Discover more from Ordinary Matters
How Do We Live in the Spirit?
For All Who Worry and Fret Over Life in The Spirit
I played baseball from childhood through my teenage years. One memory that stands out from the rest is the tryouts for my last season. I had an unbelievable day. I was a decent enough player, but on this occasion, I was unusually good. It was out of the ordinary, especially in the batting cage. I hit every pitch and appeared as if my batting average would be .336 in the upcoming season. I even started to buy into my own hype and was unsurprised when I was selected by one of the best teams in the top division. The next week, I went to our first practice—nervous but ready to shine. Within minutes, I had a ruh roh moment in the pit of my stomach. I was way, way, way out of my league. Fortunately, the coach noticed this as well. He pulled me aside and said, “You had a really good tryout, right?” I nodded. “Unusually good?” he added. I couldn’t help but grin despite feeling dejected. Rather than relegate me to sit on the bench for the season, he sent me down a division. Phew.
What League Am I Playing In?
Sometimes I feel like I’m playing in the wrong division when it comes to faith. Do you ever feel that way? I read a lot of the reformer John Wesley in seminary. He insisted on the possibility of being perfected in love—not just in eternity, but here and now, in this imperfect life. I’m not there yet. Not even close. The mystic Julian of Norwich prayed that God would grant her suffering that leads to the brink of death. God answered her prayer and also gave her an astounding revelation of divine love. Thanks to Julian, we have the popular adage, “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well.” But I can’t bring myself to join her in praying to suffer more to know God more deeply. Not yet. Maybe never. I am refreshed by the meditations of Howard Thurman and admire his perseverance and faithfulness as a source of nourishment and beacon of hope within the civil rights movement. But do I fulfill the vision he casts for the Christian life of love of God expressed in the pursuit of justice? I don’t think I do. Not yet.
Sometimes the call to the fullness of the Christian life stirs a nagging suspicion, at least for me, that maybe I got recruited into a league in which my best contribution is riding the bench. But it’s not just our friends in the communion of saints who can provoke this anxiety. Sometimes when I read the Bible, I feel a disconnect between what I read and what I see in my life. This suspicion especially creeps up for me when I consider the Holy Spirit.
Think about the Spirit of God hovering over the tohu bahu—the ancient formless void awaiting the Word to speak order, creation, and life into existence. Consider how the Spirit moves in the book of Judges—incredible feats of power and strength, miraculous victories for the underdog. Reflect on how God prepared the world stage to receive his Son: Mary, the Mother of God, was “found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” Contemplate how the Spirit visibly descended upon Jesus like a dove. The entire ministry of Christ is summed up in these prophetic words from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me.” As Jesus brings glory to the Father through his teaching, healing bodies, even raising the dead, it is all “in the power of the Spirit”—this is none other than the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.
But we can’t stop, won’t stop, there.
The book of Acts could easily be called the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. It is a historical and theological account of how the Spirit birthed the church. Each page testifies to how the apostles and disciples of the way were baptized and filled with the Spirit, the source behind all their signs and wonders: miraculous healings, prophetic speeches, and the ability to speak in previously unknown languages. The story of the church in Acts gives the impression that life in the Spirit is lively, fiery, and powerful.
From the beginning to the end of Scripture, the Holy Spirit is creative, palpable, and powerful. This is why I start to worry. Because all too often, I have to remind myself that the Spirit dwells in me more than I actually experience the Spirit’s abiding presence. But if I have to talk myself into believing the Spirit dwells in me, what if it suggests that I don’t actually have the Holy Spirit?
What if I’m not even playing in the league at all?
An Ordinary Time Primer for Life in the Spirit
In our last article, I reflected on the liturgical season of Ordinary Time and how it roots us in the normative, baseline reality for followers of Jesus: life in the Spirit. In the reality of Christ, there are no major and minor leagues, no divisions and subdivisions. Yes, there is spiritual infancy and growth into maturity. Even so, we are all held together in Christ by the Spirit—young and old, immature and mature, slave and free, Gentile and Jew, male and female. This means that in little old us, in average everyday saints, the Spirit richly dwells. If we can’t see the Spirit in our regular ordinary lives, then perhaps we have made the Spirit too small by limiting the Spirit to signs and wonders. We need a bigger view of the Spirit that includes the normal happenings of life here on earth.
In little old us, in average everyday saints, the Spirit richly dwells.
Before we go any further, let’s tackle the issue of the signs and wonders of the Spirit. Yes, they’re obvious. They catch our attention. But we can misunderstand their nature and their point. Words like miraculous and supernatural give us an impression that signs and wonders are interruptions of reality, an abrupt contrast to what is “natural”—an exception to the status quo. An alternative, however, is to view the miraculous and supernatural as the natural becoming more fully itself as it’s graced with the presence of God. This leads to their point: on this side of eternity, signs and wonders are always, always, always signposts of the kingdom of God. They are glimpses of life and creation rightly ordered under the rule and reign of our King Jesus. They stir our hope, add fuel to our part in the mission of God, and ignite our perseverance for the kingdom yet to come. But they are signs and not the fullness of the reality. Because even if someone receives the miraculous healing of their body, that same body will inevitably decay and die. When the apostles were miraculously freed from prison cells their newfound freedom included being shipwrecked at sea before being martyred. This isn’t to suggest we shouldn’t pray for healing or divine intervention because it’s short-lived. Any sign and wonder is a proclamation of the kingdom. I’m only saying that the transitory nature of the miraculous, their impermanence here and now, points to our need for the Lord’s prayer to be answered totally, Your kingdom come.
Ordinary Matters is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
We will hopefully witness signs and wonders that testify to the kingdom. It is correct to associate signs and wonders with the power of the Spirit. But signs and wonders are not the only way the Spirit is at work in power. One of my favourite prayers is written by the apostle Paul in Ephesians. He prays:
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Did you catch that? We need the Spirit to strengthen us with power for Christ to dwell in our hearts—the core of our being. This implies that the Spirit intercedes for us before Christ dwells in us. Additionally, we need the Spirit’s power to grasp the love of God. Once again, the Spirit must fortify us not only to dwell with Christ but to be loved by God. Let’s flush this out a little bit more:
On the one hand, the Spirit strengthens us to experience the emotive love of God. This is what grasping the breadth of God’s love is all about (an allusion to Psalm 103, as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his lovingkindness toward those who fear him). As the Spirit pours God’s love into our hearts, we feel love from God and toward God. But first, we need the prevenient grace of the Spirit to empower us to experience the gravity and force of this divine, immeasurable, knowledge-defying love. Nevertheless, it is a love we can experience in our heart, souls, and bodies.1
On the other hand, the Spirit gives us power to receive the benefits or work of God’s love toward us. Because love is an emotion and an action. The God of love, so loved the world, that he gave his beloved Son—this foundational truth of reality means that God did not just sit in eternity with love but acted in love. This same love of God is at work to fill us with “the measure of all the fullness of God.” This is no small feat, no minor renovation. This is nothing less than a new creation. This is the full benevolence of God at work for our good to attain unity with him as we share in the life of the Trinity through the Spirit. The church fathers and theologians call this theosis or union—attaining likeness to Christ to the fullest extent possible through our union with God by the power of the Spirit. This is impossible apart from the Spirit giving us power to share in God’s life.
In light of how the Spirit works in power, I want to summarize a few more ways the Spirit powerfully yet subtly works within us:
If you genuinely confess that Jesus is Lord—the Spirit has revealed this truth to you (1 Corinthians 12:3)
As you grow in your understanding and knowledge of the revelation of God in Christ, and anytime you remember a teaching from Scripture and live it out, that’s the Spirit at work (John 16:13, Ephesians 1:17)
If you feel grieved over any sin, thirst and hunger for a better life, or feel a longing for justice and mercy—that’s the Spirit too (John 16:7-11)
Any marginal growth in Christlikeness, any virtues or ‘fruit’ like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness (and you can add hope too) is the “sanctifying work of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18, Galatians 5.22, Romans 5.5, Romans 15.13, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2 respectively)
Anytime you pray but can’t find the words, the Spirit groans and intercedes for you before the very presence of the Father (Romans 8:16-27)
If you feel confidence in your identity as a child of God, once again ... that’s the Spirit of God, crying out Abba! Father! (Galatians 4:6)
Most of all, when you are empowered to witness to others about the good news of great joy, this is a powerful work of the Spirit in you (Acts 1.8)
While the signs and wonders of the Holy Spirit’s ministry more readily catch our attention, the Spirit’s power in subtlety is emphasized just as much in the New Testament. From moment to moment, the Spirit is at work, strengthening us with power to be filled with the fullness of God: guiding our thoughts and hearts toward the adoration of Jesus while shaping us to become people who look more and love more like Jesus.
The good news is that the Father delights in giving the good gift of his Spirit to us—without measure. The Spirit is the gift of God and virtually synonymous with grace. Because what greater gift can God give us than himself? Ask, and you will receive.
The Spirit leads the dance, and we follow in sync—clinging to the One who holds us even closer.
Even though the Spirit is given as a gift, this doesn’t erase our role in embracing the Spirit’s guidance. The apostle Paul urges us to “keep in step with the Spirit.” I liken this to a child joyfully clasping their parent’s hands, nestling their feet onto the parent’s own, and dancing in harmony, filled with laughter and elation. They look up and see their parent’s face smiling down upon them. The Spirit leads the dance, and we follow in sync—clinging to the One who holds us even closer. The apostle Paul says that as we behold or contemplate the glory of Christ, the Spirit transforms us. We look up to see his face shining upon us, imparting his glory into us.
As both the gift and the giver, the Spirit initiates our transformation, nurturing fresh desires within us and imbuing us with the will to fulfill them. Nevertheless, Paul tells us to actively “clothe ourselves” in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience—traits mirroring the fruit of the Spirit. The Spirit takes the lead, and we become willing participants. This is why it is so important for us to broaden how the Spirit’s work within us. By expanding the breadth of the Spirit’s influence, we can better discern the Spirit’s ongoing work in our lives and discover the next steps to take in unison with the Spirit—moment by moment, hour by hour, minute by minute.
The Spirit is already doing much more than we dare imagine.
May we not underestimate the Father’s delight in sharing the Spirit with us. May we experience the love, joy, and comfort of the Spirit’s presence. May we have eyes to see and hearts that embrace the art of the Spirit’s subtlety. May we keep in step with the Spirit as we live into this season of Ordinary Time. Come, Holy Spirit.
Pray Veni Creator Spiritus (9th century)
Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest,
Vouchsafe within our souls to rest;
Come with Thy grace and heav'nly aid
And fill the hearts which Thou hast made.
To Thee, the Comforter, we cry,
To Thee, the Gift of God Most High,
The Fount of life, the Fire of love,
The soul's Anointing from above.
The sev'n-fold gifts of grace are Thine,
O Finger of the Hand Divine;
True Promise of the Father Thou,
Who dost the tongue with speech endow.
Thy light to every thought impart
And shed Thy love in every heart;
The weakness of our mortal state
With deathless might invigorate.
Drive far away our wily Foe,
And Thine abiding peace bestow;
If Thou be our protecting Guide,
No evil can our steps betide.
Make Thou to us the Father known;
Teach us the eternal Son to own
And Thee, whose name we ever bless,
Of both the Spirit, to confess.
Praise we the Father and the Son
And Holy Spirit, with them One;
And may the Son on us bestow
The gifts that from the Spirit flow!
A Helpful Resource
Perhaps the most influential book I read during my time at Asbury Theological Seminary was Come, Creator Spirit: Meditations on the Veni Creator by Raniero Cantalamessa. I love this book. I highly recommend it.
I recognize that you might struggle with this promise. I have met many faithful followers of Jesus who have earnestly desired to experientially feel God’s love but have not yet. Next week, I’ll share an article offering a few diagnoses and remedies. All I want to say is that if you desire to know God’s love—this is a good desire. No matter what, you can look to the acts of God’s love: God loved you, at your worst, and sent his Son into the world.