[This is the fifth of a series of six posts on how my faith convictions have changed (or not) in the past 15 years that I have been a college professor. Not long before leaving congregational ministry to begin teaching I did a series of sermons trying to state in concise terms what I understood to be key Christian beliefs. I am posting an excerpts from my sermon on the Holy Spirit here. I will follow this post from 1996 with a post looking briefly at changes (and the lack thereof) in my convictions about Holy Spirit in the past 15 years. Here are links to the first four posts—the first two are on my views of God 15 years ago and on present-day thoughts about God. The third and fourth are on, first, my thoughts from 15 years ago and then some current thoughts on Jesus.]
What Do We Believe About the Holy Spirit?
Ted Grimsrud—January 21, 1996
When I was a fairly young child, my imagination was stirred by the thought of a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I’m sure I must have read stories about people finding the pot of gold, maybe I even saw drawings of it. It seemed like it must be pretty simple to find that pot. So, one spring day we had a thunder shower, and the sun poked through. There was a rainbow! And it looked like it came to an end in the field near our house! I set off to where the rainbow came down, visions of a pot of gold running through my head.
But something strange happened. As I approached the end of the rainbow, it seemed to move. So I went a little further. The rainbow moved again. Then it disappeared. I searched the ground and found no trace of a pot of gold. I was pretty disappointed. My older sisters laughed at me. They did not tell me about rainbows scientifically, explaining the refraction, reflection, and dispersion of light in rainfall. They simply told me that everyone knows that it’s impossible to find the end of the rainbow, that’s why we all don’t have pots of gold. They made me feel pretty dumb.
The elusiveness of the rainbow’s end is kind of like how I feel in trying to get a handle on this topic—“What Do We Believe About the Holy Spirit?” This belief is difficult to pin down. What do we believe about the Holy Spirit? The quick answer is that the Holy Spirit is one-third of the Trinity. After that, though, we need to do some thinking.
The Holy Spirit is kind of like the end of the rainbow—elusive, not stationary and stable, impossible to put your hands on. One person said that we don’t commune with the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is communion. The Holy Spirit is like fire, like a rainbow, like the air we breathe. It’s here. It’s real. It is crucial to life. But it is not containable. It is not even that easy to talk about.
When I stop and think, though, I find myself encouraged. I find it helpful to ponder: What do we believe about the Holy Spirit anyhow?
This is what the Mennonite Confession of Faith says: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the eternal Spirit of God, who dwelled in Jesus Christ, who empowers the church, who is the source of our life in Christ, and who is poured out on those who believe as the guarantee of our redemption and of the redemption of Creation.”
If I were to write a Confession of Faith, I might phrase this a little differently: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the expression of God in the present life of people of faith. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life. The Holy Spirit sustains life and brings new life into being in the physical world. The Holy Spirit persuades Christians to trust in Jesus Christ as their savior and empowers them to follow Christ in life. The Holy Spirit gives us gifts which we may use to glorify God and to encourage each other. The Holy Spirit comforts us when we are afflicted and afflicts us when we are comfortable. Most of all, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of love. It is through the Holy Spirit that God’s love is poured out in our hearts, and that God’s love for the world is shown.”
What do we believe about the Holy Spirit? In a short phrase, we believe that the Holy Spirit is God’s enlivening presence on earth.
I would like to talk a little about four characteristics of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is life-giving, the Holy Spirit is empathetic, the Holy Spirit is dynamic, and the Holy Spirit is loving.
The Holy Spirit is life-giving. This is the first characteristic of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of life. When the Bible, both the Old Testament and the New Testament, refers to “Spirit”, the contrast is not spiritual versus physical. The contrast is not something other-worldly versus something of this world. The contrast is something that is alive versus something that is dead.
In Romans eight, Paul makes a contrast between the Spirit of life on the one side and the law of sin and death on the other side. The power of the Holy Spirit is the power to give life. This is true in lots of ways.
The power of the Spirit enlivens creation—“The world is charged with the grandeur of God” (Gerard Manley Hopkins). Creation teams with life. Genesis one tells that at the very beginning of creation, “the Spirit of God swept over the face of the waters (1:2),” and the creation of the cosmos, the creation of life began.
Our life as human beings comes from the Spirit of God. Genesis two tells of the creation of human beings. “The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the spirit of life; and the man became a living being” (2:7).
And our Christian faith, our spiritual life, is a work the Holy Spirit. “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free” (Rom 8:2). Our coming to faith is due to the work of God’s Spirit in our lives.
I mentioned in my reflections about God how I first felt God’s presence at my friend Charlie’s funeral when I was a teenager. Before that time I had doubted God’s existence, but the Holy Spirit touched my heart and gave me a sense that there is indeed a God, a God who gives life and meaning, even in the face of death.
The Holy Spirit did not leave me alone then. I had more I needed to learn. Through conversations with a Christian friend I began to understand better what it would mean for me to become a Christian. Simple belief in God wasn’t enough. I needed to make the commitment to trust in Jesus as my savior. It was the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus who helped me to learn, who pulled me forward to an explicit Christian commitment.
The Holy Spirit is empathetic. This is the second characteristic of the Holy Spirit. “Empathy”—the ability to share in another’s emotions, thoughts, or feelings. As the Holy Spirit, God is present with us in our human condition. The Spirit is God as present, God identifying with that which he loves.
In Second Corinthians Paul writes about his “thorn in the flesh”. No one has ever figured out for sure what Paul’s thorn in the flesh is, but it is something that caused him a great deal of pain. “Three times I pleaded to the Lord about this,” Paul wrote, “that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.’ So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor 12:7-9). The indwelling power of Christ is the power of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God. God, the Spirit was with Paul, empathizing with Paul’s pain and frustration.
The empathy of the Spirit does not always mean that the thorn in the flesh is removed. Sometimes, the empathy of the Spirit simply means that God is with us in our hard times. God is a comforting presence, an understanding presence, a teaching presence. God was teaching Paul a very important truth—“My grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness.” God as Holy Spirit is God as empathetic presence.
The Holy Spirit is dynamic. This is the third characteristic of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is always on the move. The Spirit of God pulls us forward, to grow, to learn. The Spirit of God is full of surprises. Human beings cannot control God.
The Gospel of John tells about Jesus talking with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. The problem with Nicodemus is that he is too literal minded. He thinks too much in terms of the intellect. Jesus talks to Nicodemus about being born again, being born of the Spirit. Nicodemus can’t figure out what Jesus is talking about. The issue, at bottom, is that Nicodemus wants a God he can keep under his thumb, who is predictable, who fits exactly with what we can see and touch. But Jesus points him to something different, a dynamic God, a God who is like the wind. “The wind blows where is chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).
When you are born of the Spirit—that is, when your heart is transformed by God’s mercy, when your eyes are opened to Jesus’ truthfulness, you will expect some surprises. When you are born of the Spirit, you will find God’s transforming love opening your heart and mind to all kinds of people, you will keep learning new things, you will find an excitement and freshness to life.
One of the most beloved professors at the Mennonite Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana, was J. C. Wenger. I wasn’t able to take any classes from J. C., but I often saw him around. He turned 70 the year we were at seminary, and had been teaching there for over forty years. You would think that J.C. had seen it all. But he often had a look of wondrous joy on his face. He was always discovering something new, something exciting. He loved meeting students from around the world and students, like Kathleen and me, from non-Mennonite backgrounds. They always provided him with new angles on things, new perspective, new awareness of the wideness of God’s mercy which encompasses all kinds of people. Life lived with openness to the Holy Spirit brings all kinds of delightful surprises and new opportunities to learn and to grow.
The Holy Spirit is love. This is the fourth characteristic of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus ends up making this point. Jesus talks about the Spirit to Nicodemus, and the literal-minded Pharisee has a hard time getting what Jesus means. Then Jesus gets to the punch-line about the things of the Spirit: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16). Believing in the son, receiving life—this is what being born of the Spirit is all about.
Paul, in Romans five, also speaks of the connection between the Holy Spirit and love. “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (5:5). When we receive the Holy Spirit, what happens is that God’s love is poured into our hearts. When we think about the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22-3)—the fruits of the Spirit all come down to one basic affirmation: “God loves me.” When we can say from our heart, when we know to the bottom of our soles, that God loves us—then the rest follows; joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The power of God’s love poured into our hearts, the power of God’s Holy Spirit—this the power which can heal us of hatred and fearfulness. This is the power that helps us move from a scarcity world to a world characterized by abundant living. The fruits of the Spirit are not so much freedom from suffering or knowing all the answers or constant happiness. More so, the fruits of the Spirit have to do with knowing that God loves us, with loving other people, and living with patience, compassion, and openness to learning and growth.
The Holy Spirit—life-giving, empathetic, dynamic, loving—the Spirit of life. God offers all of us life, abundant life. God offers us the gift of the Holy Spirit to move us to trust in Christ as our savior, to move us to seek to walk in Christ’s way, to empower us to live according to the Spirit.
So, how do we live according to the Spirit? I want to mention just one important thing: attention. Attention. To walk in the Spirit, we must pay attention to how the Spirit is being revealed around us and within us. We can too easily look for something too exalted and miss the grace which surrounds us. If we expect God’s Spirit to be at work in our day to day lives, if we pay attention to God’s Spirit around us, we will not be disappointed.
There’s a story about a farmer out in his field talking with a neighbor. A stranger drives up and stops. He gets out of his car and asks the farmer, “Hey, I’m thinking about moving to this area. Can you tell me what the people are like here?” “Well, what are they like where you live now?” the farmer asks. “They’re pretty bad,” the stranger replies. “They are really hard to get along with.” “Well, you know,” the farmer says, “I’m not real impressed with the people around here, either. I don’t know if it would be much better than where you’re your at.” The stranger shakes his head and drives off.
Amazingly (strange coincidences usually happen in these stories), just a little while later another car pulls up and another stranger comes up to the two guys. “Hey, I’m thinking about moving into this area. Can you tell me what the people are like here?” “Well, what are they like where you live now?” the farmer asks. “Oh, they’re great,” the stranger says. “I’m really sorry I have to move, but my company just transferred me.” “Well, you know,” the farmer replied, “They are awfully good here, too. I imagine you would get along fine.” With a smile, the stranger said thanks and drove off.
The neighbor says to the farmer, “I’m confused. You gave those two guys opposite answers.” “Did I? Not really. If we get along with the people where we are, chances are we’ll get along in a new place. If we don’t get along now, a change probably won’t do us much good. So much depends upon what you’re expecting. If you are expecting people to be kind and generous, you will probably be kind and generous yourself—and people will respond with kindness to that.”
So much depends upon what you’re expecting. If you expect the Spirit to show itself in the friendship of a neighbor, in the beauty of the fresh snowfall, in an inspiring word in your Bible reading, in comfort amid sadness—chances are that you will indeed find the Spirit showing itself. Be attentive. Be open to the Spirit. Seek and you shall find.…
So, what do we believe about the Holy Spirit? We believe that the Spirit is how God is present among us in our lives today. We believe that the Spirit is life giving, empathetic, dynamic, and, most of all, loving. We believe that it is the Spirit’s work to make real to us life’s profoundest truths—that God loves us and that God wants us to live as his people.