This Ginormous Misunderstanding

When people talk about the Holy Spirit today, the conversation usually revolves around the question on spiritual gifts. Is speaking in tongues still operational today? What about prophecies? Why is the baptism of the Holy Spirit weird?

Few years ago, I had a friend who came out of a Victory Weekend session crying. When I asked her what happened, she told me she was scared of the speaking in tongues. She was ready to bolt out and go home but I convinced her to stay and read the Bible with me. We skipped lunch that day as we opened the Scriptures and did some digging about the gifts of the Spirit. She later returned to the afternoon sessions and got baptized the following day.

The Holy Spirit has not always been an easy topic to talk about. We have no problem talking about God the Father as he mostly acted behind the events of the Old Testament. We also don’t have a problem talking about Jesus because we have as many as four gospels giving us the story of his earthly ministry. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, well, that’s the challenging part. The Holy Spirit is mysterious, he kind of floats around the Bible, and references about him are a bit scarce compared to the Father and the Son. He is mostly associated with speaking in tongues, miraculous signs, and prophetic utterances. To our modern ears, this stuff sound spooky. When I asked my discipleship group last Sunday about their childhood concepts of the Holy Spirit, I was surprised that some of them associated him with horror movies and something that borders on sorcery.

These misconceptions reveal a ginormous gap in our understanding of God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Godhead. Whoever Jesus is, the Holy Spirit is of the same substance, character, and power. There’s more to him than speaking in tongues, in fact, the gifts of the Spirit are just a small fraction of what he does. And yet, in my years of ministry experience, almost all the questions I encountered about the Holy Spirit are related to the weirdness of speaking in tongues.

We need proper theology for this. Apart from the fantastic (read: spooky) gifts, the Holy Spirit actually does a thousand other subtle and invisible ministries in our lives. When you read your Bible and a verse jumps at you, that’s the Holy Spirit’s work of illumination. When you share the gospel and suddenly you feel like you have a sharp recall of the Bible verses you read in passing, that’s him reminding you of the things you learned (John 14:26). When temptation shows up naked before you and you have the strength to turn away, that’s the Holy Spirit infusing power to your otherwise frail humanity. When you used to be a drunkard but now you gradually lost the appetite for wine, that’s him again reordering the desires and appetites of your body.

It is the Holy Spirit who carries our prayers to the Father. It is he who bears witness to our souls that we are indeed children of God (Romans 8:16). The Holy Spirit is the seal that the Father placed on us to mark us as his own possession (2 Cor. 1:22). It is also the Holy Spirit that prompts us not to get into that bus that later had an accident.

Notice that these are not bombastic, loud, and flashy ministries. Instead, they are things that the Holy Spirit does behind the scenes. The gifts listed in 1 Corinthians 12-14 are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Underneath them are a massive work of character building and maturation that we don’t see.

This distinction is important because most of the time, our understanding of the Holy Spirit is simplistic and two dimensional. Without meaning to, we have put the Holy Spirit in a box and expect him to show up only at appropriate times of our worship services. If people are not crying or laughing in our preaching, we think the message is not powerful enough. When people don’t sing and raise their hands, worship leaders think there’s no anointing there. But who are we to say that the people are not moved? What makes us think that the Word will not hit them hard once they get home? Does the move of the Spirit have to happen within the ninety minutes church service?

Our current preaching series in Victory highlights the Holy Spirit’s work in the context of the ministry. The basic premise is that the gifts are given to the church not so we could only sit and soak but to fire up our ministries and demonstrate the power of Christ to the world. This is a necessary corrective for many of us. I have known some Christians who are so bent on chasing after the manifestations of the presence of God but are not involved with reaching their families, offices, or cities with the gospel. This doesn’t coincide with Acts 1:8 where the Holy Spirit is given with evangelistic and missional implications.

In the same breath, it is also important to say a word of caution to those who seem to treat the Holy Spirit as someone to use in accomplishing missional goals. The Holy Spirit is a person, not a tool. Before we ask him to do this and that, we need to cultivate a genuine, growing, vibrant relationship with him. This means that while we seek to grow in our horizontal, missional goals, we must also seek to match that with vertical relationship with him. Outward and upward growth go hand in hand.