By Elizabeth Reid
As a child, I was taught two things about the Holy Spirit. First, the Spirit was kind of like my conscience and would tell me when I was sinning. Second, the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible and God told us everything we need to know about being Christians in the New Testament. No one ever told me the Holy Spirit wasn’t as important as God the Father and Jesus, but it was implied.
As I got older, I’ve come to believe two things about the Holy Spirit. First, the Spirit written about in the Bible is alive, active, and present in our world. Second, actually reading what the Bible says about the Holy Spirit will test your preconceptions and assumptions. In the New Testament, the Spirit is a burning fire and a strong wind, a person equal to and distinct from Jesus and God. I was raised in a church that values biblical literacy and I was confused: why didn’t we talk about the Holy Spirit in the same way the Bible does? This set me on a path in search of the Holy Spirit, a search I am still on.
My first stop was close to home. Technically, it was home. I drove over to my parents’ house after church one Sunday and sat down to talk with them about the Holy Spirit, how they raised me, and spiritual gifts. This made them pretty uncomfortable.
“Does this feel weird to you, Dennis?” my mom asked my dad. “I feel like I’m taking a test.”
She continued, “The only thing I was specifically taught was that the Holy Spirit was a gift you got when you were baptized. Early on, I think I learned that the Holy Spirit is a person of the Trinity. It wasn’t a spiritual influence; it was a distinct person of the Trinity along with God the Father and Jesus the Son.”
Dad pulled down his Bible from the shelf and began thumbing through it for reference. “I believe the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin and leads us into all righteousness. The Spirit comforts us and intercedes with God on our behalf.”
He told me about traveling to Macon, Georgia, for training for work. They were doing “ice breakers” and were asked what their favorite book was. Dad told the other employees there that his favorite book was the Bible. “I immediately heard the Holy Spirit respond, ‘Well, if that’s true, why don’t you pick it up more often?’”
I was particularly interested in how they taught me and my brother about the Trinity. Their answer was a little disappointing:
“I don’t think it was something that we had a conscious, coherent thought about. I don’t think we made a conscious decision about how to talk about the Holy Spirit with you. I guess for me, God has the creator role. Jesus also sort of has a role I can understand. But the Holy Spirit seems to be sort of mystical and I don’t think we like that in the Christian church. It’s not as easy to ‘peg him down’ as it is the other two. I do think we lose some of the power of the Holy Spirit, not fully realizing the role he could play in our lives because we deemphasize him in our church.”
Dad added, “I don’t think I’m missing anything. I think you get the Spirit when you’re baptized but he’s not going to overwhelm you. As you mature and become more like Christ, you’re giving the Spirit more space in your life. But you shouldn’t ask for greater gifts or more of the Spirit.”
I wonder if, in our desire to say the right things about God, we’ve chosen to be silent about the Spirit, leaving the mystery in place. Unfortunately, it seems that this has deemphasized the importance of the most mystical member of the Trinity.
My dad’s silence about the Spirit, I think, is due to his discomfort with spiritual gifts. At first, he asserts he doesn’t have any. “Dennis, that’s just not reasonable,” my mother responds. “You need to be more confident. You have the gift of generosity. I also think you have the gift of administration.” I think my father also has the gift of service and I tell him so (I think it embarrasses him).
I’m very interested in spiritual gifts, and push back with a story from my own life: “Last year I was attending a Bible study that focused on the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians. For a long time, I prayed consistently through the fruit, like, ‘God, help me be a more loving person. Help me love my friends more. God, make me a more joyful person,’ and so on. Have you ever prayed that God would make you a more generous person?”
My father admits that he does. “Mary and I pray in the mornings that God will open us up to see opportunities where we can give and serve.”
The three of us agree: the Holy Spirit is what makes us aware of these opportunities.
After I finish talking with my mother and father, I decide that I should get a second opinion. Bryan and Robin Amick and I have been friends for about eight years, since our freshman year of college. They have two children: Tristan, 11, and Gavin, who is 4. I was specifically interested in what they do to emphasize the presence of the Holy Spirit in their family.
“When I talk to Tristan and Gavin about the Holy Spirit, I talk about strength and courage and bravery,” says Bryan. “We tell our kids that the Spirit helps them do the right thing and we talk about discernment.”
Robin, Tristan’s mom, adds, “I try to guide them through the process of discernment so they can identify the voices in their heads. During times when they’re struggling, I’ll ask questions like, ‘Do you feel bad for doing that?’ and ‘Did you think about that decision before you made it?’ I’ll tell them, ‘That was the Holy Spirit guiding you to make good choices.’”
Robin and Bryan were both raised in independent Christian churches and were taught that baptism was the moment when a believer receives the Holy Spirit. “When Tristan wanted to get baptized, I emphasized that the Holy Spirit would come into his life then, but I don’t tell Gavin just that. People are convicted before they know Christ. And what is conviction if not the Holy Spirit? I think the Spirit is actively wooing people,” says Robin.
Bryan adds, “In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, ‘No one can say “Jesus is Lord” without the Holy Spirit,’ and when Peter makes his confession in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells him that it was revealed to him by God. It’s necessary for the Holy Spirit to interact with you. Without the Spirit’s help, you can’t get to the point where you can say that Jesus is Lord.”
When asked what he thought the role of the Holy Spirit is in his children’s lives, Bryan says, “I believe the role of the Holy Spirit is to strengthen Tristan and Gavin when they feel weak and give them courage when they feel scared. When Gavin is afraid at night, we tell him that he has the Holy Spirit and because of that, he can be brave.”
These conversations help, but ultimately, I’m still in search of the Spirit. I think this is the way a Christian is meant to be: constantly searching for a better understanding of God’s presence in our world.
Elizabeth Reid is a recent graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary and lives in Atlanta, Georgia.