The Unbelievable Holy Spirit

dove holy spiritThere’s at least one sure way to have a crisis of faith: try to seek the Holy Spirit and come up empty. That’s how I lived for a while: asking God for the Holy Spirit and experiencing nothing.

The Holy Spirit presents the perfect storm for a Baptist like me. I learned about the Holy Spirit, but I only really knew how to “experience” the Bible. The more I studied the Bible, the more convinced I became that the Spirit could be manifested today.

Beyond what I learned, I started meeting Christians who had dramatic experiences of the Holy Spirit. Some healed others, some had prophetic words, some had experienced emotional healing, some had dreams and visions, and others spoke in tongues.

I knew these people. They were not deceptive. Something supernatural was happening, and it lined up with what I read in the Bible. That left me with a disturbing question:

Why am I not experiencing the Holy Spirit?

The Worst Charismatic Ever

I could figure that out biblically speaking: the Holy Spirit is essential for the Christian faith. It is quite another matter to figure out a place for the Spirit in our American evangelical churches who tend to emphasize strategic planning, Bible teaching, and a Spirit functioning in the background without necessarily being manifested in ways we can feel and observe.

The irony is that I was most resistant to the Holy Spirit when I was most concerned with following the Bible literally. You would think that I would have walked around putting my hands on sick people and praying for them to be healthy again.

Instead, I just prayed for wisdom or comfort or whatever.

Forget about healing the lame. My Christianity was lame. I wanted to follow Jesus, but I also didn’t know what to do about the Holy Spirit who figured so prominently in the New Testament. Where does someone begin with the Holy Spirit?

Why Won’t the Holy Spirit Come?

Good Baptist that I was, I determined to take the Bible “at its word.” I was going to ask God for the Holy Spirit. Over and over again people pray for the Holy Spirit and BOOM!

If the Bible was true, this had to work. Why would God let me doubt him?

At my best I was uninformed and inexperienced with the Holy Spirit. At my worst, I came dangerously close to completely losing my faith because I didn’t understand how the Holy Spirit works. I had this nagging suspicion over the years that acknowledging a bigger Holy Spirit suddenly made my faith a complicated mess.

I was completely right about something for once.

Once I let an authoritative Holy Spirit loose, I had so many questions and a pile of doubts and fears to sort through.

Every time I sat down to pray, I felt like my faith was being put to the test. God is supposed to show up if I have the Holy Spirit, so what does it mean if the Holy Spirit doesn’t show up?

I expected to feel something. I’d seen people pray and have dramatic encounters with the Spirit, weeping or laughing. I’d seen people pass out. I saw marks that God was doing something.

When I prayed and asked for the Holy Spirit to come, I felt nothing.

When people say, “I just take God as his word about the Holy Spirit?” I want to ask, “But what exactly is God promising us? Should we always expect healings and miracles? If not, why not?”

How to Receive a Gift You’ve Already Been Given

The hardest part about going from non-charismatic to charismatic in my belief and practice was sorting out the place of the Spirit in my every day Christian practices, whether that was reading the Bible, praying quietly, or praying for someone.

For a season, I dreaded sitting down to pray since I feared I would not experience the presence of the Holy Spirit and spend the rest of my day questioning my faith and the existence of God.

I have very little patience for anyone who makes this Holy Spirit stuff sound simple. Some of us have really struggled with this while having the best intentions. I wanted to take it seriously, but I also didn’t know how it all worked.

As is often the case in Christianity, blueprints and expectations led me astray.

For instance, my father-in-law prayed for me once and said that he sensed the Holy Spirit coming to fill me up. I didn’t doubt him, but I also didn’t feel anything happen. I didn’t even say a single word in a tongue.

What gives?

I read about Lauren Winner asking God to give her the gift of tongues, and she prayed, “Tongues, tongues, tongues…” I could relate to that prayer.

After stumbling around with the Holy Spirit for a few years, I’ve learned that the manifestations or anything I feel is far from the point. Really, really far from the point in fact.

Waiting on God

We have an instant culture with fast food, high speed internet, 4G phones, instant dinners, and super highways that let us move at top speeds. You can’t turn the Holy Spirit into an instant spiritual fix. You don’t take the Holy Spirit with a glass of water and enjoy your afternoon after filling up.

I had to wait and persevere. I had to let others pray for me. I had to open myself up to however God wanted to speak to me or through me.

Learning to sit and wait without expectation has helped me take some positive steps with the Holy Spirit. Rather than focusing on what I expected to happen or what God’s inaction meant about my faith, I finally hit a place where I just waited to see what God would do.

In other words, I don’t ask God for something big unless I feel peace about making that request. I don’t know how the mechanics of this work or if there are any rules. I just know that prayer isn’t this big grab bag that we can access any old time. Prayer is about getting on the same page with God, waiting for his prompting, and then moving in the direction he leads with enough faith to believe he can accomplish something in or through you if he gave you the prompting in the first place.

I get nauseous when people challenge me to do big things for God or to take big risks. Small or big risks are not about faith unless God gives you the vision. Christian obedience isn’t about making a great plan and following through. I had to listen and hear God before I could take a step forward.

If I just waited with hands open, believing that God could show up if he so pleased, I could receive either a word or silence.

For all of the times in the Bible that we see God show up, there are plenty more that pass by unnoticed where God doesn’t give any messages or do anything of note. This is how we ended up with Psalms of lament.

Once I started to open myself up to the Spirit’s voice without asking for something specific, I started to hear things.

Spiritual Warfare is Weird but Real

Any time I explain the Holy Spirit to someone who doesn’t have a grid for it, I have a hard time putting my finger on what exactly I hear or how I know I’ve heard the Spirit. More often than not, I get a sense that something is true and that I need to pray it or act on it.

Most of the time, there’s a result of some sort that confirms I’d heard correctly.

In praying for myself and others, the Holy Spirit sometimes gives me a specific thing to pray about. On one occasion I was praying about our marriage, and the Holy Spirit spoke right to my laziness.

That doesn’t happen all of the time, and honestly, I don’t make it happen. I just wait for it. Sometimes it comes after a lot of waiting and sometimes it comes before I’ve even started to pray and sometimes, many times, I don’t hear anything.

Perhaps the most startling thing I’ve heard is to pray about spiritual battles. In other words, I hear that I need to pray against a spirit of some sort in a person’s life. I’ll bet that may either alarm or bother some folks. Do we really have demons trying to make us sin?

The answer I’ve found is this: sometimes.

I’ve received the profound sense that I needed to pray for certain couples “right now.” It is awkward and a bit strange, but if I listen to that urge, God brings up something that I need to pray about.

I can’t explain this. I just know that sometimes there are evil forces in this world trying to undo relationships and health. Other times sin in a person’s life is more of a personal choice. We can’t blame everything on evil spirits, but they’re out there.

Can You Receive the Spirit?

If this strikes you as both appealing and frightening, you’re in good company. There are some times when I sit down to pray, and I struggle with “relaxing” in God’s presence. I want something to happen!

The Holy Spirit isn’t about proving something to ourselves, others, or God. You can’t make God do anything, but you can enter God’s presence with open hands.

The best advice I can give someone about the Holy Spirit is to seek out someone who can provide support and guidance. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift to you, but it’s not easily received because we have so much junk in our lives that distracts us and makes it hard to connect with God.

Over the years I’ve learned what it feels like to have a quiet Spirit before God. That doesn’t mean I’m better at quieting my spirit necessarily. It just means I can spot a manic mind much easier and at least work on stilling myself before God.

The Spirit is a gift for me and for you. The Spirit helps us enjoy the peace and joy of God’s Kingdom today.

The Spirit will dramatically change our lives and put us in tune with God in new ways. The Spirit is even worth having a crisis of faith.

8 thoughts on “The Unbelievable Holy Spirit

  1. BradinDC

    Thanks for sharing, Ed. This has been my experience. I would pray hard, trying to make something happen. And when it didn’t, I assumed I was bad at praying or incapable of manifesting the Spirit. Or maybe God just wasn’t listening.

    Only recently I gave up trying harder; I began to wait. I’d pray, asking God to teach me and show me how to pray. If nothing happened, I wouldn’t fake it or force it. I just tried to be available.

    But occasionally, I’d feel God ask me to pray for someone or something. So I would. And that is when I started to see the Spirit move. Not when I tried the biggest or most pressing things to foist on God, but when I tried to pray what He asked of me (God can do those big things, obviously. When He leads, I pray for those too. But if God has some plans for my actions, it seems He also has them for my prayers).

    The more I listened, eventually the more I heard. It’s still early (really early: only the last few months). I don’t instantly calm my spirit or always (often?) hear His voice clearly. I certainly am not a ‘prayer warrior’. But I believe the Holy Spirit has been working in me, and I’ve never been able to confidently say that before.

  2. elizabeth

    I can relate to this. I don’t understand why some people have such a “ask and receive” dramatic experience and others of us pray and ask and seek and wait and beg in full faith – yet don’t receive in the way others did and promised we would. Trying to force the Spirit to manifest how I had been told He would was one of the most barren times in my life. Crisis of faith, you’re right! The Wind is stifled by lack of faith and fear, but also perhaps by us viewing Him as a robot requiring a certain sequence of button-pushing in order to output specified behavior. But He’s a person! Nobody wants to be taken for granted. He’s after relationship, not user-ship.

    Emerging slowly on the other side of that wasteland, still without the dramatic manifestations but possessed of an inner certainty that He is here, seeing His power in the small things, no longer expecting Him to act a certain way – well, the crisis of faith was worth it. I don’t know what’s after this, but this at least was worth it….

  3. Wes James

    “…the great complaint of the mystics, like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, was that they lacked spiritual guides to lead them along the right paths and enable them to distinguish between creative and destructive spirits…

    “The first and most basic task of the one who takes the inward journey of the heart is to clarify the immense confusion that can arise when people enter into this new internal world. It is painful indeed to realize how poorly prepared we may be to walk this inner terrain… I am afraid that in a few decades the Church will be accused of having failed at its most basic task: to offer people creative ways to communicate with the divine source of human life.”

    Henry Nouwen in “Spiritual Formation”, Loc. 200

    This book has been unbelievable helpful for me. I would recommend it to all who are making the journey ‘inward’. Thanks for your wonderful description of the difficulties and questions that arise in searching for the Spirit’s presence.

  4. Melinda Viergever Inman

    Great article, Ed! Believers receive the Holy Spirit when we place our faith in Christ. Walking in the Spirit moment by moment and being filled with him is the challenge! Yieldedness, as you described, is essential. Penetrating humility before Christ about our sins and motives is necessary. When the Spirit has his way, he is thorough.

  5. Cindy Tunstall

    Enjoyed this post so much! Our experiences are very similar. I had this desire to experience the manifest Presence of God, but I had no idea how to make that happen. I wondered what was I missing? I felt like there must be way to make it happen for me. I am thankful that God brought some amazing women into my life. They gently and lovingly showed me some things that I needed. They encouraged me to ask and wait on God. I’ve been writing about my journey. So exciting to see God opening my eyes to experience Him in fresh ways. I love Him more than I ever imagined! Thanks for sharing your story! Truly blessed me!

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