What do discerning Christians mean when they speak of “the Holy Spirit?” They are not talking dogmatically, although there is the dogma of the Holy Trinity in the background, which we respect. When Christians speak of “the Holy Spirit” or “the Spirit,” they typically mean an experience of the presence of God in their soul or mind. The Spirit is the direct presence of the world-transcendent God, the One who brings all things into being. In the New Testament documents, the “Spirit” is used especially by three authors: the Apostle Paul; the evangelist Luke; and the evangelist John. (“Holy Spirit” or equivalents occur throughout the New Testament to a lesser degree.) As I have often explained, in the usage of New Testament authors, when they wish to communicate the experience of God as personal, they symbolize the experiences as “Christ,” or “Christ Jesus,” or “the Risen One,” and so on. When they write about their experiences of God as impersonal—as that which enlivens, enlightens, or cleanses, heals, teaches, guides, forgives, comforts, gives peace, and so on—they usually use the term “holy Spirit,” or equivalent. But we know from the Gospel accounts that while the LORD was embodied as Jesus, He is often credited as the source of enlightenment, healing, peace, forgiveness and so on. After Christ’s death and Resurrection appearances, the impersonal experiences of God are credited to “the holy Spirit.” So the distinction is approximate, not complete: Christ is personal—“I love you,” “I have chosen you,” and the Spirit is impersonal: “I was lifted up in the Spirit,” “it is the Spirit who gives life,” and so on. As for “the Father,” the symbol reminds the believer that there is always far more reality to the depth of divinity than anyone could ever experience, no matter how life-changing the conversion or manifestation of “the Spirit,” or of “the Risen Christ.” God remains ever beyond human grasp and comprehension. Self-enclosed experiences are gnostic, not Christian.
What is the Holy Spirit? That is the question that slipped from my lips during a discussion with one of the greatest philosophers of the past century, whom I was questioning as I worked on my doctorate on “The Experiential Foundation of Christian Political Philosophy.” To my question “What is the Holy Spirit?,” the philosopher answered with a question that penetrated my heart: “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” As a member of a doctrinal Christian church, I had been told that asking questions showed “doubt,” or “a lack of faith.” On the contrary: to ask spiritual questions, life questions, real questions, is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind of a human being; not to question shows a lack of faith. What a relief to hear this insight, which served to release me from doctrinal imprisonment. The hallmarks of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, self-control, and so on; and if one encounters an open mind, someone searching for truth about God and human being, then one is meeting a foremost activity of the Holy Spirit: asking the right questions.
When young people ask us questions that are genuine questions, and not mere quibbling or game-playing, do we realize that they are moved by the Holy Spirit? Or when you say to God, “Do you love me?,” do you wonder, “Am I asking this question of God, or is God asking it of me? Or both at once?” If you ask God in prayer, “LORD, what would you have me do?,” you are motivated by the holy Spirit. If you think you have God figured out, or that the Bible or the Church has “all the answers,” and you refuse to question and to search, then you are thwarting the liberating action of the Holy Spirit in your life. Are you living by the Spirit, or by the flesh—that is, by trusting in God’s presence, or by your own fleeting desires? The Spirit ever draws one beyond the bounds of a self-contained, self-centered existence into “the freedom of the children of God,” into ever expanding horizons. Life without self-imposed boundaries is the realm of the Holy Spirit. To enter into it is to enter into “heaven,” the Kingdom of God, eternal happiness. Amen!