Elsewhere Christians are referred to as temples of the Holy Spirit, implying that the Spirit of God resides in us as he once resided in the Jewish temple.
As far as I can see, the Bible is consistent on this issue, so why does the way we talk about the Spirit suggest something else. When we pray to be ‘filled afresh’, or for a ‘new wave’ to come, or even simply for God to ‘fill us up’, there is the implication that we need something more from God than what we already have. It is as if we’re saying that the Spirit has ebbed, or left us.
My concern is that that we are portraying the Holy Spirit as a power source, not as a person of the Trinity and not as God In Us. We’re not spiritual cars that need to be filled up by the Spirit before we can go anywhere, we are people who have been born again and now seek to live lives in light of what God has done for us.
I want to stress that I don’t think this is intentional, and I don’t think that anyone would seriously describe the Spirit as a power source. I think that these expressions arise out of a desire to see more of God in our lives, which is a good thing, and I am glad to be in a Christian tradition born out of that desire. However, my concern is that if we unintentionally see the Holy Spirit as a source that needs to be topped up, we’re both reducing a person of the Trinity to an impersonal force, and putting ourselves in a position where, before we can act, we need a top up.
Rather than praying to be filled time and again before I can go and do the work of Jesus, I would rather ask the Spirit to show me what the work is and how to do it. After all, when Jesus talks about the Spirit in John 14, he says that one of his primary roles is to teach us and remind us of Jesus’ words (John 14:26). Rather than saying ‘fill me’, I want to say ‘teach me’, ‘guide me’, and ‘show me’. My one caveat here is that if someone has not experienced the baptism of the Spirit, they should ask to be filled. But once the Spirit has filled them, while they may need further guidance and reminding that God dwells in them, they don’t need a top up.
I also want to stress that while there isn’t a need to be ‘filled’, it’s a good thing to actively seek to become more aware of the Holy Spirit and what he wants to do. I love ministry times in church where people are praying for each other and desiring to see God do more and I don’t want any of what I say to devalue that. It is essential that we stay open to the Holy Spirit and don’t stop seeking God’s will through prayer both when we’re alone and in community.
The Holy Spirit wants to align us more closely with God. It seems to me that one of the most powerful prayers that we can pray is to say, ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’. This is such an important prayer because it allows us to consciously align ourselves with the reconciling, creative power of Christ that is demonstrated in the cross.
I would love to get to the point where I am so in tune with God’s will that I know that whatever I do brings glory to him. When Peter walked past the beggar in Acts 3, he didn’t wait for a word from God or for someone to lay hands on him before he did anything, he was able to respond immediately and pray for the man in Jesus’ name because he knew that what he was doing was the will of God. Peter wasn’t perfect, but he was walking in the power of the Spirit, and that meant that he could act immediately. He knew that God was dwelling in him always because he had experienced the baptism of the Spirit at Pentecost.
My final word on the topic is that I am prepared to be wrong about this. I believe that what I’ve written is in line with the Bible and the actual beliefs that I hold, but I’m holding it in an open hand. If someone can demonstrate that I am mistaken then I will let go of what I’ve said. If you don’t agree with me, I ask for grace, and I would love to discuss further in the comments or privately at firstname.lastname@example.org. Equally, if you agreed with me, then I would love to hear that too!