For many the Holy Spirit is an impersonal, imperceptible, and indiscernible force. Cloaked in mystery, many find it difficult to “get a handle” on the Spirit. The Spirit has no “face” like Jesus nor any personal metaphors, such as parent or husband, like Israel’s God.
Our desire, of course, is not so much to control or manipulate the Spirit as much as it is to have a way of conceiving or visualizing the Spirit’s identity. Without any framework for understanding, we are at a loss to even identify what the Spirit does in our lives much less experience God through the Spirit.
Our pneumatic imagination needs a little help. Paul, I think, offers such. The Spirit appears in practically every chapter of Paul’s letters, and saturates his theology. While “God in Christ” is the center of Paul’s theology, the Spirit is a living, enabling, and enriching presence that connects redeemed humanity with the Redeemer God. We have access, Paul says, to God in Christ “by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18).
Without some understanding of the Spirit, then, our experience of God remains in a conceptual wasteland. That is not only lamentable but dangerous. Spiritual discernment entails that we “see” the Spirit at work in our lives or else we will mistake other spirits for the Holy Spirit.
So, what does Paul offer us by way of a conceptual landscape that will help identify the Spirit in our lives. I “see” in Paul a three-fold typology for thinking about the Spirit’s work. This typology is not a box in which to enclose the Spirit, nor is it a gizmo to manipulate the Spirit. Rather, it is a tool to unmask our eyes so that we might “see” what the Spirit is doing–to recognize the Spirit in our lives.
The Spirit’s foundational is to facilitate communion between God and us. Our communion with God is the “communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:12).
Jesus did not leave us as orphans; instead, God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church. This out-pouring is the gifting of God’s presence among us. We are inhabited by God through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22); we are the temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 6:19). The Spirit is the one through whom we experience God in the present. The Spirit’s presence enables our communion with God; more than that, communion in the Spirit is communion with God.
This presence, which is the fulfillment of God’s presence in the temple in Israel and anticipates the fullness of divine presence in the new heaven and new earth, is how we now live in fellowship with God. We worship in the Spirit (Philippians 3:3), we pray in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18), and we are washed in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11). We are “in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells” in us (Romans 8:9). The Spirit is the air we breathe, and every breath is communion with God.
This communion, of course, is not merely vertical. It is also horizontal, that is, we commune with each other by what we share in the Spirit (Philippians 2:1). We love each other in the Spirit (Colossians 1:8). Because we have all been baptized in the Spirit and have drunk of the same Spirit, we are one body where ethnic, economic, and gender barriers are transcended (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28).
We “see” the Spirit when we enjoy the sweet fellowship of others, experience the peace and joy of the Spirit in communion with God, and encounter God in the assembly of God’s people as we worship in the Spirit. We must not secularize these moments as if they are produced by our own internal powers. Rather, we relish them and delight in them because we know, by God’s promise, that the Spirit is present to generate them. They are moments where heaven and earth meet in the Spirit.
The Spirit communes with us, and this communion is transformative. The Spirit is no passive presence. On the contrary, the Spirit is an active, enabling and transforming presence. The Spirit dwells within us so that we might live in the Spirit.
Salvation involves transformation. Because we are children of God, God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts and we experience the intimacy of divine communion. But this is not the end game; it is not God’s goal. This intimacy includes a shared life, and it transforms us. We are increasingly, by the Spirit, transformed (metamorphized!) into the image of Christ from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The Holy Spirit is the presence of divine holiness within us, and this holiness bears fruit. Paul called it the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). This is what it means to “live by the Spirit,” that is, it is to manifest a life of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit leads us into a such a life by renewing our hearts, empowering our souls, and moving our wills.
The presence of the Spirit is a necessary first step for such a life, and without that presence there is no transformation that images Jesus who himself was led and empowered by the Spirit. The reality of that presence, however, is evidenced in a holy life as we are “sanctified by the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
We “see” the Spirit when we are patient with the stubborn, when we are kind to the ungrateful, when we are at peace in the midst of the storm, when we are generous with the poor, and when we are gentle with those who disagree. We must not secularize these moments as if they are self-actualizations. Rather, we give thanks that the Spirit is at work in our lives to empower them. We credit the Spirit rather than our programs, our will power, or our own goodness.
God gives the Spirit as a communing and transforming presence. God created to commune with us, and God redeems to transform us. And God goes one step further. God gifts us so that we might participate in the transformation of the world.
“Through the Spirit,” Paul writes, God gives the body of Christ the capacity to serve each other and the world. These “manifestations of the Spirit” are for the “common good,” and the gifts are “activated” and distributed by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:7-8, 11).
It is important, however, to note that presence comes first, then transformation, and finally giftedness. We might think of this as a spiral of activity where there is reciprocity but also movement toward a goal. God dwells in order to commune. That communion transforms us, and, as people in the process of transformation, God gifts us so that we might participate in the mission of God. The gifts are best used by transformed people. This is why 1 Corinthians 13 comes between 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Giftedness without love is useless; more than useless, it is detrimental. Transformation must shape the use of the Spirit’s gifts.
Too often the lists of 1 Corinthians 12 become the focus when talking about gifts. Romans 12 also has a list of gifts. The two lists are not the same; in fact, there is little overlap. Neither are exhaustive, and together they are not exhaustive. They are illustrative.
Gifts are whatever capacity we have to participate in the mission of God. Whatever “talent” we use to further the mission of God–whether it is software programming, musical ability, environmental passion—they are divine gifts. Too often we talk about “talents” as if they are natural dispositions independent of God’s work among us. One of the reasons we feel so distant from the Holy Spirit is because we secularize our gifts; we minimize the Spirit’s role. Giftedness, inclusive of “talents,” is a manifestation of the Spirit!
We “see” the Spirit when transformed people (or, better, people in the process of transformation) use their gifts in service to the mission of God, which is the transformation of the whole world. We “see” the Spirit when an environmental biologist cares for the creation, when a nurse compassionately cares for the sick, when a debt mediator reconciles a creditor and a debtor, and when an actor embodies the gospel in a drama (even if the drama never mentions God at all). We “see” the Spirit’s gifts in action when brokenness is healed.
Often we don’t “feel” the Spirit in our lives, and sometimes we misinterpret what the Spirit is doing. There is no promise that we will always “feel” the Spirit, and there is the persistent danger that we will misinterpret what the Spirit does. This is why is it is important to “see” the Spirit through the lens of the biblical narrative, the story of God. Whether we feel the Spirit or not, God has promised the Spirit’s presence, and God has provided a narrative that frames our understanding of the Spirit’s work so that we might “see” the Spirit.
The most significant danger we face, I think, is the minimization of the Spirit. We minimize the Spirit when we secularize what is, in fact, the Spirit’s work. We often fail to “see” the Spirit because we attribute whatever goodness, joy, or warmth we experience to powers other than the Spirit. We fail to “see” the Spirit because we are blinded by our own pride.
The Spirit is personal, discernible, and visible. The Spirit is God among us to transform us into the image of Christ and to gift transformed people with good works for the sake of the body and the world. We “see” the Spirit every day, if only we have eyes to see what God is doing.